Joseph Heller

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Marshall Toman (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3124

SOURCE: Toman, Marshall. “The Political Satire in Joseph Heller's Good as Gold.Studies in Contemporary Satire 17 (1990): 6-14.

[In the following essay, Toman examines Heller's satirical treatment of the American neoconservative political program in Good as Gold.]

Stephen W. Potts says of Joseph Heller's Good as Gold that “this satire shoots very wide, as with birdshot, aiming broadly at politics as an institution rather than at particular practices of the near past or the present.”1 The criticism itself shoots wide, for neoconservative thought as it developed in the United States through the 1960s and 70s is the specific target. In The Neoconservatives, Peter Steinfels identifies important principles, at least four of which are objects of Heller's satire: (1) “neoconservatives refuse to put responsibility for the present situation heavily on the shoulders of governing elites”; (2) they view government as “the victim of ‘overload.’ Attempting too much, it has naturally failed”; (3) they tend to feel that, since incessant, impossible demands upon the government doom it to repeated failure and consequent loss of authority, “the authority of government should be shielded by dispersing responsibility for this failure as much as possible”; and (4) they espouse “the theory of unanticipated consequences.2

Let us briefly examine each of the four points with respect to the novel. While Heller may agree with the neoconservatives that there is a failure of authority, he does not exonerate the ruling elite. In Good as Gold, the president naps and writes his book. The members of the Committee on Education do not even attempt to accomplish anything. Though Gold's morality leaves much to be desired, that of Kissinger, Andrea (in her capacity as government official), and Ralph leave more. In a further elaboration of this first principle, neoconservatives believe the loss of faith in institutional structures “is primarily a cultural crisis, a matter of values, morals, and manners” (p. 55) and not something spawned by the behavior of men in power. But, as can be shown, the Gold family, a constituent part of the culture neoconservatives blame, has a firmer grasp upon socially beneficial values and morals, if not manners, than any of the novel's governing elite.

Secondly, in Heller's view, rather than being burdened by overload, the government is remiss in accepting too few responsibilities, as is suggested by the satirical presentation of a state legislator's attempt to withdraw aid from education.3

On the third point, Steinfels quotes Daniel Moynihan: “Diffusing responsibility for social outcomes tends to retard the rise of social distrust when the promised or presumed outcome does not occur” (p. 64). Heller does not enter into the specifics of the neoconservative program here. (One technique neoconservatives suggested was the interposition of a market system between government policy and its actual implementation so the market could absorb the blame in the event of failure and add credence to government excuses.) But he does capture the essence of the evasive maneuvers in Ralph's tactics. Evasions on the part of government officials are not new, yet the public discussion of effective techniques (Moynihan's comment appears in his 1973 volume, The Politics of a Guaranteed Income) tends to legitimize as a worthwhile government attitude what ordinarily would be viewed as irresponsibility.

The notion alluded to under point four was argued forcefully by Irving Kristol in the introduction to On the Democratic Idea in America: “The unanticipated consequences of social action are always more important, and usually less agreeable, than the intended consequences” (quoted in Steinfels, p. 99). The position provides neoconservatives with a theoretical basis from which they respond to opponents' humanistic demands. In effect, the argument runs as follows: “In the first place, things won't work out the way that you liberal reformers envision them so, since you may even realize this, you had better inquire into your own motives [understood: “which are either naively impractical or self-interested”]; and, secondly, since the results of government intervention are counterintuitive, you had best leave matters to experts.” When Bruce Gold, abandoning his former liberal beliefs and adopting neoconservative opinions for the power their espousal will bring him, writes “Nothing Succeeds as Planned,” he contributes precisely the intellectual support that the conservative government needs to justify its lack of social involvement.4

Heller not only disparages the neoconservative program but also attacks the tendentious motives of the neoconservatives themselves, particularly, it would seem, those of Irving Kristol. Heller's ever-inspiring, Presidential-dinner-remembering Lieberman resembles Kristol, whose efforts as a publicist cause Steinfels to dub him the neoconservative “standard-bearer.” “If Horatio Alger had written about intellectuals instead of newsboys, Kristol could have been one of his heroes. Irving, the Editor; or From Alcove No. 1 to the President's Dinner Table” (Steinfels, p. 81).5 Like Kristol, and like many of the New York Jewish neoconservatives (see Steinfels, pp. 25-30), Lieberman began his political life with socialist ideas. Lieberman is implicated in a scandal involving government support for the supposedly independent journal he edits, and the background of a similar episode from Kristol's career provides a prototype. Kristol had been the founding editor of Encounter, one of the journals sponsored by the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom and dedicated to counteracting “‘mendacious Communist propaganda’” (Steinfels, p. 29). In the mid-60s, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that the Congress, and in turn the journals, was supported by the CIA. In Heller's novel, Lieberman defends his acceptance of dubious funding by claiming that he changed his political position before governmental backing. (Steinfels, too, acknowledges that this order of events may have been the case with formerly Marxist neoconservatives.) But Heller's point, demonstrated by Lieberman's intellectual drooling over his past closeness to the centers of power (symbolized in his oft remembered dinner at the White House), is that having once fed at the public trough, it is difficult to assume again the diet necessitated by independence. And there are further similarities between Lieberman and the neoconservative “standard-bearer.” Kristol, like Lieberman, is capable of changing his mind (against Nixon in 1968, for him in 1972) and, like Lieberman, was rewarded for his support with a White House dinner invitation. In 1972, a report circulated that Kristol was being considered for an appointment as “‘a broad gauge advisor on domestic policy’” (quoted in Steinfels, p. 89), a position that Lieberman hopes for. Lieberman is in favor of “repressive police actions when necessary” (p. 44). During the campus unrest of the 60s Kristol advocated restructuring universities along principles of riot control: “It is clearly foolish to assemble huge and potentially riotous mobs in one place … We should aim at the ‘scatteration’ of the student population, so as to decrease their capacity to cause significant trouble” (quoted in Steinfels, pp. 88-89). Especially interesting from a literary standpoint are the excesses of thought and language shared by Kristol and the fictional Lieberman. Steinfels describes a sampling of Kristol's assertions as simplified versions of complexities, exaggerated, unqualified (p. 100); Gold and Pomoroy often deprecate Lieberman's ideas (especially pp. 162-64, 167-68). And Kristol's use of language can be comically inaccurate, as Steinfels' “sic” indicates: “The corporation is ‘an utterly defenseless institution … literally [sic] up the creek without a paddle, alienated and friendless … the essence of flabbiness … picked on and bullied so easily’” (p. 95; Steinfels is quoting from On the Democratic Idea). Compare this use of “literally” with one of Lieberman's during a lunch with Gold and Pomoroy:

“I know how flexible you can be,” Pomoroy accused sardonically, and Lieberman colored. “I saw your name in the papers again at another one of your fucking fascist dinners. My imagination fails me,” Pomoroy went on with as much wonder as reproof. “What goes through your mind when you sit there listening to those anti-Semitic speakers. What do you think of?”

Lieberman lowered his eyes. “I do my multiplication tables,” he answered shyly.

“Do you applaud?” asked Gold.

“No,” answered Lieberman. “I swear, I literally sit on my hands through the whole meal.”

“How do you eat?” inquired Gold.

“I was speaking figuratively.”

“Then why did you say literally?” said Pomoroy.

“Don't words mean anything to you?” said Gold.

[p. 164]

Another prominent neoconservative who helped to shape the cultural style Heller attacks is New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom Steinfels characterizes as the “professorial politician.”6 His glibness has similarities to Gold's. “The careful reader of Moynihan's published essays is always stumbling across instances of deft evasion, retouched shading, and personal promotion that clash disturbingly with the image of the man of knowledge in politics he has projected for himself and others” (Steinfels, pp. 115-16). This description of Moynihan's writing recalls Gold's ability to slant the same speech toward either a liberal or a conservative audience (p. 43).

The Neoconservatives, brought out in the same year and by the same publisher as Heller's novel, reads almost like A Reader's Guide to the Satire in Good as Gold. Steinfels' book could not have influenced Heller, but both authors drew on similar sources. Heller had a file of clippings from the New York Times relating to the neoconservatives.7 Heller has said that his political ideas are developed through informal discussion and newspaper reading (not through doctrinaire political essays),8 and he had ample opportunity to follow the careers of prominent neoconservatives in the Times. Kristol published his “Memoirs of a Trotskyist” in the January 23, 1977, issue of the New York Times Magazine. His article, “Basic Principles of Riot Control,” also originally appeared there on December 8, 1968. Moynihan was profiled five times in this same magazine between 1965 and the publication of Good as Gold (and appeared on Time's cover twice). Kristol's public support for Nixon and his dinners at the White House were prominently reported in the daily Times (29 Jan. 1972; 5 Sept. 1973). Another of Heller's and Steinfels' common sources was Commentary, where, for example, a symposium, “What Is a Liberal—Who Is a Conservative?” was published in September of 1976. Kristol's “Why I am for Humphrey” appeared in the New Republic, 8 June 1968. And Heller could easily reach back into his political memory to events such as the scandal involving CIA financing of journals like Encounter (reported in the Times in 1966 and confirmed by an ex-CIA agent in The Saturday Evening Post, 20 May 1967).

Two examples can serve to emphasize the way in which Steinfels' careful discussion helps clarify the satire in Good as Gold. The first involves Steinfels' analysis of a Moynihan rationalization, similar to some of Gold's and to some that Ralph offers to Gold. When Moynihan, a Democrat, joined the Nixon Administration, he countered public surprise by the following statement:

When the only President we have asks me to come work for him, I am pretty much disposed, on the terms he asked it, to do anything he asks. … I was doing what any person ought to do. You don't decline to serve the President of the United States in an advisory capacity, under almost any circumstances—that is, if you've got the internal fortitude to advise him as you really see it. On what grounds would you say, “No, I will not advise the President”?

[quoted in Steinfels, p. 131]

Until Gold realizes that achieving his aspirations will not be worth the personal cost and does turn down a presidential appointment, Moynihan's statement represents arguments that Gold has been advancing to himself. Steinfels almost-New-Critical analysis of Moynihan's statement allows us to understand Gold's justifications as only rationalizations.

The question is put as though, barring the case of Nazism, there is no reply. Yet Moynihan must know that the answer is not at all obscure, though it might require some distinctions in that easy glide from “advise” (the occasional trip to Washington, the drafting of a position paper) to “work for” (full-time identification with the Administration) to “do anything he asks” (John Dean? or merely promising not to resign over disagreements). If one estimates that an Administration for whatever reason, is unlikely to enact the policies one favors, and is in fact apt to strengthen the policies one abhors, then one lends one's talents and energies to the opposition, one retains the privilege of criticizing freely, and one builds the foundation for the election of a different Administration more likely to enact the desired measures.

[p. 131]

The politics of Ralph Newsome and the president are not what Gold's have been, yet Gold's rationalizations can seem as convincing as Moynihan's. Steinfels' criticism gives us a firmer perspective on Gold's reasoning.9

A second example can be pointed to in Steinfels' criticism of Kristol's “law.” Steinfels argues from the authority of the Ford Foundation that the theory of unanticipated consequences is bunk. The Foundation proceedings were reported in a special issue of The Public Interest (Winter 1974) for which conference directors Eli Ginzberg and Robert M. Solow served as guest editors. They reproduce the following conclusion.

There are sometimes unintended and unwanted side effects; and some public programs simply don't work. But there is nothing in the history of the 1960's to suggest that it is a law of nature that social legislation cannot deal effectively with social problems.

[quoted in Steinfels, p. 224]

The dismissal places Gold's “Nothing Succeeds As Planned” (Heller's parody of the theory) into perspective.

Both Steinfels' and Heller's critiques are self-contained, but while the analysis supports the fiction, the fiction reciprocally illumines the analysis. Steinfels notes the opportunism and self-promotion of neoconservatives. Such attributes are difficult to demonstrate though because they involve personal motives for which there is ordinarily only circumstantial evidence. In addition, while such basically ad hominem arguments may be effective rhetorically they do not promote the tone of objective analysis that Steinfels cultivates. Heller's novel does perform a convincing job of exposing the presumed self-interest of neoconservatives.10


  1. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller (San Bernadino: Borgo Press, 1982), p. 58.

  2. The Neoconservatives: The Men Who are Changing America's Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), pp. 55, 58, 64, 65. I am grateful to Christopher P. Wilson for directing my attention to sources that have broadened my understanding of Good as Gold’s satire.

