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In time for the 50th anniversary of Catch-22, Tracy Daugherty, the critically acclaimed author of Hiding Man (a New Yorker and New York Times Notable book), illuminates his most vital subject yet in this first biography of Joseph Heller. Joseph Heller was a Coney Island kid, the son of Russian immigrants, who went on to great fame and fortune. His most memorable novel took its inspiration from a mission he flew over France in WWII (his plane was filled with so much shrapnel it was a wonder it stayed in the air). Heller wrote seven novels, all of which remain in print. Something Happened and Good as Gold, to name two, are still considered the epitome of satire. His life was filled with women and romantic indiscretions, but he was perhaps more famous for his friendships—he counted Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Carl Reiner, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, and many others among his confidantes. In 1981 Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a debilitating syndrome that could have cost him his life. Miraculously, he recovered. When he passed away in 1999 from natural causes, he left behind a body of work that continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year.
Just One Catch is the first biography of Yossarian’s creator.
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TRACY DAUGHERTY is the author of four novels, four short story collections, and a book of personal essays. His critically acclaimed biography of Donald Barthelme, HIDING MAN was published in 2009. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently, he is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1. Domestic Engagements
SAN ANGELO, TEXAS, in April 1945 was home to over five million sheep, and considered itself the inland wool capital of the United States. It was among the nation’s largest mohair producers, served by the Santa Fe Railroad, which hauled the city’s wool products across the country and brought in over one million dollars in annual revenue. Though automobiles were still a luxury for most people, traffic snarled San Angelo’s streets. The downtown area—in a city of just under fifty thousand folks—was booming. Men came to buy Prince Albert tobacco—at sixty-seven cents a can, an easy path to personal style and sophistication. Women shopped for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, whose newspaper ads in the San Angelo Standard promised to “help women who on occasion feel nervous, fidgety, irritable, tired, and a bit blue.”
If they felt nervous and tired, it may have been because more young men than ever, just back from fighting in Europe, thronged San Angelo’s eateries, alleyways, and movie theaters—along with the wool trade, the cause of the city’s boom. “There was a ‘Western Craze’ ... after the war that was sweeping the nation. We were making decorative spurs and buckles and even had traveling salesmen who went all over Texas wholesaling our goods,” Chase Holland III, owner of Holland’s downtown, told a local reporter in 2007 when asked about the “good old days.” The store was one of eleven jewelry shops that opened to serve returning soldiers eager to surprise their sweethearts with engagement rings, put the war behind them, and move ahead with careers. In their stiff uniforms and spit-shined shoes, the young men would mill around the glass counters, shyly, standing aside when slammed by the smell of wool. Now and then, a “pretty grubby” fellow, someone who looked “like he had just finished shearing a thousand sheep,” in Holland’s description, would push forward, determined to examine necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. Unlike the soldiers, most of whom were starting from scratch, the ranchers were doing just dandy. They knew what they wanted, and they could afford the best baubles.
Many of the servicemen were biding their time in Texas, assigned here while waiting to be discharged under the military’s impending point system, whereupon they would join their families or fiancées in other parts of the country. Goodfellow Field, occupying over a thousand acres four miles southeast of downtown, and consisting of a pilot-training school with three paved runways, seven auxiliary landing fields, extensive housing facilities, and a circular concrete swimming pool, was their home. The field had been named for a local pilot who had died in turbulent skies over France in World War I.
For those who had never previously visited West Texas, the dry, flat landscape came as a shock. Often in the late afternoon, mournful thunder rolled south across the plains, accompanied by heavy winds. Without warning, sand could kick up, whip about the treeless terrain, and make the day go dark. Flying particles swelled the air. (Within a few years, a sudden swift tornado would kill thousands of sheep and severely damage several planes at Goodfellow.) Still, most of the boys were happy to stroll at leisure across the solid ground, stretch their arms, and breathe, even if occasionally it meant filling their mouths with grit.
Just a few months before, the boys had had more reason to appreciate Goodfellow Field: Its Instrument School and Post Operations arm employed seventeen Women Airforce Service Pilots. They served as flight trainers and inspected aircraft that had been repaired after being red-lined for serious malfunctions, to see if they were fit once more for students. Some of the male pilots “were quite dubious whether or not we were capable of flying anything larger than a kite,” said Jimmie Parker, one of the WASPs. But Maj. John Hardy, the base’s director of flying, said the girls always compared favorably to the boys. The WASP program was disbanded at Goodfellow in December 1944 because the attrition rate among combat pilots had proven to be lower than expected, leading to a surplus of male pilots. Nevertheless, under the command of Col. Harold A. Gunn, Goodfellow maintained an easygoing, cordial atmosphere; on the base, the worst behavior was likely to come from the weather.
