War Is Heller
Why there are no more Joseph Hellers.
In the summer of 1961, when Ernest Hemingway shot Ernest Hemingway and proved that "grace under pressure" was a motto easier to admire than to embody, novelists still were the generals of the culture, an officer's class of swaggering hero-artists: domineering, prickly, aggressive, and conspicuously male. Their defining subject was organized violence, modern war as experienced from within, and they seemed to agree with Poppa and Stephen Crane that however ignoble war's ways and means might be, its effect on the person was purifying, finally. It erased the contingencies of class and background, stripped away illusion, chased off folly, and offered one and all the same grim sacraments of terror, pain, and loss.
Then, that fall, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 appeared, abruptly downgrading war's special status as an existential crucible and also, unwittingly, beginning the process of rendering four-star male novelists irrelevant. The book treats war on a par with business or politics (to Heller they were very much the same), portraying it as a system for alienating people from their own interests and estranging them from their instincts. Protocol replaces principle, figures plucked from thin air supplant hard facts, and reason becomes rigamarole. Heller's island airbase of freaked-out aviators oppressed by cuckoo officers is the ding-a-ling civilian world in microcosm, not an infernal, tragic realm apart. The men who can feel aren't agonized, they're addled. The ones who can't feel (and therefore give the orders) are permanently, structurally annoyed. The naked and the dead are here but invisible to the beribboned and the daft.
Rereading the novel on its 50th birthday, I found it slightly creaky and cranky but fundamentally alert. The dialogue, which relies on circular reasoning from erroneous or irreconcilable premises, churns away mechanically at times, long after its points about pointlessness are made. Yossarian, the gun-shy anti-hero, is losing his mind by preserving his common sense: Not dying, not being killed, is his definition of victory in war, and those who don't share his thinking, whichever side they're on, are the enemy. Heller feeds him endless killer lines and arms him with sly, irrefutable arguments, but he resembles a construct rather than a character, just as his nemeses among the brass include many straw men, some badly overstuffed.
The vast influence of the novel outside its covers also dulls its power and distinctiveness. What only Heller could do when it was written, we can all do now, almost reflexively. His tone of insubordinate slapstick and his clever moral inversions are our common, satirical inheritance. When the mess-hall officer Milo Minderbinder bombs the base in order to boost his profits from a fiendishly tricky black-market trading scheme, it once struck readers as a world turned upside down. Now it comes off as standard Hollywood comic hyperbole.
All of this is a measure of Heller's success, of course, and a tribute to the triumph of his tropes. (The Office is Catch-22 without the blood.) Another gauge of his accomplishment is that there are no more Joseph Hellers, no more glorious literary crusaders who can ambush and sack, all alone, immense and intimidating social edifices. That demolition job's been done, that project is complete.
In Just One Catch, the first biography of the last of a certain type of lion, English professor Tracy Daugherty shows us an artist whose triumphant iconoclasm set in motion his own extinction. The story begins with the dawn of Heller's ambition, which was of a distinctive, mid-20th-century kind, blending the yawning hunger of immigrant roots with the arrogance born of imperial citizenship. Almost as soon as Heller left the army, he set about engineering a personal life suitable for sustaining worldly achievement. He married a woman supportive and presentable and promptly invested her loyalty and energy in the project of his own enlargement.
He approached his literary studies the way some men enter finance or medicine: patiently and with a plan. School by school, story submission by story submission, he pushed ahead down a well-marked path. He started his novel in his early 20s and financed the writing by working for corporations (Time Inc., for example) of precisely the sort he unleashed such contempt for among his anti-establishment fans. The Beats, his contemporaries, were off a-wandering, but Heller lacked their itchy fecklessness. Hunkered down at his desk in deepest Manhattan, he plotted his revolution from inside headquarters.
Daugherty's book is crammed with cultural history as a way of compensating, perhaps, for a scarcity of revealing third-party testimonies and fresh news about Heller's hush-hush personal life (it's asserted that he took numerous mistresses, but only a couple of them are specifically mentioned). On his biographer's map of popular history, Heller is situated right next to Dylan as an idol of youthful insurrection. And his politics lay to the left, no doubt about it. He hated Nixon, loathed Kissinger, backed Eugene McCarthy for president, and adamantly opposed the Vietnam War.