OBITUARIES: Joseph Heller

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JOSEPH HELLER once told his friend and fellow author Kurt Vonnegut that, if it weren't for the Second World War, he'd be in the dry-cleaning business. He wasn't referring only to his wartime experiences - which provided the material for his satirical novel Catch-22 - but also to the opportunity the GI Bill gave a working-class kid from Coney Island to get a college education after the war. Paradoxically - and Heller was a master of paradox - the author of one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written often insisted that, everything considered, he had had a "good" and even "enjoyable" war.

"Joey" Heller was born in 1923, the son of Isaac Heller, a Messenger's Bakery delivery man, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. (He retained a "poifect" Brooklyn accent throughout his life.) His father had come to America in 1909 as an immigrant from Russia. His mother, Lena, spoke little English but was educated - one of Heller's earliest memories was of visiting the local public library to pick up Yiddish versions of Tolstoy for her to read.

His father died when he was five, so Lena had to bring up Joey, his elder brother, Lee, and sister, Sylvia, on her own. Times were clearly hard but in his autobiography, Now and Then, published in 1998, Heller recalled only with warm nostalgia - with ice-cream as his madeleine - his Coney Island childhood. He had vivid memories of fooling around on rollercoasters with friends whose nicknames were straight out of Damon Runyon (a favourite writer of his youth); eating kosher corned-beef sandwiches around the kitchen table, listening with his mother to operatic arias on the radio; and selling the evening paper out on the streets.

That he could remember it so warmly he attributed to the fact that he "overlooked and was immune to the threat of poverty there, the threat of Hitler, of which I was unaware". He talked more than once in Now and Then of his "tendency to be unaware of matters that should be obvious".

One of these matters was the death of his father. He had no memory of his father until he went into therapy when he was 56. He remembered the funeral as a party, relatives hugging him and feeding him cake and sweets, an aunt giving him a dollar. (Throughout his life he associated money and eating - he was known as "The Locust" when older for his love of food - with life.) He was an adult before he thought to ask how his father had died - from a botched operation for a stomach ulcer.

He explained this by saying: "In our family we did not often talk about sad things." He also claimed, although they deny it, that it was only when he was attending his brother's wedding when he was 15 that he discovered that Lee and Sylvia were in fact his half-brother and -sister, his father's children from an earlier marriage.

As a child, he loved writing, and submitted his first story to the New York Daily News while still at school. A kid who "definitely wanted to excel and be noticed" he was also nervy, biting his nails from the age of seven and suffering warts, bad headaches and boils "more than most" through his teenage years.

In 1941, aged 18, Heller graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and took a job as a filing clerk for an insurance firm. He soon left to work in a naval dockyard as a blacksmith's assistant because the money was better. In Now and Then, he recounted how, whilst at the dockyard, he turned down the offer of a weekend with some easy-going girls because at weekends he got paid time and a half.

In 1942 Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He trained as a bombardier and in 1944 was sent into combat, flying out of Corsica with B-25 crews of the 488th Squadron. Heller seemed to be quite serious when he later said that, for the most part, "he had a very good time in the war". Whilst recognising this would not have been true for someone killed, wounded or crippled, he said: "For someone like myself, who didn't realise he was in danger until the last 25 missions, it was extremely excitable and pleasurable, full of fun. I doubt that I would have become a writer without it. But also, I would not have gone to college. Nobody I grew up with on Coney Island even thought of going to college."

However, he also admitted that once he realised there were people (the enemy) trying to kill him - after an awful experience on a bombing raid near Avignon - he was terrified for those last 25 of 60 missions. His sister, Sylvia, once indicated that he had some terrible experiences in the war. "He had a diary which I was not allowed to look at," she told one interviewer. "I read it one day and I never told him I read those things there."

Heller came out of the service a lieutenant. Under the GI Bill, he began college in 1945 at the University of Southern California, getting married to his first wife, Shirley, just before boarding the Pullman to Los Angeles. A year later, he transferred back to New York. He graduated in 1948, went on to do an MA at Columbia University on American Drama and a year at St Catherine's College, Oxford, as a Fulbright Scholar.

He had written all through the war but only during this post-war period did his stories begin to get published. After a short spell teaching, he took a job in the advertising department of a magazine publishing company. In 1953 he began writing a novel to be called "Catch-18". The catch referred to was that an airman could be grounded because of insanity but anyone who asked to stop flying dangerous bombing missions was obviously entirely sane and therefore had to stay in the air.

He wrote the first chapter of "Catch-18" first thing in the morning at his advertising agency desk, "from ideas and words that had come to me only the night before". He had been reading a heady cocktail of books: Kafka, Celine's Journey to the End of the Night and Evelyn Waugh.

He developed the book from its opening sentence, which had popped into his head the previous night exactly as it appears in the published book, except that he had an X where Yossarian's name was (his protagonist's name came later): "It was love at first sight. The first time X saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him."

It was only when he sat down and thought over this sentence that he decided where these two should meet and that "Catch-18" was going to be about the war. The book took seven years to complete: the first chapter was published in New World Writing No 7 in 1955; Heller had written 250 pages when he signed a contract for publication in 1957; he handed in the finished manuscript in January 1961.