  3. Good as Gold (New York: Pocket Books, 1980), p. 154. All further page references are to this edition.

  4. See two passages from Good as Gold: “‘God, Bruce,’ Ralph began, ‘I can't tell you how you're boggling our minds. If nothing succeeds as planned and you really present such a strong argument—then the President has just the excuse he needs for not doing anything’” (p. 76); and “Ralph was in earnest. ‘I'm told [the President] already has a blowup of your proverb “Nothing Succeeds as Planned” on a wall of his breakfast room right beside a quotation from Pliny. It's a daily reminder not to attempt to do too much”’ (p. 121).

  5. Steinfels explains that “Alcove No. 1 was the bit of ‘turf’ in the City College of New York cafeteria that tradition had assigned to the non-Communist socialists. The Communists and their friends exercised their territorial imperative over Alcove No. 2” (p. 81).

  6. Moynihan is one of many neoconservatives who have held positions at prestigious universities. Gold is not drawn from any one in particular any more than Lieberman is a “portrait” of Kristol. To the extent that the characters have prototypes, their characterization is a composite of them. Both the public sphere and Heller's private acquaintance contributed to the development, and the book's dedication to “several gallant families and numerous unwitting friends whose help, conversations, and experiences play so large a part” indicates a variety of inspirations. Among the many who contributed to the characterization of Gold (including Heller himself, who like his protagonist has been a professor of English), Kristol, as well as Moynihan, is a possibility, at least for a minor detail. Gold aspires to an academic sinecure, an endowed chair in the Urban Studies Program (p. 144). By 1970, Irving Kristol was “Professor of Urban Values” at New York University (Steinfels, p. 88).

  7. Kristol, for instance, appears in one such clipping:

    Office buildings rose as spectacles where there was no lack of office space, and organizations with Brobdingnagian names were sprouting like unmanageable vines and spreading like mold with sinecures and conferments for people of limited mentality and unconvincing motive. Gold knew several by heart from pieces he had clipped:

    Irving Kristol is Resident
    Scholar at the American
    Enterprise Institute for
    Public Policy Research. …

    [p. 355]

    The newspaper quotations in Good as Gold are verbatim, according to Heller's statement to Charlie Reilly, “Talking with Joseph Heller,” rpt. in James Nagel's Critical Essays on Joseph Heller (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984), p. 180.

  8. Dale Gold, “Portrait of a Man Reading” (Washington Post Book World, 20 July 1969), p. 2.

  9. In his being willing to support those in power regardless of their party affiliation, Gold has turned his back to his previous beliefs, as an exchange with his family in which Gold must lie demonstrates:

    “Bruce,” Esther found nerve enough to ask at the door, while the others waited with glummest concern, “if you go to Washington, you wouldn't ever do anything to make us ashamed, would you?”

    Gold was almost afraid to inquire. “Like what?”

    Here Esther's courage failed, and others took over.

    “Like ever vote Republican?”

    “Never,” he answered.

    “Or help one get elected?”

    “Of course not!”

    “Not even if he was Jewish?”


    “Thank God,” said his stepmother.

    [pp. 118-19]

    Gold is able to justify his actions to himself, though others see his motives clearly. A boyhood friend of Gold's comments,”‘So you're going into politics in Washington and cash in big, huh?’ … ‘I look at it,’ said Gold, ‘as performing a useful service to society.’ ‘That's what I'm laughing about,’ said Spotty Weinrock” (p. 199). And when the presidential summons does arrive, Ralph uses arguments like Moynihan's to persuade Gold:

    “You have to, Bruce. You can't say no to the President.”

    “Why not?”

    “Because nobody does. You have to say yes when your President asks.”

    “Who does?”

    “Everybody, Bruce. You can't say no when your President asks. … Your President needs you. He often says you're the only person in the country with whom he feels completely comfortable.”

    [pp. 479, 482]

  10. Satiric comments that are plausible in the novel include those by or about the following characters: (Lieberman) “‘I would support a war every day in the week if I knew I could eat at the White House again’” (p. 59); (Ralph) ‘“In government, Bruce, experience doesn't count and knowledge isn't important. If there's one lesson of value to be learned from the past, Bruce, it's to grab what you want when the chance comes to get it’” (p. 124); (Gold) “‘Power. Raw power. Brute, illegal power. I'll misuse it to ruin [Conover] and make his life miserable. I'll tap his telephones. I'll have the FBI ask insinuating questions about him’” (p. 267); (and Harris Rosenblatt, Secretary of the Treasury, who reassures the business community and ‘“promises to hold down deficits.’”) ‘“He doesn't actually hold them down, you understand, but merely promises to. He also looks after the financial interests of himself and his friends so they can continue to live on the level they're used to”’ (p. 222).


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Joseph Heller 1923-1999

American novelist, playwright, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Heller's works from 1990 through 2000.

Heller is remembered as a popular and respected writer whose first and best-known novel, Catch-22 (1961), is considered a classic of the post-World War II era. Heller's tragicomic vision of modern life, found in all of his novels, focused on the erosion of humanistic values and the ways in which language obscures and confuses reality. In addition, Heller's use of anachronism reflected the disordered nature of contemporary existence. His protagonists are antiheroes who search for meaning in their lives and struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by such institutions as the military, big business, government, and religion.

Biographical Information

Heller was born May 1, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York, to first-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, a bakery truck driver, died after a bungled operation when Heller was only five years old. Many critics believe that Heller developed the sardonic, wisecracking humor that marked his writing style while growing up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. After graduating from high school in 1941, he worked briefly in an insurance office, an experience he later drew upon for the novel Something Happened (1974). In 1942 Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Corsica, where he flew sixty combat missions as a wing bombardier, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. Discharged from the military in 1945, Heller married Shirley Held and began his college education. He obtained a B.A. in English from New York University and an M.A. from Columbia University. He then attended Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar for a year before becoming an English instructor at Pennsylvania State University. Two years later Heller began working as an advertising copywriter, securing positions at such magazines as Time, Look, and McCall's from 1952 to 1961. The office settings of these companies also yielded material for Something Happened. During this time Heller was writing short stories and scripts for film and television as well as working on Catch-22. Although his stories easily found publication, Heller considered them insubstantial and derivative of Ernest Hemingway's works. After the phenomenal success of Catch-22, Heller quit his job at McCall's and concentrated exclusively on writing fiction and plays. In December of 1981 he contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare type of polyneuritis that afflicts the peripheral nervous system. Heller chronicled his medical problems and difficult recovery in No Laughing Matter (1986) with Speed Vogel, a friend who helped him during his illness. He died of a heart attack in 1999.

Major Works

Catch-22 concerns a World War II bombardier named Yossarian who believes his foolish, ambitious, mean-spirited commanding officers are more dangerous than the enemy. In order to avoid flying more missions, Yossarian retreats to a hospital with a mysterious liver complaint, sabotages his plane, and tries to get himself declared insane. Variously defined throughout the novel, the term “Catch-22” refers to the ways in which bureaucracies control the people who work for them. Many critics contend that while Catch-22 is ostensibly a war novel, World War II and the Air Force base where most of the novel's action takes place function primarily as a microcosm that demonstrates the disintegration of language and human value in a bureaucratic state. Catch-22 enjoyed enormous success during the Vietnam War, when many soldiers strongly identified with Yossarian's plight. Heller's second novel, Something Happened, centers on Bob Slocum, a middle-aged businessman who has a large, successful company but who feels emotionally empty. Narrating in a drab, spiritless tone, Slocum attempts to find the source of his malaise and his belief that modern American bourgeois life has lost meaning, by probing into his past and exploring his relationships with his wife, children, and coworkers. Although critics consider Slocum a generally unlikable character, he ultimately achieves sympathy because he has so thoroughly assimilated the values of his business that he has lost his own identity. Good as Gold (1979) marks Heller's first fictional use of his Jewish heritage and childhood experiences in Coney Island. The protagonist of this novel, Bruce Gold, is an unfulfilled college professor who is writing a book about “the Jewish experience,” but he also harbors political ambitions. Offered a high government position after giving a positive review of a book written by the president, Gold accepts, leaves his wife and children, and finds himself immersed in a farcical bureaucracy in which officials speak in a confusing, contradictory language. In this novel Heller harshly satirized former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a Jew who has essentially forsaken his Jewishness. In so doing, the author draws an analogy between the themes of political lust for power and Jewish identity. Similarly, Gold's motives for entering politics are strictly self-aggrandizing, as he seeks financial, sexual, and social rewards. Throughout the novel, Heller alternates the narrative between scenes of Gold's large, garrulous Jewish family and the mostly gentile milieu of Washington, employing realism to depict the former and parody to portray the latter. Heller's next novel, God Knows (1984), is a retelling of the biblical story of King David, the psalmist of the Old Testament. A memoir in the form of a monologue by David, the text abounds with anachronistic speech, combining the Bible's lyricism with a Jewish-American dialect reminiscent of the comic routines of such humorists as Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In an attempt to determine the origin of his despondency near the end of his life, David ruminates on the widespread loss of faith and sense of community, the uses of art, and the seeming absence of God. In Picture This (1988) Heller used Rembrandt's painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer to draw parallels between ancient Greece, seventeenth-century Holland, and contemporary America. Moving backward and forward among these eras, this novel meditates on art, money, injustice, the folly of war, and the failures of democracy. Many critics questioned whether Picture This should be considered a novel, a work of history, or a political tract. No Laughing Matter, written with his friend Speed Vogel, is a work that can be loosely termed nonfiction concerning Heller's experiences suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome. With Heller's chapters interspersed between Vogel's, the book resembles an often humorous and deadpan dialogue between friends who experience Heller's illness in very different ways. Closing Time (1994), considered a sequel to Catch-22, revisits characters from that novel, including some who appeared only peripherally or in discussion; the tone of Closing Time, however, unlike that of Catch-22, is uniformly absurdist rather than a mix of absurdism and realism. Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998) is an autobiographical account of Heller's childhood and young adulthood in and around Coney Island. A more extended self-examination than any of the autobiographical passages in his novels, Now and Then serves to fill in the gaps and explain Heller's lifelong sardonic world view. At his death Heller left a finished novel, Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man (2000), about a writer attempting to maintain his talents and abilities in the face of rapidly encroaching age and death.

Critical Reception

While Heller's place in twentieth-century letters is assured with Catch-22, he is also highly regarded for his other works, which present a comic vision of modern society with serious moral implications. A major theme throughout his writing is the conflict that occurs when individuals interact with such powerful institutions as corporations, the military, and the federal government. Over the course of his career, Heller's novels displayed increasing pessimism over the inability of individuals to reverse society's slide toward corruption and degeneration. Heller repeatedly rendered the chaos and absurdity of contemporary existence through disjointed chronology, anachronistic and oxymoronic language, and repetition of events while emphasizing the necessity of identifying and accepting responsibility social and personal evils and, as individuals, adopting beneficial behavioral changes. Some critics claim that Heller's later work pales in comparison with Catch-22 and Something Happened, but others maintain that his canon viewed as a whole displays his continued evolution as a writer.

John Clark Pratt (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Pratt, John Clark. “Yossarian's Legacy: Catch-22 and the Vietnam War.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, pp. 88-110. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Pratt explores parallels between Catch-22 and the experience of fighting in the Vietnam War.]

At the outset, I must confess to some unintentional skullduggery. When going to Vietnam in the summer of 1969, I took with me a copy of Catch-22. From what I knew then about the war, I suspected that reviewing the plight of Yossarian from time to time might provide some continued reassurance that my world at war would not really be any more insane than Joseph Heller's.

I could not know, of course, that the colonel seated next to me throughout that long, ominous flight would comment on my choice of fiction and provide me with some early material for my novel, The Laotian Fragments. In Fragments, Major Bill Blake also reads Catch-22 on the flight over, and when the colonel asks about the book (obviously not having heard of it), Blake tells him only that it is “a novel about World War II.” Returning for his second tour, the colonel observes, “That was a real war … not like this one” (9). Later, Blake signs many of his official memos “Love, Yossarian.”

