It’s just as hard not to judge a writer by his novel as it is a novel by its cover. Fiction though it may be, we have a hard time not suspecting the work to be at least partly rooted in reality. For Joseph Heller, the caustic writer best beloved for his anti-war novel Catch-22, it’s especially hard to tell where fiction ends and fact begins. His classic American novel turned 50 last week, and the literary world was set to celebrate with a new edition of the novel (complete, as Christopher Buckely announced, with a sterling introduction by Christopher Buckley) and two biographies released this summer. At the core of the celebration lay one question: Who exactly was Joseph Heller?
Last Thursday, BULLETT visited a panel of his friends—including the wily humorist Christopher Buckley, the legendary director of the novel’s film, Mike Nichols, and the book’s original editor and former editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, Robert Gottlieb—at Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Our hope was to piece him together through shards of his legacy, and as we discovered—and expected—Heller was a man not easily classified. Still, we gave it our best shot.
THE WRITER: If you ask an editor what he thinks of writers, his opinion is rarely complimentary. Robert Gottlieb, however, found Joe (as he was called) “extraordinary.” Gottlieb was a young editor for Simon & Schuster when he first met Heller, and fell in love with the book regardless of its many detractors, many of whom belived it was a ranting, unstructured mess.
In Heller, Gottlieb found an ideal creative relationship. “There was never a bad moment,” he says. “Joe saw his work completely objectively. It was someone else’s writing we were working with.” Gottlieb compared the process to that of two surgeons working on the same patient: “There was a problem. He recognized it, I recognized it, and whoever came up with the best solution went ahead with it.” Their fruitful collaboration eventually led to a book that was also, at least in part, Gottlieb’s masterpiece, and one for which he still cares deeply 50 years later. “My problem now is… I kept wanting to edit it,” he says. “I was thinking, How did I let this go by? But, it’s too late. The book is out there. He’s gone. I’m proud of it, but most importantly for me, it was all the success that he had hoped for. He never doubted its genius.”
Heller liked to show off his laurels. As Gottlieb remembers it, he virtually “blossomed” after Catch-22’s success and the multi-million dollar movie deal that followed in 1970. “I’ve never known anyone who took more simple and wonderful joy in being a success. He just loved it, and he wasn’t embarrassed to show it.”
THE COMIC: Although they never met until the latter part of his life, fellow witticist Christopher Buckley found in Heller a friend whose cleverness matched his own. Their relationship began when Buckley reviewed Catch-22’s sequel, Closing Time, for The New Yorker. Most critics agreed that it didn’t hold a candle to the first, or as Buckley wrote in his original review, “Sequels are not necessarily equals.” A week after the issue hit stands, a handwritten letter arrived in Buckley’s mailbox. It was from Heller. After putting off opening it for hours, Buckley finally surrendered, only to find a note chock-full of kind words, among them the sentence, “I think you understand my book better than I did.”
Years later Heller returned the favor when one of Buckley’s books received a mixed review in Publisher’s Weekly. Taking editorial liberties, Heller crossed out every negative line and faxed it back with the note, “Now it’s a total rave.” Heller’s humor was often biting, which Buckley attributes to his “switchblade intelligence.” He says, “Joe was a very kindly guy, but he had a steel trap mind, what Hemingway called the most necessary thing for a writer—a first class bullshit detector.” Like Yossarian himself, there was little he’d let by unexamined—even less he’d leave unscathed.
THE NEUROTIC: Before Catch, Heller was worked in advertising, and spent his days in a drab office chipping away at the American Dream. On the outside things seemed like perfection. Heller had a steady job and a family, but beneath his three-piece suit exterior he was an artist crippled by anxiety. “He was the opposite of what he appeared to be,” says Mike Nichols. “He was a complex, sophisticated, elegant man masquerading as an ordinary guy.” A running joke was that he’d taken the manuscript for Catch-22 from a dead solider. Few people believed such a book could possibly come from such a man, but it was his personal neuroses that became his creative catalyst. Anxiety pervades the text of both Catch and his second novel, Something Happened, even if one is set in an airbase and the other an office. “He was scared, he was nervous that something was going to happen,” says Gottlieb. “And those books are the metaphor for it.”
Heller had good reason for such acute anxiety. He endured the death of his father at a young age, witnessed firsthand the horrors of WWII, suffered from Guillain-Barre Syndrome (a rare autoimmune disorder, which he wrote about in 1986’s No Laughing Matter), and faced a painful, public divorce near the end of his life. Even of his military heroism (Heller flew 60 combat missions during the war), he was “utterly dismissive,” says Buckley. “He always disparaged what he did.”
THE LAST LAUGH: As much as he agonized, Heller never lost his sense of humor. It was what kept him going. “Winston Churchill said, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’ He kept going, but what was surprising to me was what a joyous personality he was,” Buckley says. “He loved life. He loved food and drink, especially when you were paying for it. He had an awful lot of joy in him.” Even at the height of despair, Heller found ample room for wit. At a party near the end of his life a guest confronted him with the observation, “Still… you haven’t written anything as good as Catch-22.” Heller’s response: “Who has?”
Photo of Joseph Heller courtesy of his daughter, writer Erica Heller.