Joe Heller once told me the following. Having submitted the manuscript of his first novel, he was invited to a meeting by his editor, Robert Gottlieb, who lost no time in telling him that it had been accepted. There was, however, a problem with the title. The same publishing house was already scheduled to bring out Leon Uris’s Mila 18. Two books, both about World War II, both by Jewish authors and both with 18 on the cover, wouldn’t do. “So I’m very much afraid, Mr. Heller, that your Catch-18 title will need to be changed.” “Whaddaya suggest?” was Joe’s approximate response. “Well, I’ve given it considerable thought, and I believe that the alliteration of Catch-22 would be an apt one.”
Is it thinkable that America’s ludic Kafka would have scored so massively with any phrase other than the numinously hieroglyphic 22? I like to believe that he might. As it was, the book didn’t get much of a reception (except from Nelson Algren in The Nation, who called it “the best American novel to come out of World War II”) and achieved most of its effect by bush telegraph. And the timing had an unusual felicity, helping to curtain-raise what nobody knew would be The Sixties. By the time I read, in an AP dispatch from Vietnam in 1968, that the village of Ben Tre had had to be destroyed in order to save it, I and countless others had been well prepared for such news from the dark frontiers of Absurdistan, and prepared by reading Heller. Having endless times been asked, by schoolmasters, military cadet instructors and other purveyors of the literal and banal: “Look here, Hitchens, what would happen if everyone thought like you?” I came across Yossarian’s riposte to this eternal interrogatory (which was roughly, Why, then, I’d be a damn fool to think any other way, wouldn’t I?) and sent the book hurtling skywards with a yell of triumph. Yes! That’s the stuff to give them! And who didn’t think of Milo Minderbinder when they read about the Oliver North network; trading with the enemy to furnish the goods and services to finance treason and terrorism?
Heller’s underrated later works, especially Good as Gold and Something Happened, can be treasured for their persisting stoicism and wit in the face of the random and the capricious. Heller never became a Commentary kvetch like so many of his peers; his hatred for men like Nixon and Kissinger had a nice purity and integrity to it. A gruesome recent memoir, Norman Podhoretz’s Ex-Friends, pays Heller a handsome compliment. Podhoretz generally reserved the right to be the one to end a connection, dropping Norman Mailer here and Allen Ginsberg there. Heller, however, as Podhoretz ruefully records, got in first by dropping him. Good work. After Clinton went husky at Nixon’s funeral in 1996, Heller decided he had heard enough, and had no further use for him. Snap judgments are so often the best.
Amazingly handsome and sexy (and greedy) right up to the end, Joe probably benefited from the enlivening thought that he could so easily have been dead. He might well have snuffed it during the Italian campaign that taught him military logic; he was dead lucky (as he might have phrased it) to pull through his hellish encounter with Guillain-Barré syndrome. He was luckier still to meet Valerie as a consequence of surviving that second dress rehearsal for the ineluctable. His Catch by any other name would have been as resonant, and, not that he cared for theories of immortality, his reservation in the Pantheon of the ironic was always confirmed.