Naturally, those of us who knew Catch-22 could not help but see some obvious parallels to Vietnam, and almost all of them involved the fact of conflicting realities that lie at the core of Heller's vision of the modern world. Vietnam was a “conflict” that was neither a war nor a Korean “police action.” In Vietnam, many of us became involved in operations that we could not talk about, even to people who were also involved in often contiguous operations that they couldn't talk about either. We discovered that the war had been going on longer than even many of the senior commanders knew and that it was being fought in and by countries that professed neutrality and noninvolvement. What FNG (Fucking New Guy) who knew Catch-22 could help but wonder, when visiting either the Saigon exchanges or the stalls in Cholon, where Milo Minderbinder might be? And who of us can ever forget the sense of incredible irony when we exited the aircraft that had brought us to Vietnam and heard the phrase that only Heller could have written, spoken perfunctorily by an obviously veteran stewardess: “Hope you enjoyed your flight. See you in a year.”

General comparisons are one thing, but the unreal reality, the actuality of Catch-22 provided specifics as well to all of us who knew the novel—so many, so often, and so incredibly true that the book should properly be seen as a paradigm for the Vietnam War itself. When looking at the “facts” as well as at the fiction written about the war, to ignore what Heller has written is to obfuscate, misunderstand, and more dangerously, I think, distort what the Vietnam experience really was.

Let us look first at the “fact,” then at the fiction. In Dispatches, Michael Herr said it best: “You couldn't avoid the way in which things got mixed, the war itself with those parts of the war that were just like the movies, just like The Quiet American or Catch-22 (a Nam standard because it said that in a war everybody thinks that everybody else is crazy) …” (210). It's Yossarian, of course, who tells the chaplain, “Everybody is crazy but us” (14), a feeling that I know was held by many of the pilots who flew north from Thailand (a country not at war) into the Red River Valley or against the Thanh Hoa bridge, taking the same routes at the same times day after day, experiencing ever-increasing flak from antiaircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile sites that had been off-limits for enough time to allow the North Vietnamese to make them operational. Still classified, for instance, are the details about a senior officer's being relieved of command because he authorized and planned an attack against SAM sites under construction, but just as the armed aircraft were readying for takeoff, the mission was canceled from Washington. In all this, one recalls Milo's having alerted the German antiaircraft artillery in order to “be fair to both sides” during the attack on the highway bridge at Orvieto (261).

There were the medals, too. In Catch-22, “men went mad and were rewarded with medals” (16), often for deeds they never did. So too in Vietnam, where a Bronze Star was practically assured, especially to Saigon desk soldiers who had typewriters, and many of the medals, even though deserved, were awarded for fictional heroics because the actual sites of the events were not officially admitted to be in the war zone. Even today, many heroes cannot reveal that the citations on their truly deserved awards are invented. Similarly, and more paradoxical, is the fact of the missing names from the Vietnam War Memorial, names of those Americans killed in action while in combat against the VC, North Vietnamese, or Pathet Lao before the “official” date of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Any one of these men would have made a fitting tentmate for Yossarian, like “Mudd the unknown soldier who had never had a chance.” As was Mudd, these men are “really unknown” (112) and should be recognized.

The parallels continue. Although few pilots were privy to the facts of the regular “Tuesday lunch” in Washington where all missions into North Vietnam were approved personally by the president, some of the fighter pilots' songs such as “Mañana” showed that someone, at least, understood:

Before we fly a mission
And everything's o.k.
Mac[namara] has to get permission from
Flight Leader LBJ.

(Pratt, Voices 248)

One is reminded of Clevinger's quivering rationalization, “But it's not for us to determine what targets must be destroyed or who's to destroy them. … There are men entrusted with winning the war who are in a much better position than we are to decide what targets have to be bombed” (127). A major target in North Vietnam was, of course, the Thanh Hoa bridge, which was not destroyed until the last days of the war despite ingenious attempts such as Project “Carolina Moon” on May 30, 1966. A specially modified C-130 was to drop 5,000-pound “pancake” bombs about 8 feet in diameter. At night, at 400 feet and 150 knots, the C-130 delivered five bombs near the bridge, then returned to base despite heavy groundfire. The next day's reconnaissance revealed no sign of damage or exploded bombs. One wonders if Yossarian would have returned to the target that night, as another C-130 did “with only slight modification in its route of flight.” This aircraft disappeared and was never heard from again (LaValle 52-55). Yossarian made his second bombing run over the bridge on the river Po, and when asked why, he replies, “We'd have had to go back there again. … And maybe there would have been more losses, with the bridge still left standing” (142).

Not only bridges but mountain passes too provide irony for both Catch-22 and the Vietnam War. In Catch-22, an attempt is made to interdict a road in order to block two armored divisions coming down from Austria. The plan is to destroy a small mountain village that “will certainly tumble right down and pile up on the road.” Dunbar objects: “What the hell difference will it make? … It will only take them a couple of days to clear it” (335). Colonel Korn refuses to listen. “We don't care about the roadblock,” he says. “Colonel Cathcart wants to come out of this mission with a good, clean aerial photograph he won't be ashamed to send through channels” (337). The hundreds of air force and navy pilots who flew missions against Vietnam's Mu Gia or Ban Karai passes may see some real truth here.

There are many more episodes in Catch-22 that seemed to prefigure the facts of aerial combat in Vietnam, not the least of which is the question of the number of missions, the basis of the concept of the phrase “Catch-22” itself. To document the various Vietnam War mission requirements for awards and decorations and for rotation home would require a book-length computer printout; it is enough to say that some missions counted, others did not, depending upon the dates they were flown, the country to which they were directed, and the Rules of Engagement at the time. I often heard pilots say “Catch-22” when these rules were changed, but thanks to their understanding of Heller's concept, most of them accepted with grace what they knew was craziness. As one F-4 pilot put it:

Flew on Dave Connett's wing on his final mission. It was a spectacular display for his finale. The night was moonless and we were using napalm and CBU's on a storage area. The above mission turned out to be my final one also. I completed 102 in all but, because of a ruling halfway through the tour, some of the missions into Laos didn't count after 1 February 1966.

(Pratt, Voices 239)

Other events of note are the sad prefiguring of fragging in the plot to kill Colonel Cathcart, and the unpublicized, but severe infighting among and within the Central Intelligence Agency, State Department, and Department of Defense as well as among the services, as can be seen in General Peckem's plan to grab control of all commands. There is also the frightening rationality of Ex-PFC Wintergreen when we first meet him in the novel. He has no objection to digging holes at Lowry field “as long as there was a war going on.” His reason: “It's a matter of duty, … and we each have our own to perform. My duty is to keep digging these holes, and I've been doing such a good job of it that I've just been recommended for the Good Conduct Medal. Your duty is to screw around in cadet school and hope the war ends before you get out” (108-109). It is a recorded fact that candidates for admission to the service academies presented higher and higher test scores as the Vietnam War progressed, and that when the draft was rescinded in 1972, resignations of cadets suddenly increased. While teaching Catch-22 during this period at the United States Air Force Academy, I heard many slightly embarrassed laughs from my draft-exempt students when I highlighted Wintergreen's credo. One cannot argue with reason—or with Ex-PFC Wintergreen, wherever he may be today.

It's quite apparent, then, that in both general and specific areas, Catch-22 did indeed provide a paradigm for many aspects of the Vietnam War. And as those just starting in the military during the mid-1950s snidely called some commanders Captain Queeg, so did the names Colonel Cathcart and Major Major pass often from the lips of the Vietnam-era military men. Catch-22 as novel had influenced our thinking, but Vietnam as Catch-22 itself affected our immediate existence.

I believe, too, that knowing Heller's work, seeing such irony and paradox come alive, made many of us more able to cope with the unreal reality of Vietnam. Nothing but Catch-22 could have prepared us, for instance, for the initially unreported firing of General John D. LaVelle, Commander of Seventh Air Force, Saigon. His testimony before Congress in June 1972 has dialogue that could have been written by Heller himself. Having authorized “protective reaction” (a Helleresque term) air strikes against a buildup of North Vietnamese missiles and equipment in an area near the Laos-North Vietnam border, LaVelle explained his actions. A questioner (Mr. Pike) asked:

Were you concerned that the bomb damage report showed damage to trucks or a SAM transporter or to POL, rather than to something [the missiles themselves] that you were allowed to hit?
GENERAL Lavelle:
No, Sir.
MR. Pike:
Tell us why. You said they were missile-related equipment. Is that it?
GENERAL Lavelle:
Yes, sir.
MR. Pike:
Did you feel that under the rules of engagement, as you interpreted them, your right to attack missiles would include a missile on a transporter?
GENERAL Lavelle:
Yes, sir.
MR. Pike:
When you say these trucks were missile-related equipment, how were they missile-related equipment?
GENERAL Lavelle:
We had picked up, or identified by reconnaissance, missiles on transporters parked along-side the road, waiting for the bad weather, to come through the pass, to come into Laos. They were never alone. The missiles had associated equipment, generator, vans, fuel, or just equipment for the personnel. But we never found a missile on a transporter by itself. We found missiles and trucks with them. …
MR. Pike:
Would it have been permissible for you to have hit those targets between the 26th and the 31st of December?
GENERAL Lavelle:
26th and 31st; yes, sir.
MR. Pike:
Would it have been permissible for you to have hit those targets on the 17th and 18th of February?
GENERAL Lavelle:
No, sir, because of their location.

(Pratt, Voices 521-522)

These incidents, taken primarily from air force experiences, show the pervasive quality of Catch-22ness in Vietnam, but there are so many more examples. Perhaps some future article will portray the colonel, in charge of a classified research project in Saigon, who would stride like Cathcart up and down the aisle between two rows of diligent writers, screaming, “Do not say that an F-4 cannot hit a truck. Do not say …” I hope, too, that someone, sometime will find, declassify, and write the story about the discovery during the height of the bombing of a yacht being transported down the Ho Chi Minh trail as a gift from the Chinese government to the leader of Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk, or about the episode of the seeding of a wetting agent on the same trail complex to create continuous mud, leading one high official to comment that it was “better to make mud, not war.” Unfortunately, the rains washed out the experiment. Or the time a pilot who was not supposed to be stationed in Vientiane, Laos, had an affair with the daughter of the North Vietnamese ambassador. There are so many of these stories, and they are all sadly and wonderfully ironic. So Catch-22.

Many fiction writers have, however, attempted to apply Catch-22 to the Vietnam War by direct reference, analogy, echo, and in a few instances parody. In the vast literature of the war (more than four hundred novels, hundreds of poems, short stories, and plays), the existence of Catch-22 appears to be a given, but some writers believe that Heller did not go far enough. In Charles Durden's No Bugles, No Drums, for example, PFC Jamie Hawkins begins to feel “like I was ODing on absurdity. … Things get so outa hand that nothin' makes sense. … Alice in Wonderland was gettin' to be timid shit next to this.” He remembers “readin' a book called Catch-22” and believing that “this dude's gotta be crazy. He was. But he wasn't crazy enough” (207). Similarly, Ward Just, in To What End, reflects on “the similarity of the soldier and the war correspondent, the basic text for which comes from Joseph Heller's novel, Catch-22. On the one hand, no one wants to get ambushed or to be where bullets are fired in anger. On the other, if nothing happens there is no story. If the patrol does meet the enemy you are likely to be killed or wounded, or at the very least scared to death. Catch-23” (181).

Critic and veteran Philip Beidler (who first identified the above Catch-22 references) believes that writers had difficulty portraying post-Catch-22 Vietnam because they could not write “a Catch-22 about Catch-22.” “At best,” Beidler says, “Catch-22, with its almost sublime spirit of absurd apocalypse, seemed to bear on the attempt to make literary sense of Vietnam only insofar as it suggested something like a set of mathematical upper limits” (11). Because Vietnam became “Catch-22 come giddily real” (145), Beidler feels that those who wrote about the war as Heller had done for World War II produced works that were only “Catch-21 1/2 or 3/4 or 7/8” (63).

It is certainly true that Heller's chaplain had already seemed to set the Vietnam experience in concrete: “So many monstrous events were occurring that he was no longer positive which events were monstrous and which were really taking place” (287). But I think that Beidler's assessment needs emending. Many writers did try to equal Heller, and some, I think, succeeded, simply by writing about the war as they saw it. Of the nine major novels that would probably not have been written without Catch-22 as a model, five are essentially realistic (with Catch-22 situations, characters, and overtones), while only four use Pianosalike settings and characters that, in Heller's words, “could obviously not accommodate all of the actions described” (5). These four are the fanciful Ears of the Jungle, 1972, by Pierre Boule; Gangland, 1982, by David Winn; Brandywine's War, 1971, by Robert Vaughn and Monroe Lynch; and the remarkable novel Bridge Fall Down, 1985, by Nicholas Rinaldi. The other novels, listed in order of their internally dateable realism, are The Land of a Million Elephants, 1970, by Asa Baber (1960-1961); Parthian Shot, 1975, by Lloyd Little (1964); Incident at Muc Wa, 1967, by Daniel Ford (1964), The Only War We've Got, 1970, by Derek Maitland (1967); and The Bamboo Bed, 1969, by William Eastlake (1967-1968). Each of these novels moves so deftly from the real to the surreal and back again that a reader not versed in many of the facts of the Vietnam War does not know when he or she is reading fiction or when the events are real—an effect the writers intended. As a result, these books succeed differently than does Catch-22 and become particularly representative of the real unreality of the Vietnam War.

