by Alan Taylor

Catching Up With Joseph Heller

June 6, 2019 | by Alan Taylor

 

Catch-22, the greatest and funniest war novel ever written, has been made into a miniseries by George Clooney. Alan Taylor recalls an unforgettable encounter with its author, Joseph Heller, at his home on Long Island. This article first appeared in the Herald on Sunday.

‘WHERE the hell have you been?’ Joseph Heller sounded tetchy, like a man whose date has turned up a couple of hours late. He had reason to be disgruntled. I’d arranged to contact him two days before but there seemed to be something awry with the number he’d given me. Growing increasingly frantic, I had spoken to the owner of a deli, a woman in a Chinese launderette and, most fascinatingly, a Polish man who made his living repairing Imperial 66 typewriters. None had ever heard of the author of Catch-22 or knew of his whereabouts. It turned out I had been dialling the wrong code, for Heller no longer lived in Manhattan but in the tony Hamptons.

My hotel was on the Lower East Side. Had there been TripAdvisor in those days it wouldn’t have deserved a single star. The walls of my cupboard-size room were nicotine-tinted and the bathroom was home to a troop of cockroaches. The little water that dripped from the tap gave off a toxic odour. At night any silence was punctuated by the mewling of sirens and the cantankerous couple in the room above who might have been rehearsing for the leading roles in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

Heller’s response to my tale of woe couldn’t have been more unsympathetic. ‘So why are you staying there?’ While I struggled to reply, he said he could see me the following day. He would meet me off the Jitney at East Hampton. ‘It pulls in around eleven in the morning,’ he added. I did not have the courage to ask him to explain what a Jitney was. In any case, it was too late: he was about to hang up. ‘See you tomorrow,’ he said breezily.

It was early summer 1979. Heller was then 56-years-old and the author of three novels: the aforementioned Catch-22Something Happened and Good As Gold, which was about to be published in the UK. Between his first and second novel there had been a hiatus of thirteen years. In contrast, Good As Gold had been produced in a relatively speedy five years. I had read somewhere that its opening sentence – ‘Gold had been asked many times to write about the Jewish experience in America’ – had been inspired by a reading a few years earlier when Heller was asked by a woman  in the audience why he’d never written about his family’s story and that of other Jews among whom he grew up.

Like many writers, he agonised over first sentences and reputedly couldn’t forge on with a book until he was satisfied he’d found one he liked. Catch-22, for instance, starts with a couple of humdingers: ‘It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’ Even better, though, is the one which opens Something Happened: ‘I get the willies when I see closed doors.’ Interviewed in 1974 for the Paris Review, Heller elaborated: ‘My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme, or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.’

Little wonder, then, that his books took so long to materialise.

With the best part of a  day to kill,  I decided to spend it on Coney Island where Heller had been born in 1923. His father died when he was five and he, his stepsister and stepbrother were raised by their mother who worked at home from laundries, ‘turning frayed collars on men’s shirts so that, from the outside and the neck at least, the shirts looked almost good as new.’ Consequently, money was never far from Heller’s mind. He told his then ten-year-old daughter Erica that he’d pay her if she eloped rather than have a big, expensive wedding.

In Heller’s childhood Coney Island was New York’s playground, renowned for hair-raising rides and gaudy carousels, and the site of Nathan’s Famous, original home (since 1916) of the hot-dog, against which Heller would not hear a word said. Good as Gold, the ostensible hook for our rendezvous, contains a paean to Coney Island and its disputatious, opinionated and garrulous population of Jews. The novel’s hero, Bruce Gold, is a writer like Heller who has abandoned his home turf and is making a name for himself among the movers and shakers and charlatans of Manhattan.

Coney, of course, is not an island but a hot-dog-shaped spit of land, and when I visited its heyday was long past and it had the air one of those sad, seaside resorts that have been bleached of life. The boardwalk, on which Heller and his friends had spent the summer months of their youth, was deserted as were the bars lining it. Long gone was Luna Park, one of its chief attractions, with it multiplicity of towers, its minarets, lagoons and more than a million electric lights. Bought in 1965 by the Trump Corporation, it was promptly demolished. Heller’s Coney Island was a mere memory.

The Jitney, I discovered, was a coach that left midtown Manhattan around nine in the morning and arrived at East Hampton near noon. It was Saturday. I left my hotel and crossed a city that was barely awake. New York was then in what Heller had said was the grip of ‘white flight’; middle-class residents, fearful of muggings and social instability, were leaving in droves. The avenues were empty save for a few ‘derelicts’, scavenging amongst garbage or wandering catatonically in the midst of traffic. I came across a supermarket trolley which on first glance seemed to be piled high with shopping but which, on closer inspection, I realised contained a homeless person who’d managed to get into it and wedge himself in the foetal position.