Joseph Heller arrived in San Angelo in early March. The base no longer has a file on him, but his personal flight records clarify the chronology. His last combat mission was on October 15, 1944, a bombing raid on railroad bridges at Ronco Scrivia, Italy, amid “scant, inacc[urate]” flak, according to the military report. Heller left Corsica for Naples on January 3, 1945. From there, he was shipped to the States, arriving in Atlantic City on January 28. From October to January, he’d had a lot of time to fill in a wet, muddy tent. Transportation home could be delayed for many reasons, including incomplete paperwork, bad weather, difficulties arranging passage back to the States, and the military’s insistence that men in line for awards, including the Air Medal for number of missions flown, with clusters for additional missions, hang around to receive them.
“I pretty much enjoyed [Texas],” Heller recalled. Those spring months were far better than the “deeply depressing, incapacitating winter ... into which I was harshly plunged on my furlough after I’d returned by steamship to the States from Corsica in January and found myself back in Coney Island,” where he’d grown up, he said.
Nearly twenty-two, he was a slender, big-boned man just under six feet tall, with a dimpled chin and dark hair, whose short military cut could not hide its tendency to curl. Years later, a journalist, describing a photograph of him taken at about this time, said “his large nose and his eyes sit uneasily on a dark, skinny face. He looks scared and underfed ... the eyes seem to stare directly outward and directly inward at the same time.” Easy in his body, self-contained yet friendly, he was well liked in spite of feeling, later on, that he did not make much of an impression on anyone with whom he served in the military (his speech alone, swift and plentiful, peppered with personal tics and a Brooklyn accent, would have left its impress on boys from other parts of the country, with hard t’s at the ends of words, r’s slipping almost into w’s, and swallowed final phrases). His perception that few people noticed him says more about the intensity of his inner life, and his focus, than it does about his capacity to socialize and accommodate himself to just about any situation.
He had “almost nothing to do” at Goodfellow, he wrote in his memoir Now and Then, but that was okay because “I am generally not a hard person to please.” It would have been just fine with him if Jimmie Parker and her fellow WASPs returned to oversee flight training and airplane inspections on base. After completing sixty missions in Europe, and especially after believing he was doomed on his thirty-seventh mission, he wanted nothing more to do with flying craft. Hence, the steamship home from Italy. “I was so terrified on my last few missions, I made a vow that if I ever got out of [the] war alive, I would never go up in an airplane again,” he said.
His base pay at Goodfellow would have been half again as high if he had agreed to the required four hours of flight time a month, but upon first returning to the States and undergoing a medical exam in Atlantic City, he told the military doctor that the memory of gasoline fumes inside a plane was sickening to him. At the time, Heller believed he was merely lying to the doctor, just looking for a way to dillydally until he had earned enough points for a discharge, but the more he talked to the medic, he said, the more he realized the lie “turned out to be true.”
His nerves weren’t helped by the number of training accidents that occurred at Goodfellow while he was stationed there—as many as twenty-two per month, owing to “wing tip[s] [being] dragged; faulty technique; hard landings; [and] collision with parked aircraft,” according to reports. (BT-13s, known as Valiants, were used in training; they had a ceiling of 16,500 feet, and were called, by wary pilots, “Vibrators.”)
None of the accidents was fatal, but they were all noisy and frightening. Heller kept his head down, writing PR for the base in a low-slung wooden room clacking with typewriters. He was a pretty fair typist. One of his tent mates, during his last weeks on Corsica, freshly arrived to replace a man who had finished his tour of duty, had brought with him a portable typewriter. The kid harbored literary ambitions, but he was too busy getting in his flight time to do any work; meanwhile, in the afternoons, Heller, who had completed his missions and was waiting to leave, hunkered down alone in the tent and made use of the kid’s machine. Heller, who had been keeping a diary of his missions, typed up a chronology of his experiences. He toyed with the idea of writing short stories about war in the bare-bones, dialogue-heavy manner of Hemingway. He had also been reading William Saroyan and John O’Hara, writers who, like Papa, appealed to him because of their colloquial dialogue and lean descriptive passages. The U.S. government published a series of books for servicemen, the Armed Forces Editions, paperbound collections, which made available to Heller, among other classics, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” a story of shipwrecked sailors, written with a powerful, hypnotic rhythm and lulling, repetitive dialogue. Impressed by the story’s rocking, wavelike style, he imagined a similar tale, updated to the present time: a terse back-and-forth conversation between a bomber crew in trouble and a Corsican air base. He thought of calling the story “Hello, Genoa, Hello, Genoa,” after the title of a one-act play by Saroyan, Hello Out There. Finally, instead of attempting this story, so close to his undigested experiences, and therefore hard to articulate, he began to draft a piece about a married ex-serviceman adjusting poorly to life at home—a projection, perhaps, of his fears about settling down once he returned to the States. Emotionally, he distanced himself from the subject by using a spare, slick-magazine style reminiscent of O’Hara, who, like similar writers (Saroyan, Irwin Shaw), expressed what Heller later admitted were “hard-nosed, sexist attitudes ... embodying ... implicit assessments of materialism, wealth, Babbitry, and ideals of masculinity and male decency that I ... accepted as irreducibly pure.”