In any of these nine novels, however, one needs only to meet the characters to recognize whose world—Joseph Heller's—they are entering. In Baber's The Land of a Million Elephants, for instance, a U.S. colonel spends most of his time in Chanda (Laos) on a roof watching the beautiful Wampoon, mistress to the king; Nadolsky, the Russian agent, gets excited by listening on his electronic device to his CIA counterpart make love; M/Sgt Campo keeps looking for the nonexistent PX; and Coakley, the effeminate State Department clerk, prances throughout the novel. There are also Indian, North Vietnamese, American, and Laotian characters who constantly protest each other's truce violations. Many of these characters, however, are thinly veiled satires of actual participants in the unbelievable events of 1960-1961 Laos, and if one knows the history, one will recognize the little Captain Kong Le playing himself.

Parthian Shot begins with Special Forces Team A-376 being notified that it has been shipped home two weeks earlier; thus it is no longer in Vietnam. The team contains a second lieutenant who can't be promoted, he suspects, because his voice is too high and a sergeant who starts Hoa Hoa Unlimited, Ltd., first to make VC flags, then to manufacture fake AK-47s. Hoa Hoa Unlimited, Ltd., later branches out into brassieres and blouses, sells stock, receives a Small Business Administration loan, and finally commissions a RAND Corporation study that advises them to cooperate with both the VC and the U.S. commands. Eventually, their enterprise becomes international in scope.

Similarly, Incident at Muc Wa, a novel that was billed as “The Catch-22 of the War in Southeast Asia,” introduces a general who has no unit patch on his shoulder but who chews everyone out for not wearing one, a Christian Scientist medic who juices vegetables and even field grass for his health, and a captain who will do anything to get a combat infantryman's badge. In this novel, the Americans shoot most of the Vietnamese they encounter, in part because the major has ordered them to report two enemy casualties for every one of their own, while in sector headquarters everyone keeps watching the “master mosquito-control chart.”

Although called by the Times Literary Supplement “The Catch-22 of the 1970's,” Maitland's The Only War We've Got becomes Helleresque more from its selection of fact-based targets of satire than from the inventiveness of its author. Commanding General Windy asks his secretary to spy on his second-in-command, General Cretan, “to find out what he's plot … I mean thinking” (34), while General Cretan's secretary is doing the same thing to him. There are two U.S. ambassadors to Saigon, each of whom thinks he is in charge. One of them devises a plan to dress everyone in VC pajamas for security reasons and trumpets his intention to defoliate the entire country. Also appearing are an NVA unit that loves the Hershey bars left behind by Americans; a soldier named Leaping Prick Smith who, because of his few drops of Sioux blood, keeps cheering the outcome of Custer movie reruns; and the great “Happy Hour Shutdown” when no American aircraft are available for combat.

Of these realistically centered novels, Eastlake's The Bamboo Bed is probably the most like Catch-22. The title refers both to the underground love nest of the mysterious and beautiful Madame Dieudonné and to the helicopter in which Captain Knightbridge and the nurse keep setting altitude records for having sex. Captain Clancy goes into battle wearing a plumed helmet and sword, marching to the beat of his drummerboy. B-52 crews drink martinis on their way to a mission, while below, the hippies Bethany and Pike are on their “way to the front to give flowers to the troops” (73-74). There is also a black sergeant who wants to surrender all the white men in his company to the VC; and Captain Knightbridge's crew consists of men named Disraeli Pong, Lavender the Purple Negro, and Ozz, his copilot, who like his Catch-22 namesake Orr, has a “secret dream.” Only the location is different. Ozz wants “to fly to Katmandu and declare himself neutral” (132).

Although the fanciful Catch-22 follow-on novels are patently unrealistic in setting as well as character, each shares a common subject: the use and impact of U.S. technology not only in the war but also (often by not too subtle association) on the future of the world as well. These novels are all darkly prophetic, and each is really a warning more about the future (as is Catch-22 itself) than it is about the war in which it is supposedly set.

Pierre Boule's Ears of the Jungle, for instance, while probably the most simplistic, inaccurate, and juvenile of any of the novels, does offer an apocalyptic vision of technology defeating itself. Based loosely on Task Force Alpha, the electronic nerve center of the Air Force's Laotian bombing efforts, Boule's novel shows what can happen when a beautiful NVA spy manages to compromise the electronic targeting system by placing audiotapes beside truck-spotting sensors. Madame Ngha also manages to reprogram the center's computer to call in airstrikes on itself, but she manages to get herself blown up as well. In this novel, U.S. air raids kill enough water buffalo to feed the North Vietnamese, an American officer waits to destroy a hamlet until his tanks can have their carburetors adjusted to reduce air pollution, and Air Force pilots read detective stories while flying missions.

Much more incisive (although patently derivative) is Vaughn and Lynch's Brandywine's War, which is really Catch-22 set in Vietnam and which perfectly exemplifies what Beidler has cited as the difficulty of writing Catch-22 about Catch-22. CWO Brandywine, a helicopter pilot, generates insane memos and telephone calls that everyone believes. Characters include Sgt. Percival, NCOIC of Defecation Elimination, and the hippie “unsoldier” who is in Vietnam by mistake and has an “unfile” that he can't inspect. The “unsoldier” eventually expands his marijuana business into an international cartel, but can never be sent home because he's not officially assigned to Vietnam. There are also General Deegle, who is obsessed with his rashes and keeps sprinkling baby powder in his crotch, and Lt. Soverign, the chaplain misassigned as a helicopter pilot who, like Yossarian, runs away in the end. An indictment of practically everything about the Vietnam War, this novel lacks Catch-22's overwhelming sense of humanity and merely stops, implying the endlessness of the war and the authors' conviction that nothing will change.

The last two novels to be noted here go far beyond the Vietnam War. They are to the war what the war was to Catch-22; in other words, they show that the absurdity and craziness seen in Vietnam have become a part of the present and, alarmingly, the future as well. Most of Winn's Gangland takes place in post-Vietnam War California, where the Women's Defense League patrols the streets with M-16s, the Fast-food Marxists are everywhere, and the lotzl's (young female medical students) give the men backrubs and, flaunting their sexuality, live chaste lives while eating only health food. As it conducted (rather imperfectly) the Vietnam War, so does the master computer ANIMA still control the present as it sends personal LED messages to Dunkle, the protagonist, on any available video screen. No one except Dunkle appreciates what the Vietnam experience, referred to again and again as “the greatest adventure of our generation,” really means. In the Vietnam scenes, ANIMA is linked with the Weary Weasel box in the company compound, and because of this black box, the men are able to take pictures and “interpret” the meaning of the war's development. Unfortunately, power outages and faulty data predominate, so no one really knows anything, not even how Dunkle's friend has died. Two of the significant characters are Madame Verrukteswerke, who is in Vietnam writing a “series on the children of the Americans left in the military” (104), and the Green Man, “who looks like a disease-wasted gas station mechanic.” Everyone knows, however, that he is really a colonel (99). By the end of the novel, Dunkle has admitted that “things are hopeless” and that any change will “probably be for the worse, so the best thing to do is mind your own business as best you can” (221).

Finally, it seems entirely appropriate that the ultimate Catch-22 novel about the Vietnam War is actually, despite many reviewers' attributions, not about the Vietnam War at all—but it has to be, even if it isn't. Bridge Fall Down, author Rinaldi tells us carefully in phrases scattered throughout the novel, is not set in Africa, but it does take place somewhere near the equator in a tropical, Asiatic country where the “monkeys from the North” are trying, with the help of all Communist countries, to conquer the “monkeys from the South,” assisted by the Americans. One character mentions that some time ago, “the French were here” (92), and the mad general who leads the patrol is about fifty and had served during the Korean War when he was twenty-seven years old. Nowhere is Vietnam ever mentioned—but the subject is really the Vietnam War made timeless, much like Joe Haldeman's use of Vietnam as paradigm in his futuristic novel The Forever War, published in 1974.

In Bridge Fall Down, a patrol that includes two women, one of whom is the group's sharpshooter, is on a mission to blow up a vital enemy bridge (one immediately thinks of Thanh Hoa). Their meals are delivered by air, cooked by the pilot-chef Sugarman who apologizes for not bringing caviar to supplement his gourmet offerings of steak, swordfish, or scallopini. Under continual but sporadic attack from friend and foe, the patrol is being constantly filmed by Meyerbeer, who many suspect is actually running the war from his rainbow-painted helicopter. More randomly than in Incident at Muc Wa, these American soldiers kill even the friendly “monkeys” indiscriminately, and every time they pass a village, the brutal Sugg rapes someone. Central to their mission is the “black box,” a small computer carried by a man known only as Merlin, who uses it to communicate with headquarters, to navigate, to forecast the weather, to spot the enemy (but like the Weary Weasel box of Gangland this one doesn't always work), and to carry on a running chess game with a Russian master. When Merlin is killed, no one else knows how to use the box—so the patrol is forced to complete its mission on its own. During a journey that often resembles a mad Odyssey set in Wonderland, the patrol passes a symbolic tree covered with hanging skeletons, meets the Queen of Skulls, escapes from the Falling Down disease, is tracked by a UFO, and has a battle at the Resort on the Lake, where vacationers from all parts of the world have come to swim, sunbathe, water ski, and relax. One might say that Bridge Fall Down, like The Forever War, concerns what might have happened if the U.S. had remained in Vietnam—but unlike Haldeman's book, Rinaldi's novel contains all the ingredients of both Catch-22 and the Vietnam War and also presents characters (like Heller's) who really matter.

Other Vietnam novels also contain references to and echoes of Catch-22, but these nine seem to me to be the most obvious in their derivation. The first five differ most, though, in their realistic bases. Often, such as in Baber's The Land of a Million Elephants or in Maitland's The Only War We've Got, one can recognize the real people being satirized. In Elephants, for instance, Colonel Kelly is based on Colonel “Bull” Simons who commanded the clandestine “White Star” teams in Laos, whose mission was to train the Lao against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. Also, much of the apparent madness such as Russians and Americans both training the same people or Kong Le's vacillating politics and actions actually did happen. Maitland's General Windy is based on General “Westy” Westmoreland, and Windy's deputy and successor, General Cretan, is a parody of General Creighton Abrams, who succeeded Westmoreland as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Also, there actually were two U.S. ambassadors in Saigon, and Maitland's portrait of Ambassador Risher satirizes Special Ambassador Komer who initiated and directed the controversial CORDS project for revolutionary development. Likewise in Parthian Shot, the base camp in the delta is entirely realistic, and many of the unit's activities ring true. The camp at Muc Wa, too, derives from actual plans for such outposts, and the relationships between the American advisers and their Montagnard raiders are poignantly accurate. Even in The Bamboo Bed, as many Vietnam veterans will attest, much of the apparent madness is real, especially the ground combat scenes.

What one sees, I think, in the best Vietnam novels is precisely what Beidler identifies as “Catch-22 come giddily real.” Consider this interchange in Incident at Muc Wa. Two officers are discussing the impending attack against the recently built outpost. Says Major Barber, “Charlie's thrown a whole battalion against Muc Wa—would he be doing that if it wasn't important to him?” Captain Olivetti replies, “Well, sir, maybe he's thinking the same thing. Maybe he's throwing men in there because he thinks it's important to us” (146). As in an earlier novel, Jonathan Rubin's The Barking Deer (1974), one side is reacting to what it sees the other side doing—the effect becomes the cause—and the real reason for the action does not exist. Catch-22, verily.

There are many other examples of Catch-22 dilemmas in the fiction, usually expressed in equally authentic Catch-22 dialogue. In The Land of a Million Elephants, as they watch the entire population of the capital of Chanda (Laos) flee to the countryside, the king, U.S. Colonel Kelly, and the Russian Nadolsky reflect on their respective predicaments. Says the king, “How can I be king without my people?” Complains Colonel Kelly, “How can we advise an army we haven't got?” Reflects Nadolsky, “How can the confrontation of the Twentieth Century be brought to conclusion in dialectical terms, if we have no people to sway?” (208). The answers are identical, of course, but each will continue trying to succeed, even if he knows he can't.