The Jitney was another world. Its passengers were weekending on Long Island and settled into their seats like members of an exclusive club. A hostess handed out copies of the New York Times and served orange juice, croissants and coffee. Three hours later I disembarked on East Hampton’s Main Street where I found Heller waiting as promised. He cut a burly figure, immediately recognisable from the cloud of fluffy white hair that had the effect of making his head appear twice its real size. His accent was broad and his vowels stretched elastically. When he mentioned the name of his second wife Valerie – a former nurse whom he’d met while recuperating in hospital from Guillain-Barré syndrome – he made a meal of each syllable.

We drove to his house along tree-lined  roads. This was where people came who’d lucked out or for whom the city had become intolerable. The success of Catch-22 had made Heller comfortable and given him the opportunity to work at his own pace. It was a lovely day with a light breeze and we sat by his pool and drank coffee and talked.

Heller made writing sound like something he couldn’t quite fathom. Unlike so many of today’s novels, his, he insisted, were not written to say anything in particular. The idea of a message, for example, or a theme, was alien to him. He was more concerned with a novel as a work of art, its aesthetic qualities, how well it was written. In that regard, he was the opposite of his friend Mario Puzo, who once said that if he’d known how popular The Godfather was going to be he’d have taken care to write it better. Catch-22 was a case in point, Heller said. Set in the closing months of World War Two, it focusses on an American bomber squadron based on a small island off Italy. Its hero is a bombardier called Yossarian, who is going stir crazy because thousands of people he hasn’t even met keep trying to kill him. His problem is one Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly before they can retire. Needless to say, it drew directly on Heller’s own experience in the war.

It is at once an extraordinarily funny book and yet is intensely serious. As for what it is about, most people believed it was an anti-war satire, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Heller, however, told me that while writing Catch-22 he wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was only after it had been published for several months and readers told him what they thought it was about that he began to cotton on. Sure, he knew that he was attempting to be humorous but he had no idea that what he’d created would make people laugh until their stitches burst. ‘I don’t think authors know too much about the effect of what they’re doing,’ he added.

After an hour or so by the pool he asked if I’d like to see the ocean. In the car, he recalled how when what’s often described as the greatest of war novels was first published it was to the sound of very few hands  clapping. ‘It was not a bestseller and it won no prizes.’ On the contrary, reviewers queued up to slate it. The New Yorker, for instance, said that it ‘doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead it gives the impression of having been shouted on to the page’, adding: ‘Heller wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it.’  It was only after the publication of the paperback of Catch-22 that sales finally began to take off. By the end of 1963, there had been eleven reprintings and more than two million copies had been sold.

‘Wanna have some lunch?’ said Heller, pulling up at a chowder shack, opposite which there was the beach and the booming rollers of the Atlantic. He insisted on getting the check but on the proviso that when he came to Scotland – which, subsequently, he did – I would take him and Valerie to dinner. The sight of the seafood cheered him, as food always did. He was the kind of person who, if you weren’t looking, would furtively fork a few of your french fries. I’d heard, I said, that Catch-22, which long ago entered the linguistic bloodstream, was not its original title. He confirmed that was the case. It was to have been called Catch-18 but his legendary editor, Robert Gottlieb, vetoed it because Leon Uris had recently published a book called Mila 18. Various others numbers were suggested and rejected, 14 because it was ‘unfunny’, 26 because ‘it just didn’t feel right’. Who it was happened upon 22 and cried ‘Eureka!’ has long been a bone of contention.

We arrived at East Hampton where the Jitney was already waiting for the return journey to the insomniac city. I asked Heller if he ever visited Coney Island and he said he did not. The drive was too long and all the friends he grew up with were scattered to the four winds. He’d made a trip back for research purposes when writing Good as Gold. The old place was not as it was. There was no Jewish delicatessen and no movie theatre, and the apartment block in which he had been brought up had been razed. For a moment, he was lost in thought then we shook hands and made arrangements to meet in Edinburgh. As I stepped on to the coach, he said that it was a pity I couldn’t stay the night. ‘Playboy,’ he said, ‘is throwing a party for me. You could have come.’ Was he joking? With Joseph Heller it was not always easy to tell.

  • * *

Catch-22, with Christopher Abbott as Yossarian and George Clooney as Lieutenant  Scheisskopf premiered on Hulu in the US earlier this month [May]. It is expected to air on Channel 4 later this year.

Blog / Discussion