* * *
“HE TURNED OVER on his back and stared at the ceiling, feeling unhappy, wanting something and not knowing just what it was,” Heller wrote, fiddling with the piece he’d begun on Corsica. He returned to it, now and then, between banging out memos and press releases for Goodfellow Field. At night, in his bunk, he’d lie awake, listening to music on the local radio station, KGKL, wishing instead to catch a one-act drama, the kind he’d loved in the evenings as a kid in Coney Island.
Sometimes, on a day pass, he’d ride up a wide, dusty street into downtown San Angelo with some of his comrades, going to the Texas Theater for a Frank Sinatra or Dorothy Lamour movie, or to watch the town’s fidgety women shop for Vegetable Compound. Heller recalled himself as a “boyish and ravenous satyr” at this time in his life, but “in depth of experience still almost a virgin.”
Teenaged girls and boys milled in front of the Cactus Hotel. Inside the hotel’s glamorous Crystal Ballroom, an armed forces recruiting film, Baptism of Fire, played regularly. As Heller passed the unsure youngsters, excited and confused about their futures, and as he observed servicemen, home from their tours, hoping to shut their pasts behind them with the purchase of an engagement ring, he considered how far he had come in a short time: Just a few years ago, he’d been as aimless, but as gung ho for a fight, as these boys in front of the Cactus, and now he was a man about to be married, maybe, and embarked upon a career just as soon as he received his discharge.
In the short story he’d been working on, he had the young husband say to his wife, “I married you because it was part of the dream ... [t]he sugar and tinsel dream of life.” It was, he says, “the thing to do.” On some level, Heller may have been as skeptical of the “Reader’s Digest beautiful panorama of a beautiful life” as his fictional husband, but in another sense, he did believe it was the thing to do (if nothing else, as a way of channeling his sexual urges), just as he both pitied and understood the naïveté of the teens in front of the Cactus, who dreamed the glory but could not imagine the reality of a baptism of fire.
In January 1945, when he’d received his orders to vacate Corsica, he was flown to Naples along with Tom Sloan, another bombardier from his group, who was also scheduled to return to the States (throughout the flight, Heller kept his fingers crossed, on both hands, for safety and luck). Sloan was married, with a one-year-old at home, and had never been tempted, like his buddy here, to sleep with prostitutes or other available women on R & R trips to Cairo and Rome. On the flight to Naples, Heller was impressed with Sloan’s eagerness to return to wedded bliss.
When offered transport home by air or sea, Heller chose to sail back with several thousand other boys on a troopship, the former SS America. The ship sailed alone, without naval escort. Heller spent most of the ten days at sea trying to sleep in the cabin—outfitted with two tiers of bunk beds—he shared with six others. The ship docked at Boston; from there, he took a train to Atlantic City for his medical exam, routine processing, and reassignment.
On furlough, he returned to his family apartment in Coney Island as something of a glamorous war hero. The role—for it did feel like an act—embarrassed him. “I don’t want to sit in a room filled with people who are all beaming at me as if I were some marvelous mechanical toy, and play the modest hero. I don’t want to tell anybody what it was like and smile shyly as they tell me how wonderful I am,” the husband informs his wife in the story he’d been writing. He was thinking of calling it “I Don’t Love You Any More.”
The weather in Coney Island was gray and oppressive. Not even a hot dog from Nathan’s could cheer him up. While he had been overseas, Luna Park, one of the area’s great amusement centers, had burned down, leaving smoke and char. Few of his old friends were around. Some were still overseas; in the last couple of years, many had gotten married, and most of the others were planning to marry. It was the thing to do.
Heller went to movies by himself, walked around town (he had not yet learned to drive), and generally moped, realizing with a shock that he missed the military, where he had been kept plenty busy. His brother Lee, fourteen years his senior, told him to get off his rear and take a vacation: Why not go to Grossinger’s, a famous resort hotel in the Catskills, well known not only as a place of fun and relaxation but as a place for men to meet women? Heller had never heard of it. Lee kept insisting, telling him he could afford it. The family had...
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