Beidler notes one of the most obvious examples of Catch-22 dialogue in The Bamboo Bed. Two characters talk:

“Why are you shooting at them?”

“Because they are shooting at us.”

“Who is shooting at whom?”

“Everyone is shooting at each other.”



(Beidler 54)

My favorite passage in the same novel is this interchange which, like so many of Heller's, sets up a comic perspective, develops it, and then abruptly presents a horrible resolution. Two soldiers discuss the news:

“I heard on the radio transmitter this morning that Clancy's outfit got wiped out,” Oliver said.

“You mean all killed? Not Clancy too?”

“We reckon.”

“Did you report this to Captain Knightbridge?”


“That's supposed to be our job.”

“I didn't want him to feel bad,” Oliver said.

“Our job is to report what we hear on the transmitter.”

“I didn't want to make the captain feel bad,” Oliver said.

“How is Search and Rescue going to rescue people if you don't report who needs to be rescued?”

“They don't need to be rescued.”

“Explain. Explain.”

“They're all dead,” Oliver said.

(Eastlake 41)

Likewise in Brandywine's War, the following discussion involves Lt. Soverign, the chaplain who has been mistakenly sent to Vietnam as a pilot:

“I'm not a pilot,” Soverign told the check-out pilot that afternoon as they started their ascent.

“He's not a pilot,” the check-out pilot told Major Casey after he had barely managed to recover the aircraft from a near-crash landing.

“He's not a pilot,” Major Casey told General Deegle after he had talked to the check-out pilot.

General Deegle had the Department of the Army TWX'd. They pulled Soverign's data card … and inserted it into their UNIVAC.

“He's a pilot,” DA told General Deegle.

“You will fly,” Major Casey told Lieutenant Soverign.

I'll get killed!” Soverign protested.

“A lot of pilots are getting killed,” Major Casey said. …

“I'm afraid to fly.”

“A lot of pilots are afraid to fly.”


Hardly afraid, but just as derivative, is North Vietnamese Colonel Khanh in Maitland's The Only War We've Got. Having been smuggled into Saigon in a coffin, Khanh is told by his local cadre commander, “We read in the newspaper that your regiment had been wiped out in the Central Highlands.” Khanh replies:

“My dear sir … If we took the time to add up all the Communists the Americans claimed to have killed so far in this war, South Vietnam would be a nation of ghosts.”

“Colonel,” said Tran, “I would like to introduce you to Nguyen Hue, who is directing the funerals. Nguyen Hue's various, er enterprises in Saigon have served us well.” Nguyen Hue stepped forward and bowed low.

“It is an honor to …”

“Shoot him,” Colonel Khanh snapped.


“Shoot him. He knows too much. We cannot risk jeopardizing our mission.”

“But we cannot shoot him,” Tran protested. “Not yet. …”

“Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” Khanh breathed. “O.K. We'll shoot him in the morning.”


In the same novel, General Windy is upset when two American platoons are wiped out by the enemy while only four NVA are reported killed. He is relieved, however, when he is told:

“It's like this, sir. The official body count was only four, the intelligence officer said that unofficially it could be as high as four hundred and seventy-five—you know, blood trails, fire ratio, allowances for wounded and all that.”

The General's color rushed back into his cheeks, and he sighed with relief. “Phew. That's better. Then it's not really a defeat, is it?”

“I guess not, sir.”

“And if it's not really a defeat, it must be victory.”

“I guess you're right, sir.”


Such conflicting realities are seen often in the Catch-22-influenced fiction. Perhaps the most ironic occurs in Parthian Shot, where an American general meets a North Vietnamese general at the invitation of Hoa Hoa Unlimited, Ltd. Both generals are interested in investing in the enterprise, and both have been told that the other is a defector to his cause. They talk about the “enemy,” and NVA General Phat asks, “Between us, Arlington [a rather funereal name], how soon do you think we can defeat them?” The American replies, “To be honest, Phat, I don't know. We can win, but the enemy is tough. And persistent. They're a lot tougher than we figured.” Thinking that Arlington the “defector” is on his side, General Phat replies, “You're right there. Our original timetable to win this war was five years. We never thought they would commit as many men and supplies as they have” (270). The bottom line, however, turns out to be profit when the Communist and capitalist generals both buy stock in Hoa Hoa Unlimited, Ltd., because of the same, convincingly apolitical sales pitch: “All of this … was built and paid for by the people themselves. And the people get the profits” (268). Everybody, as Milo Minderbinder would say, gets a share.

Similarly, in Bridge Fall Down, Meyerbeer is officially filming the attempt to blow up the bridge for the Corps and has established interlocking corporations in Hollywood, West Berlin, and Tokyo to produce and distribute his movie. He sells stock to everyone but plans to liquidate the companies at the war's end and force his stockholders into bankruptcy. His sales pitch: “When you get back to the states, you can retire and live off the dividends” (45).

Likewise in Brandywine's War, Sergeant Coty, who has requisitioned thousands of yards of Astroturf for one of his ventures, trades his Vietnamese real-estate holdings for a half share of the “unsoldier's” marijuana business, and together they form the Greater East Asian Company Prosperity Sphere conglomerate, which rents a Saigon villa to the local VC commander. And like the business ventures of Parthian Shot, one unit in this novel also makes VC flags for extra money.

At least one outfit has problems that even Milo Minderbinder might not be able to solve. In The Bamboo Bed, the SAR unit has been issued two bridges for one river, so it sells one to the VC, who have none. Because of political considerations, the VC want to sell their bridge back to the Americans so that they can have a bridge to blow up, because they've blown up all the other ones around.

As did the real war, the fiction of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam presents startling individual echoes of Catch-22. In addition to the dialogue, the emphasis on “business,” and the obvious character echoes, one should consider the following parallels. On the war in general: “The problem with this war is that it is out of human control” (Eastlake 251). On the bombing of one's own troops, like Milo's attack on his own base: in Incident at Muc Wa, Corporal Conney leads his Montagnard raiders on a fake attack against Muc Wa in order to impress the visiting U.S. General Hardnetz, but they find themselves a part of a real NVA attack on the base, thus disrupting the statistics of the Saigon-based “Incident-Flow-Priority-Indicator.” In Bridge Fall Down, even General Trask cannot call off a programmed B-52 strike (which Meyerbeer films) against his own troops. The only casualty—reminding one of Elpenor, the lost sailor in the Odyssey—is a man named Polymer, from Plastic, Idaho.

As for promotion problems similar to those of Major Major, that of the tenor lieutenant in Parthian Shot has already been noted. In addition, Captain Carmondy in Brandywine's War will never make major because General Deegle likes “the alliteration of the phrase. … Captain Carmondy was doomed to remain a captain forever, trapped by the poetry of his name” (49).

Echoing the old Italian's view in Catch-22 of eventual victory by losing is the village chief in Bridge Fall Down, who claims that his people are “friendly with anybody who's willing to be friends. They're even friendly with their enemies [the northern ‘monkeys’]. They have no guns and know they'd lose any war they got involved in, so for them … war is a bad idea” (93).

Even the inquisition of Catch-22's chaplain is echoed in the trial of Brandywine's War's B. Dowling Mudd (one suspects dual derivation here), and what Heller presents as one naked man at war becomes a full-scale battle in Parthian Shot when a VC unit strips in order better to be able to identify its enemy, but then the South Vietnamese unit does likewise. Brandywine's War, too, has an important PFC, but unlike Ex-PFC Wintergreen, PFC Hill operates in the foreground and, claiming to be the son of the secretary of defense, controls General Deegle and as result the whole Vietnam War.

What permeates all of these Vietnam novels is the Catch-22 concept of craziness, mentioned earlier as Yossarian's belief that “everyone is crazy but us.” To Simon in Bridge Fall Down, the war becomes a “madness, a wild, blistering insanity that he didn't understand, and wanted desperately to get away from” (104). In The Bamboo Bed, Captain Knightbridge thinks “he must be going crazy.” Except for the Asians in his helicopter unit (all of whom are actually VC agents), he believes that “all the rest are after me. Picture a naked man being chased by seventy-eight million Asians” (147). Yossarian, at least, could take refuge in a tree. Most derivative, however, is the craziness of Weintraub, the former war protester in the same novel, who says that he feels “fine” after dropping napalm:

“That is why I want to check and see if I'm going crazy,” Weintraub said.

“You're not going crazy, Weintraub,” Appelfinger said.


“Yes. I know enough about evolution to know that man adapts.”

“You mean that if he adapts to insanity he's not going crazy?”

“Yes,” Appelfinger said.

“But he's crazy if he doesn't become crazy? If everyone else is crazy?”


“Why is that?”

“Because we have to set a norm,” Appelfinger said.

“Even if that norm is crazy, it's called a mean. …”

“It's an interesting theory. That I am not crazy.”

“It's not a theory, it's a fact. … I promise you it's a fact.”

“Why did everybody laugh when I said the Bamboo Bed was our conscience?”

“Because,” Appelfinger said, “those guys in the Bamboo Bed are crazy. They are against both sides and they are for both sides. In any book, that's crazy.”

“Yes, I guess it is,” Weintraub said.


Says Philip Beidler, writing about Ward Just's “real” vision of the Vietnam War as expressed in To What End, “Joseph Heller could have written it, but he could not have written it better, because it was already true” (62). Well, Heller did foresee the major contradictions of the Vietnam War, but he built better than perhaps he knew, and he also presented a protagonist, Yossarian, with a final choice that is denied his fictional legatees. In the majority of the novels not mentioned in this essay, many of the characters do embark on a quest similar to Yossarian's—and for much the same reason—“to survive” (Heller 30). In Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato, for instance, Private Paul Berlin has but one goal: “to live long enough to establish goals worth living still longer for” (27); and in many of the Vietnam War novels that do not use Catch-22 as a point of departure, the major characters engage in the same quest for survival as does Yossarian.

Not so in the novels discussed above. If any of the characters survive, they do so by chance, and their main objectives are to exist within the madness, not escape it. Even if they do survive the war, they will encounter a similar environment at home. For them, no Swedish sanctuary exists. Although Yossarian's initial goal is only to get to Rome, he like his alter ego Chief Bromden in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, still is able to get out. Not so fortunate are their fictional heirs.

One need only to compare the endings of the novels discussed in this essay to see how different their authors' visions are from Heller's vision. In The Bamboo Bed, for instance, everyone dies in a surrealistic assimilation of the helicopter with nature: “When the Bamboo Bed came out on the other side there was nothing left … forever lost, disappeared, eaten by tigers, enveloped in the gentle, tomblike Asian night” (350). In Parthian Shot, the entire village, including the Americans who have stayed to run Hoa Hoa Unlimited, Ltd., which has so improved the local conditions, is obliterated by a misdirected American bombing strike. Brandywine's War, as noted earlier, merely stops, its truncated ending showing that nothing will change. In the final scene of Incident at Muc Wa, all die, including the American adviser who might have escaped but chooses to return to see if any of his indigenous friends are still alive. In The Land of a Million Elephants, the American solution, a nuclear airstrike, is thwarted only by the local “phi,” the spirits of the land and the country, and instead of destruction, the bombs create only flowers and little mushrooms. The people of Ears of the Jungle destroy themselves, and the protagonist of Gangland, one of the few survivors in these apocalyptic novels, wants only to be let alone in a crazy world that is bound to get even worse.

Another main character survives, too, but at tremendous cost. Jonathan Wilkinson of The Only War We've Got leaves Vietnam for his native England (note that he is not an American), but the horror of the war has come home:

Where was the rabid Socialist who'd stomped up and down the country, wild-eyed and frothing forth dissent, disgust, revulsion at what the Americans were doing? Where was the brave soul who'd stood by the strength of his own convictions at the point of Capt. Beau Hinkle's pistol? Wilkinson could summon up many reasons for leaving—disgust, revulsion, extreme cynicism, escapism, were some of them. But his real nemesis was fear, Wilkinson was scared; and he was scared because on the night of Chua Ben, war had suddenly become real—as real as the crimson tracers that poured into the rice paddy; as real as the horrible death dance of the trapped Viet Cong; the artillery blasts and boiling napalm that all but leveled the little hamlet of Chua Ben. All that had gone before now meant nothing. War meant death and destruction, and no amount of brave moral argument could change that. Words went in one ear and out the other, but bullets killed and shrapnel maimed and napalm left hideous burns. And there was no room for talk.