The novel was published in October that year as Catch-22, to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's Mila 18, published around the same time. Heller was later miffed that it wasn't an immediate success like the first novels of Norman Mailer and James Jones. (He also stated frankly that some early bad reviews it received "still smart".) But, in 1962, S.J. Perelman praised the book and it did very well in Britain. Other articles appeared, referring to its cult reputation. In 1963 it was the best-selling paperback in the United States, with sales of over two million copies. It eventually sold more than 10 million copies in the United States alone.

The illogical logicalities and inspired lunacy of Catch-22 established it as a great satire, not just on the Second World War, but on all wars - and particularly, as the Sixties progressed, on the Vietnam War. Protesters took to wearing "Yossarian Lives!" badges on anti-Vietnam demonstrations. The film version of the novel, released in 1970, was a disappointment, perhaps because Robert Altman's film M*A*S*H*, released the previous year, had stolen its thunder.

It was 1974 before his next novel, Something Happened, appeared. He always denied that this was anything to do with the pressure of having to equal or even surpass his debut novel. He was still working full-time during that period, for the final four years as a Distinguished Professor at the City College of New York. Anthony Burgess was a colleague. Burgess later wrote that Heller at the time was suffering from that "fashionable American disease, writer's block, and seemed unready to attach his satirical technique to post-war civilian America".

But Heller pointed out more than once that he was a very slow writer. He used to say he wrote only 250 words a day. They were his limit because, he said, he didn't have the language. "There's some psychological quirk in me which still has me feeling I'm not a writer, not at home with literary language."

Something Happened developed, as did all his novels, from the opening lines. They came to him in 1962, but he was then distracted from writing the novel by writing and producing a stage comedy about the army - We Bombed in New Haven - and doing lucrative script-doctoring on films such as Sex and the Single Girl. He also enjoyed the celebrity Catch-22 had brought him. He was continually unfaithful to Shirley, even though they now had a son and a daughter. (He later admitted: "Fatherhood is not my thing.")

Based on Heller's life in advertising, his second novel came out 13 years after Catch-22 had first been published. For many critics the long wait was worth it. They agreed with Irwin Shaw and Heller himself that it was a masterpiece. Heller explained why it is so good: "In it I write about monotony and hopelessness and create that feeling, yet I still make the book interesting - that isn't an easy thing to do."

Heller was 50 when Something Happened was published and only then, because of the "considerable financial return" did he feel able to retire from his salaried position with City College. He never needed to worry about money again - although he did worry, when he fell ill in the early 1980s.

His next novel, Good As Gold, was his version of the story of "the Jewish experience in America". It came out in 1979 to good reviews but there was also a feeling of disappointment that it didn't match Catch-22. Heller's 1984 novel God Knows - a long comic monologue by King David - got poor reviews, as did Picture This, a curious novel about art criticism, philosophy and Dutch history, published in 1988.

A legendary hypochondriac, in 1981 Heller had found he really did have something wrong with him. He lost a year of his life to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a virus that produces progressive paralysis. His friend Mario Puzo said, "Any disease they name after two guys has got to be bad!"

Heller spent many months in intensive care and nearly a year of rehabilitation at his home in East Hampton on Long Island, his friend Speed Vogel by his side. He divorced his wife Shirley during this illness and later married Valerie Humphries, who had been his nurse throughout this period. He co-wrote with Vogel an account of these times, No Laughing Matter, which was well received on its publication in 1986.

In 1994, Heller brought back Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman and a handful of others in the novel Closing Time, which he had begun in 1988. Many critics called it a lukewarm follow-up, but Heller considered it a sequel only in the loosest sense. With Closing Time, he was finishing off a lifetime's writing, the title indicating that he felt his writing days were complete. That and his autobiography together represented a kind of summation. Not of his life, because he drew no conclusions, but of his writing.

In a sense, he had already written an account of his life in his novels but even so his autobiography is a disappointment, largely because of its selectivity. His interest in money is almost a leitmotif of the book. He is more forthcoming about what he earned at different times in his life than about his own children. He itemises how much he earned for each of his salaried jobs, what he was paid for his early stories, what his first book advances were and how much the film advance for Catch-22 was, yet says scarcely anything about the break-up of his 35-year marriage to Shirley.

Heller used to say he would commit suicide if he lost his money. He knew why he had this obsession. It was not to do with the poverty in which he grew up. It was a more fundamental association. "I associate money with life and an absence of money with death. I can't help it. I can try a guess at the reason. But I still can't help it."

His mother once told him he had "a twisted brain" and he tended to agree, citing the occasion when, late in her life, he visited Lena in hospital and mistook another elderly grey-haired woman for his mother. He was, friends agree, compassionate, sarcastic, generous - and incredibly complicated. He always hid his emotions from scrutiny. He once said: "The only time I let myself cry was when the pet dog died when I was 50."

He was thrilled when Gore Vidal suggested several years ago that the term "Helleresque" might replace Kafkaesque as a description of a particular kind of nightmare situation. And he had a standard response to those who told him he hadn't written another novel as good as Catch-22: "Who has?"

Joseph Heller, writer: born New York 1 May 1923; married 1945 Shirley Held (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1984), 1987 Valerie Humphries; died East Hampton, New York 12 December 1999.