The two “lovers,” Tess and Simon, of Bridge Fall Down also survive the massacre of their patrol after first blowing up the bridge, then discovering that their entire mission has been a diversionary action for another attack on a munitions factory. It is Meyerbeer the filmmaker who rescues them, and in an ending similar to but more hopeless than that of Gangland, Simon realizes that the madness will continue: he understands at last that Meyerbeer “wasn't just filming the war, recording it, but inventing it, creating it, or at least co-creating it with the ones who had the detonators and knew how to blow things up” (275). A few moments later, Meyerbeer speaks:

I'll give it to you straight. It's film, folks. Film and videotape are remaking the world. Haven't you simpletons noticed? Image. Appearance. What you see. It's here to stay, so you might as well get used to it. … It makes and remakes, twists and turns, shapes and reshapes. It's the divine energy—pulse and power. It gives life and takes it away. Film is God.


Ex-PFC Wintergreen has indeed left a legacy to Meyerbeer, but the latter's control is much more inclusive. Accordingly, close inspection of the Vietnam War fiction that evolved from Catch-22 does indeed show a darkening vision and growing despair over the progress of the modern world. Primarily, I think, the authors despair in our ability to perceive what we are doing to ourselves, especially with our dependence upon technology and media. Like Heller, these novelists point toward a future that is indeed Catch-22 come real. In almost everything that has happened in the past twenty-five years, Heller was really quite prophetic, even to his remarkable insight (developed in greater depth by Rinaldi) into why Americans in particular elevate people to higher office. One has only to look at 1980s' politics from Carmel, California, to the highest office in Washington, D.C., and remember that Major Major is promoted in Catch-22 only because he either looks like or actually is—movie star Henry Fonda. Nurtured by, derived from, and dependent upon the greatness of Catch-22, the subsequent fiction about the Vietnam War shows that there is no longer an equivalent to Yossarian and Orr's World War II Sweden, no place left for Americans to escape even from themselves.

Works Cited

Baber, Asa. The Land of a Million Elephants. New York: Morrow, 1970.

Beidler, Philip. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Boule, Pierre. Ears of the Jungle. New York: Vanguard, 1972.

Durden, Charles. No Bugles, No Drums. New York: Viking, 1976.

Eastlake, William. The Bamboo Bed. New York: Simon, 1969.

Ford, Daniel. Incident at Muc Wa. 1967. New York: Pyramid, 1968.

Haldeman, Joe. The Forever War. New York: Ballantine, 1974.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. 1961. New York: Dell, 1974.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Just, Ward. To What End. Boston: Houghton, 1968.

LaValle, Major A. J. C., ed. The Tale of Two Bridges. Vol. 1, USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976.

Little, Lloyd. Parthian Shot. New York: Viking, 1975.

Maitland, Derek. The Only War We've Got. New York: Morrow, 1970.

O'Brien, Tim. Going after Cacciato. New York: Delacorte, 1978.

Pratt, John Clark. The Laotian Fragments. 1974. New York: Avon, 1985.

———. Vietnam Voices. New York: Viking, 1984.

Rinaldi, Nicholas. Bridge Fall Down. New York: Marek-St. Martins, 1985.

Rubin, Jonathan. The Barking Deer. New York: Braziller, 1974.

Vaughn, Robert, and Monroe Lynch. Brandywine's War. New York: Bartholomew House, 1971.

Winn, David. Gangland. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Principal Works

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Catch-22 (novel) 1961

We Bombed in New Haven (drama) 1967

Catch-22 (drama) 1971

Clevinger's Trial (drama) 1973

Something Happened (novel) 1974

Good as Gold (novel) 1979

God Knows (novel) 1984

No Laughing Matter (autobiography) 1986

Picture This (novel) 1988

Closing Time: A Novel (novel) 1994

Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (autobiography) 1998

Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man (novel) 2000

David M. Craig (essay date fall-winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Craig, David M. “From Avignon to Catch-22.War, Literature, and the Arts 6, no. 2 (fall-winter 1994): 27-54.

[In the following essay, Craig discusses the influence of Heller's World War II experience as a pilot over Avignon on the writing of Catch-22.]

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

—Dylan Thomas

Joseph Heller's experiences as a bombardier over Avignon during World War II were catalytic to his career as a writer. In the experiences over Avignon, Catch-22 begins. These experiences did not spark Heller's desire to be an author, for that had burned unabated since childhood.1 Nor did the reaction the Avignon experiences occasioned occur quickly, regularly, or consciously. Rather, Avignon provided in highly compressed from Heller's essential subject—human mortality—and Avignon engaged his imagination in a way that this subject could eventually be given expression. No Catch-22 reader is likely to forget the result, the Snowden death scene over Avignon or the secret of Snowden's entrails: “Man was matter … Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot like other kinds of garbage” (429-430). While the evidence for the importance of Avignon is unmistakable, many pieces of the story are unknown or missing today. Heller's public accounts of these experiences come long after he has begun to feature Avignon in his writing, and, predictably, these accounts partake of the persona of Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22.2 The accounts are couched in jokes that distance the experience from the man.

Heller's early writing furnishes some of the links between his real-life experience and Catch-22, and these early fictional versions of Avignon illuminate the novel (and, for that matter, Heller's subsequent writing) as if by ultraviolet light, defamiliarizing the familiar. Avignon serves as the setting for two unpublished stories, “The Miracle of Danrossane” and “Crippled Phoenix,” Heller's only short stories about the war.3 Avignon also figures prominently in the planning material for Catch-22, most notably in an early draft of the Snowden death scene.4 In this material, not in the published stories that preceded Catch-22, one first discovers Heller's masterplot, the core narrative that propels each of his novels. This masterplot—what I call the “dead child story”—consists of the same constellation of narrative elements: guilt, secret knowledge, bad faith, and the death of children (or, alternatively, of wounded innocents). The thrust and destination of this narrative is death, a death that serves, as does Snowden's in Catch-22, as the occasion for narrative clarification.5 The narrative's import is as humanly simple and as humanly complex as mortality itself: humans are matter. With this masterplot, Heller seeks to do what Tolstoy does in The Death of Ivan Ilych, to have character and reader alike experience the immanence and imminence of death. Like Ivan Ilych, we are apt to be resisting readers, able to acknowledge, as Ivan does, the rightness of the syllogistic reasoning that says “Caius (or Snowden) is a man; men are mortal”; but not wanting, as Ivan and Yossarian do not want, to apply this abstraction to ourselves. Heller's early writing about Avignon, then, allows exploration of the process by which he draws upon and gains control over personal experience and documents its “increasingly conscious transformation into writing” (Said 196).6

Each of the accounts of Avignon—“The Miracle of Danrossane,” “Crippled Phoenix,” the early manuscript, the published one, and, as I discuss elsewhere, “Catch-22 Revisited”—has an aspect of meta-narration entailing a struggle of how to locate and voice the story. In “The Miracle of Danrossane,” the Avignon story—that is, the dead child story—is a secret known only by the local residents, and Heller's plot unfolds his American protagonist's efforts to find someone who will disclose the secret. In “Crippled Phoenix,” the story resides within the principal characters themselves, in the guilty pasts of Dan Cramer, an American pilot, and Morain, a member of the French underground. The plots of both stories depend upon working out what can and cannot be told as well as what can and cannot be confronted. In an early manuscript version of the Snowden death scene, Yossarian endeavors to have the chaplain understand his own reactions to what happened over Avignon, not the event itself. Finally, in Catch-22, Yossarian endeavors to unlock the significance of Snowden's dying words and, in so doing, to plumb the meaning of death. As in the previous versions, Yossarian's understanding hinges upon telling the story of what happened, albeit to himself. In each story of Avignon, Heller makes the telling of the story as important as the having told, as if the repeated tellings will help the author himself understand what happened.

During the war, Heller flew two missions to Avignon. Before the Avignon missions, he had, by his own account, romanticized war: “I wanted action, not security. I wanted a sky full of dogfights, daredevils and billowing parachutes. I was twenty-one years old. I was dumb” (“Revisited” 51). Avignon shatters his romantic wishes, for as he remarks in “Catch-22 Revisited”: “There was the war, in Avignon, not in Rome or Ile Rousse or Poggibonsi or even Ferrara” (141).7 On the August 8, 1944 mission to bomb a railroad bridge, Heller for the first time saw a plane shot down.8 As a bombardier on one of the lead planes, which had been assigned to drop metallic paper to disrupt the radar for the anti-aircraft guns, Heller could look back on what was happening to the rest of the squadron. He saw a burning plane fall into an uncontrollable spin. Parachutes billowed and opened: he would later learn that three men had gotten out, while three others were killed in the crash. One of the three survivors was found by members of the Avignon underground, hidden and eventually smuggled back across enemy lines. This mission provides the basis for the “Crippled Phoenix” and, presumably, the inspiration for the survivor's guilt that its protagonist Dan Cramer experiences.

On August 15, 1944, Heller's squadron returned to Avignon to bomb another railroad bridge over the Rhone, and this mission would provide the model for the Snowden death scene. For both Heller and Yossarian, it was their 37th mission. In notes Heller made in 1966 about the mission, he records: “Man wounded in leg. Wohlstein and Moon killed” (“Chronology 2/13/66,” Heller papers, Brandeis University). According to Heller, the details from the novel correspond

… perhaps ninety percent to what I did experience. I did have a co-pilot go berserk and grab the controls. The earphones did pull out. I did think I was dying for what seemed like thirty minutes but was actually three-hundredths of a second. When I did plug my earphones in, there was a guy sobbing on the intercom, “Help the bombardier, but the gunner was only shot in the leg.”

(Heller, “Translating” 357)

In recounting the experience, Heller confines the correspondences between the actual and the novelistic Avignon missions to “physical details” and denies any similarity between Yossarian's emotional reactions and his own.9

Heller's own explanations as well as his fictional use of Avignon indicate that more than physical details are at play. Whether factual or fictional, each account that Heller gives of Avignon contains an Ur-plot that turns upon an intense experience of personal mortality. In answering interviewers' questions about his own experience, Heller repeatedly dwells on his sensation that he had died in the air above Avignon. He remembers pressing the talk button of his head set, hearing nothing, and thinking he was already dead. Heller stresses his sense of distorted time, of events that unfolded in microseconds seeming to last much longer.10 His change of habits after this Avignon mission also testifies to the mission's effects; from then on, Heller carried a personal first-aid kit and vowed never to fly once his combat missions were over (a vow kept until 1960 when a 24-hour train ride convinced him to reassess the dangers of flying). The comic “Catch-22 Revisited” retelling provides a perspective on Heller's reactions in that he makes himself, not the wounded airman, the victim. “I went to the hospital the next day. He looked fine. They had given him blood, and he was going to be all right. But I was in terrible shape, and I had twenty-three more missions to fly” (“Revisited” 142). Of course, the wound becomes mortal in Catch-22, or as Heller laconically describes the wound's change: “He was shot through the leg … But I added to it and had him shot in the middle” (Barnard 298).

“The Miracle of Danrossane” and “Crippled Phoenix” mark the artistic steps by which the wound gets relocated. Together with the early draft of the Snowden death scene and Catch-22 itself, the stories offer a complex range of reactions to death: denial, confusion, immersion, and understanding. While all of these reactions figure in each work, one predominates in each, as if designating stages in Heller's thinking, from denial in “The Miracle of Danrossane” to understanding in Catch-22. As this progression indicates, the stories and manuscript draft of the death scene provided the vehicle by which Heller worked out his master plot, and determined that death could serve as thrust and destination for his narratives. In the stories, the journey toward this death is spatial and temporal, a visit to Avignon in “Danrossane” and a return to it in “Crippled Phoenix.” In Catch-22 and the novels that follow, the journey becomes psychological and emotional, one culminating in a death that surfaces, like Snowden's does, as if from the protagonist's subconscious.

“The Miracle of Danrossane,” the slighter of the two unpublished war stories, recounts a correspondent's visit to the village outside Avignon where his father was born. This story's plot turns upon a father's denying his sons' deaths. The correspondent is intrigued by the name of the inn in which he stays, L'Auberge des Sept Fils [Inn of the Seven Sons]. While Durland, the innkeeper, will not talk about the name, the mayor tells the correspondent Durland's story. This telling provides the principal plot of Heller's story. Even though Durland had been a Nazi collaborator during the war, his seven sons had been killed by the Nazis as a reprisal for the death of two German soldiers. Durland himself bears responsibility for his sons' deaths because he neglected to protect them. The story is irony-laden: the Nazis' random selection of reprisal victims results in the deaths of Durland's sons (hence the darkly ironic title); although the Nazis think their selection random, one of Durland's sons has, in fact, been involved in killing the Nazi soldiers as revenge for the rape of a village girl by the soldiers; one of the actual killers goes free even though he volunteers to turn himself over to the Nazis and despite the mayor's informing on him. Durland himself never comes to terms with his sons' deaths; in fact, he tells the correspondent that his sons are out working in the fields.

In this earliest Avignon story, Heller announces the concerns that will characterize his subsequent accounts, as well as provide the principal concerns of his novels: guilt, secret knowledge, bad faith, and, most crucially, the death of children. “The Miracle of Danrossane”'s underlying structure has the primitive, evocative force of a folk tale. A young man, who is looking symbolically for his father (and thus for his own origins), finds a surrogate whose act of paternal bad faith has caused his own sons' deaths. Refusing to acknowledge their deaths or his own complicity in them, this father lives “respectably” in a house memorializing the dead sons. When the correspondent discovers the father's secret, he returns home and, as artist, transforms the secret into story. Thus conceived, the story the reader has just read originates in guilty, concealed knowledge—a conception that aligns it with such myths as those of Prometheus and the Garden of Eden, myths which Heller explicitly draws upon in Catch-22. The architecture of “Danrossane,” particularly the crucial element of the sons' deaths, is striking for the way that it anticipates the design of Heller's novels. Later characterizing this design, Heller says:

Death is always present as a climactic event that never happens to the protagonist but affects him profoundly. I think I'm drawing unconsciously from experience for inspiration. The child, the dependent child or sacrificed child is always there. I would think that the death of my father when I was about five years old had much to do with that. There was almost no conversation about it … Indeed, the traumatized child denies death very successfully, and then sublimates it, which I think is the process that went on in me. But it leaves me very sensitive to the helplessness of children and the ease with which they can be destroyed or betrayed deliberately or otherwise.11

(Flippo 60)

Whether one accepts Heller's psychological explanation for the phenomenon or not, one cannot escape the way in which death serves as climactic event and as catalyst for narrative clarification in his writing and does so from the onset of his career.

“Crippled Phoenix” marks another step on Heller's journey toward Catch-22. Guilt-caused confusion characterizes the story's account of death, and, like the novel, this story features a protagonist who has been wounded in the leg. As its title signifies, the life after the Avignon death is crippling; there is no phoenix-like resurrection. Evidently, Heller spent considerable time on the story, for there are three versions of it in the Brandeis collection and he tried placing it with different literary agents. Possessing clear affinities with Catch-22, as well as with Something Happened, “Crippled Phoenix” tells a double story of conscience: that of Dan Cramer, an American pilot who feels guilty for surviving the crash in which he was the only survivor, and of Morain, a French peasant who aided with Cramer's escape after the crash. Cramer has returned to Avignon to see Morain, to whom he feels grateful and about whom he feels guilty because Morain's son had been killed when a bombardier with one mission left to fly dropped his bombs too early. Cramer has an additional reason for guilt in that he has been unfaithful to his wife during a recent stay in London, and, even in bed with his wife in Avignon, he finds his mind wandering back to Luciana, a wartime liaison in Rome.12

More crucial to the action of the story, Cramer fails to come to terms with all this guilt. First, although Cramer goes to see Morain with the intention “of help[ing] him in some way,” he cannot provide the support that Morain wants, for Morain suffers from his own wartime guilt. To Cramer, Morain confesses that he was afraid his daughter would be taken away to a Nazi work camp and so he forced her to become the mistress of a German official (which ruins her life and that of her child born of the relationship). Although Morain explicitly asks him to return to visit, Cramer, even after agreeing to, cannot bring himself to do so. Second, he fails to come to terms with his wife, although he shares some of the details with her about the wartime plane crash, which he alone survived. Convinced that his wife is too superficial to understand his feelings, especially about the war, he allows her to believe that their marital difficulties have been reconciled, all the while despising her.

Significantly, Cramer, who stands in Yossarian's position as participant in events of the past, cannot fully disclose his story to anyone; he thus remains isolated and tormented. In a symbolically resonant moment, Heller communicates the moral wilderness that Cramer has brought himself into because he is unable to confront his guilt; he also conveys the way in which Cramer has deliberately estranged himself from his wife.

Suddenly, though, [Cramer] was frightened. The forest was immediately before them (his guide, his wife, and himself), and he realized that Katherine belonged only to the fringe of his emotions, on that their endless surface of amiability and routine, and that everything might still be all right if he kept her there. But they were already between the trees.

This passage forecasts the role that Avignon will play in Catch-22 (as well as anticipates Slocum's marriage in Something Happened). The passage locates the wilderness within the self, that wilderness which, as Conrad demonstrates in Heart of Darkness, is the territory of the modern condition. While the same elements—dead children, secret knowledge, guilt, and bad faith—constitute the story, Heller relocates them. In “Danrossane,” Durland's history was part of public discourse, unknown only to the correspondent, the outsider. In “Crippled Phoenix,” Cramer's and Morain's pasts are secret—in particular, the responsibility that each feels for a death. Each discloses his guilty past in the vain hope of confessional relief. However, both disclosures fail because the two men look to others to assuage their own inner guilt: Morain to Cramer when the injured party is his daughter and Cramer to his wife when he cannot accept his own actions. The guilty knowledge of what happened at Avignon isolates and estranges, at least until what happened there can be fully confronted and related. As the early manuscript version of the Snowden death scene powerfully suggests, this is what Catch-22 is about.

An early draft of the Snowden scene documents Heller's evolving conception of Avignon and dramatizes the imperative for reporting what happened there. Snowden represents the death at a distance—Yossarian recounts the experience to the chaplain. Yet, this early version is raw and, in some ways, more emotionally charged than the novel. While the Snowden scene plays off the bloody hands scene in Macbeth, the literary allusion seems like a patina over what Heller will call in God Knows the “stink of mortality and reek of mankind” (107). In Heller's early rendering, Yossarian not only sees death, but also immerses himself in it.

“Dirty hands,” Yossarian said. “Yesterday they touched a dead man's flesh.”

The chaplain attempts to comfort him, but Yossarian continues:

“A dead man's private parts. I spoke to Doc Daneeker. Probably his lungs, his pancreas, his liver, his stomach, and some canned tomatoes that he had for breakfast. I hate canned tomatoes …”

The chaplain tries again.

“But you don't understand. I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed touching the graying flesh, the clotting blood. I actually enjoyed touching his lungs, his pancreas, his liver, his stomach and some canned tomatoes from his breakfast, even though I hate canned tomatoes. I made excuses to myself to touch every shriveling shred.”

The chaplain tries one final time to console Yossarian.

“But even that's not the worst of it. I rubbed blood all over myself. And do you know why I rubbed blood all over myself? To impress people. To impress those God damned Red Cross biddies with the smiles and doughnuts … and by God, it impressed, even Doc Daneeker, who broke down and gave me some codeine and told me about Cathcart and a tour of duty.”

(Heller papers, Brandeis University)

There are many noteworthy differences between this early version and the published one. Snowden's mortal wound is open, displaying what Heller will call in the novel “God's plenty” (429). Yossarian is compelled to touch the viscera, then compelled to relate to the chaplain his enjoyment of doing so. He has previously told Doc Daneeker about his experience. In Catch-22, Yossarian tells no one, although his recollections have the quality of telling the story to himself. Time works differently as well. In the manuscript, the experience, only a day old, has the immediacy of the here and now, while in the novel version, it emerges as if from Yossarian's subconsciousness. In Catch-22, the intensity of Yossarian's remembrance erupts into the present: “liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach, and bits of … stewed tomatoes” (429). The same message is embedded in both—man is matter—but in the manuscript, Yossarian, and perhaps Heller, has not yet apprehended its significance.

The unpublished early version is, at once, more public and more private than the Avignon of the Catch-22. The appropriation of the dirty hands motif from Macbeth dissociates this version from Heller himself, connecting it to a literary past rather than a personal one.13 Also by having Yossarian report the story, Heller publicizes Avignon in a way that third-person narration would not. This recounting of Avignon proclaims Yossarian's guilty consciousness, whereas the novel displaces it into the tree-of-life episode, in which Yossarian's nakedness reveals his guilt (likewise triggered by Snowden's blood).14 Simultaneously, this early version is more private, more evocative of the Heller who experienced Avignon and of the author who repeatedly sets key scenes there. The confessional quality of the incident, with Yossarian trying to make the chaplain understand what he has done, directs attention to the personal reaction to the experience. Finally, Yossarian's revelation that, on one level, he enjoyed the experience points to the complexity of Heller's own experience over Avignon. This early version illustrates the attraction of the horrifying—an attraction that Heller seems compelled to specify.

Significantly, before the idea for Catch-22 came to him, Heller had virtually given up writing. Of the time between the short stories that he wrote in the forties and the novel which he began in 1953, Heller later said, “I wanted to write something that was very good and I had nothing good to write. So I wrote nothing” (Sam Merrill 68). Out of the silence—a silence that he partially filled with reading—came a new method of writing, anti-realist and comic in orientation. Reading

the comic novels of Evelyn Waugh and Celine's Journey to the End of the Night … Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, and … Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark particularly, I was comprehending for the first time that there were different ways to tell a story, and the methods these people used were much more compatible with my own technical ability … with my own imagination.

(Ruas 151)

The realization that there are many ways to tell a story is what Heller's evolving use of the Avignon experiences documents.15 The discovery was long in coming, though, for he did not publish Catch-22 until 1961, sixteen years after the publication of his first story. By this time, he was 38, the same age as two other late-blooming, first-time novelists, George Eliot and Willa Cather.

Heller's key discovery involves discourse, not story, the how of narrative rather than the what.16 His Avignon short stories (as did most of his other short stories) had linear plots that unfolded on a single narrative level. In each, characters journeyed to Avignon (or nearby Danrossane) to learn something from the past. Heller's narrative method was straightforward, the plots proceeding until access was gained to characters who disclose crucial, secret knowledge from the past. In Catch-22, Heller makes discourse—the narrative act itself—part of the story as well as its means of transmission. The Avignon mission on which Snowden dies illustrates this. As is well-known, Heller's narrator distributes references to the mission throughout the novel; sometimes cryptically as in the first reference: “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” (35); sometimes explicitly as in: “the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane” (170). In effect, the narrator dissects the Avignon plot as if performing a narrative autopsy on Snowden. This dissection creates a much richer narrative progression than that of the Avignon stories, one that depends upon discourse (the vertical narrative axis) as well as upon story (the horizontal axis).17 Three effects follow from this: first, the meaning of Snowden's secret depends upon the interplay among narrative levels and involves the contrast of tragic and comic perspectives; second, Heller uses the synthetic dimension of narrative to complicate the narrative progression so that the authorial reader must participate in the unraveling of Snowden's secret; and third, Heller can make the text the verbal embodiment of Snowden's secret, that is, mortality exists in the conjunction of mind and matter.18

Heller's first reference to Avignon typifies the way he takes advantage of the interplay among the narrative levels. Yossarian's question about the Snowdens of yesteryear has complementary roles in the novel's story and discourse, in each case providing the pathway to who Snowden is and what his secret entails. For Yossarian, the question speaks to both an actual and a linguistic quest; he wants to know “why so many people were trying so hard to kill him” (34). To gain the knowledge he seeks, Yossarian, like the protagonists of the Avignon stories, must unlock a secret from the past, a secret of which Snowden is the embodiment (potentially, this knowledge is already available to him because he has already ministered to the dying Snowden). But the question is also about language as well as about history, as becomes clear when Yossarian translates it into French: “Ou sont les Neigedens d'antan?” [Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?] (35). Heller underscores the seriousness of this linguistic dimension with the narrator's comment about Yossarian's willingness “to pursue [the corporal of whom he asked his question] through all the words of the world” (35). The narrator, of course, knows the answer to Yossarian's question, but instead of relating it, explains to the narrative audience why the question is so upsetting.19 In doing so, the narrator also makes this query part of another narrative, that of the Fall. “Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they were free to ask whatever questions they wanted to”—a concern for which Colonel Korn devises the ingenious solution of permitting only those people to ask questions who never asked any (35). At this moment, the story is simultaneously proceeding on different narrative planes, its comedy, in part, stemming from the resulting incongruity. Heller's discourse takes Yossarian's question to a higher level where Group Headquarters' response echoes the fears of the God from Genesis, who worries that Adam and Eve, possessing the knowledge of good and evil, may now be tempted to eat from the tree of life. The mythic echoes refigure Yossarian's Avignon experience as a fall into mortality and mortal knowledge, a point that Heller makes more forcefully in the subsequent tree-of-life scene.

The reference to “the secret Snowden had spilled to Yossarian” exemplifies the synthetic narrative progression of Catch-22, the progression implied by the novel's language. The episode advances the plot: for Yossarian, being in the hospital is better than flying over Avignon with Snowden dying (164). As the narrator formulates the matter, it is not just because the hospital is safer, protecting Yossarian from war, but also because people “couldn't dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave” (164). Death has become a character and its plot is the Lisa Doolittle story: “They had taught her manners. They couldn't keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady” (164). With this conception, Yossarian and the narrator seek to control death. Of course, their plotting undoes them. In Heller's mordant, novel-long joke, death is no lady, although this metaphor does, for Heller, speak to its nature.20 As with the many euphemisms for death, this reference makes dying seem familiar, comfortable, and acceptable.

As novelist, Heller knows better, representing death as violent, certain, and inevitable; and yet, he rages against its sway. In Catch-22, unlike his Avignon stories, he finds a form to express his outrage, the humor of the novel's discourse being its expression. His handling of “the secret Snowden had spilled to Yossarian” reference can illustrate this: his mixing comic and tragic perspectives; his verbal pyrotechnics, his delight in language as language; and his presentation of crucial narrative information (i.e. what exactly the secret entails) in a way that resists understanding. The passage itself iconically embodies Snowden's secret, the coded message encased by and hidden among the myriad external and internal threats to one's life.

There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There was Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, for example, and they were all out to kill him. There was Lieutenant Scheisskopf with his fanaticism for parades and there was the bloated colonel with his fat mustache and his fanaticism for retribution, and they wanted to kill him. There was Appleby, Havermeyer, Black, and Korn … There were bartenders, bricklayers and bus conductors all over the world who wanted him dead, landlords and tenants, traitors and patriots, lynchers, leeches and lackeys, and they were all out to bump him off. That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon

There were lymph glands that might do him in. There were kidneys, nerve sheaths and corpuscles. There were tumors of the brain. There was Hodgkin's disease, leukemia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There were fertile red meadows of epithelial tissue to catch and coddle a cancer cell. There were diseases of the skin, diseases of the bone, diseases of the lung, diseases of the stomach, diseases of the heart, blood and arteries …


Heller is in high comic form here. Repetition, alliteration and pseudo-classification schemes, among other things, control the sequencing of details, and the details themselves multiply, even as I truncate them with ellipses, as if the details were cancer cells. The nonsense of this—“the many diseases … [of] a truly diseased mind”—has, of course, a deadly seriousness, although neither Yossarian, nor the narrative or authorial audiences can entirely understand this yet (171). It is easier to proclaim human mortality than to understand it, easier to catalog external and internal threats to one's life than to comprehend them. This is what Catch-22 is about; this is what readers along with Yossarian must be educated to. As the “The Miracle of Danrossane,” “Crippled Phoenix,” and the early version of the Snowden death scene demonstrate, here is also the journey that Heller himself has made from Avignon to Catch-22.

The second Avignon mission serves further to educate Yossarian and the authorial audience, and Heller's handling of it illumines the way in which he has transmuted experience into art. The mission is largely non-narrated, because Yossarian does not fly on it, having been previously wounded in the leg over Leghorn. Nevertheless, the mission provides an essential gateway to apprehending Snowden's secret and to Sweden, where Yossarian can indeed “live forever or die in the attempt” (29). In his notes to the novel, Heller describes how Yossarian's squadron comes to return to Avignon, and this description highlights another interpretation of Snowden's death, that of the army bureaucracy. “In the Chaplain's presence, Colonel Cathcart volunteers the Group for another mission to Avignon: he is instituting the procedure of having form letters sent to the families of casualties, and he wants to obtain a large number of casualties quickly enough to be written up in the Christmas issue of the Saturday Evening Post” (Heller papers, Brandeis University). In fact, however, no one is killed on the mission, although Orr, Yossarian's bunkmate and guide to Sweden is shot down. Orr seizes the opportunity to test all the equipment and supplies on his life raft in preparation for his journey to Sweden. After the mission, Yossarian leaves the hospital only to learn that the number of mandatory flying missions has been raised once more. At this news, he agrees to enlist in Dobbs' plot to assassinate Colonel Cathcart. If Yossarian would instead listen to Orr, who wants Yossarian to fly with him, Yossarian would have taken the direct route to Sweden, for Orr is shot down on his next mission, only to resurface in Sweden at novel's end. However, Yossarian would have not learned what he needs to, nor would Heller's readers.

In narrative terms, this Avignon mission operates according to the principle of substitution. The premises of the Snowden scene are reversed, with Yossarian himself playing the part of injured airman. For example, when Yossarian is wounded in the leg, he immediately overestimates the seriousness of the wound, immediately believing it to be life-denying, albeit sexually so. “I have lost my balls! Aarfy, I lost my balls! … I said I lost my balls! Can't you hear me? I'm wounded in the groin!” (283-284). In Heller's notes to the novel, the wound was, in fact, intended as a castration, a conception that lends further evidence to the importance Avignon holds to Heller (Nagel, “The Catch-22 Note Cards” 52-53). During the mission itself, Yossarian safely resides in the hospital recuperating, a proleptic version of the stay during which he finally cracks Snowden's secret. The danger of the mission also constitutes a substitution, the ambitious colonels who need casualties causing the real peril, rather than the Germans. This Avignon episode underscores what Yossarian has yet to learn: the significance of the threat posed by living in society, confirmed when Yossarian subsequently agrees to be the colonels' pal and to say nice things about them. At novel's end, thinking about this deal, he allows himself to remember Snowden and for first time meditates on his own experience over Avignon. Examining the entrails, albeit in memory, Yossarian confronts what he has previously refused to acknowledge.

With the design of the Snowden death scene, Heller expects the authorial audience to return to Avignon with Yossarian, demanding that they too inspect Snowden's exposed vital organs and understand the message those organs contain. The narrative approach is erratic, recapitulating the comi-tragic rhythms of the novel as a whole.21 Yossarian is in the hospital recovering from the side wound that the knife-wielding Nately's whore inflicts on him. Predictably, the danger that the wound occasions results from the doctors who want to treat him by operating on his liver, not from treating the wound itself.22 Heller's method is comic, but his point is serious:

“Where were you born?” [asks a fat, gruff colonel with a mustache.]

“On a battlefield,” [Yossarian] answers.

“No, no. In what state were you born?”

“In a state of innocence.”


The meaning and humor of this exchange depend upon the interplay between discourse and story. The incongruity of meanings that results alerts the authorial audience to what Yossarian must still learn. He does not yet realize the deal that he has just accepted from Colonels Cathcart and Korn to “[s]ay nice things about [them]” (416) is “a way to lose [him]self” (456). To discover this and to learn Snowden's secret, Yossarian must first unravel the message of the strange man who keeps repeating, “we've got your pal, buddy. We've got your pal” (422). At this point in the novel, Colonel Korn, the chaplain, and Aarfy all fit the message, for each could be the pal: Korn because he knows what the deal demands, Aarfy because he has been the navigator on so many of Yossarian's “missions,” and the chaplain because he has indeed been Yossarian's friend. Instinctively, Yossarian realizes that each of the obvious possibilities is wrong, and in “the sleepless bedridden nights that take an eternity to dissolve into dawn” (426), he resolves the riddle. In the perverse logic of riddles, Snowden “had never been his pal” but was “a vaguely familiar kid who was badly wounded and freezing to death” (426). If Snowden was only vaguely familiar in life, he will become, through the power of recollection, intimately known in death. In death, he is Yossarian's pal and catalyst for his essential discovery of self.23

The death scene is so frequently analyzed that it needs little further examination here. I want, however, briefly to consider a passage from earlier in the novel which sets up this inspection. Its progression is reminiscent of Heller's own artistic journey toward Avignon: slow, hesitant, made in uncertain steps. The passage speaks to the problem at the heart of Catch-22, that of locating the wound and telling its story.

And Yossarian crawled slowly out of the nose and up on the top of the bomb bay and wriggled back into the rear section of the plane—passing the first-aid kit on the way that he had to return for—to treat Snowden for the wrong wound, the yawning, raw, melon-shaped hole as big as a football in the outside of his thigh, the unsevered, blood-soaked muscle fibers inside pulsating weirdly like blind things with lives of their own, the oval naked wound that was almost a foot long and made Yossarian moan in shock and sympathy the instant he spied it and nearly made him vomit. And the small, slight tail gunner was lying on the floor beside Snowden in a dead faint, his face as white as a handkerchief, so that Yossarian sprang forward with revulsion to help him first.


Yossarian crawls back through the plane, as if moving back in time as well as in space. He mislocates the wound and even then cannot immediately bring himself to treat it, choosing instead to aid the tail gunner. The essential story, human mortality, is reified in Snowden's flesh. In his revulsion, Yossarian can better deal with the gunner's “dead faint” than with Snowden's living wound. The simile, “like blind things with lives of their own,” renders mortality as a mysterious otherness, not just Snowden's but also, implicitly, Yossarian's own.

Eventually, Yossarian traces the wound with his fingers, just as he did in the manuscript version, and when he does, he unwittingly begins to explore his own mortality as well as Snowden's deadly wound. Yossarian finds “[t]he actual contact with the dead flesh … not nearly as repulsive as he had anticipated, and excuse to caress the wound with his fingers again and again to convince himself of his own courage” (428). The reworking of these details from the manuscript confirms their importance, but significantly shifts the emphasis and meaning of the scene. In the manuscript, Yossarian caresses the viscera, in the novel the fleshy leg wound. In the manuscript, Yossarian attempts to “impress” others with actions as if this will authenticate his courage, while in the novel he wants to ascertain his own courage. But, in both cases, he initially touches without understanding. In fact, after fingering and then treating Snowden's leg wound, Yossarian can assure him confidently, “You're going to be all right, kid … Everything is under control” (429). Of course, it isn't. What Yossarian needs to understand lies open before him, signified by the blood “dripping … like snow melting on the eaves, but viscous and red, already thickening as it dropped” (emphasis added, 427). For Heller, the mystery of mortality lies in human embodiment—in the flesh, not in the spirit. Life begins and ends with the body. With his hands inside Snowden's wound, Yossarian experiences this, feels what he does not yet understand. However, his physical grasp anticipates and makes possible apprehension of the message of Snowden's entrails.

In Yossarian's famous insight, Heller defines mortality as a fusion of mind and matter, Yossarian's conceptualization of man enduring even as Snowden's body dissolves into bloody inert matter. Reflecting upon Snowden's death, Yossarian comes to understand his own mortality. As Denis de Rougement observes, “Suffering and understanding are deeply connected; death and self-awareness are in league” (51). Heller insists that Yossarian trace the contours of Snowden's and thus his own mortality: “liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach, and bits of stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch” (429). The prose is hard and violent, as hard and violent as Snowden's wounds; its violence partakes of the violence of Heller's experience of treating a wounded colleague. The viscera of humans tether them to the material world. The viscera also take in the material world, digesting it like Snowden's stewed tomatoes. When the digestive process is viewed as Snowden's is, it becomes ugly and repulsive. But Heller believes these entrails also allow the viewer, as prophets have long believed, to detect the secrets of human existence: “Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all” (429-430).24 Finally, Yossarian deciphers the message that has been available to him all along. The message identifies the two components of humanity: the material that inexorably leads to death, and the spiritual that Heller leaves deliberately ambiguous. In formulating the spiritual element, Heller omits the verb, so that the statement reads “the spirit gone.” This formulation neither affirms nor denies the existence of spirit; it simply announces the concept. Without predication, the concept cannot be completed or brought to fulfillment. As deconstructionists would argue, the verb's absence only can be noted.

Heller's insistence that his authorial audience inspect Snowden's viscera also accomplishes quite a different end, what Bakhtin calls the “familiarization of the world through laughter” (23). “In this plane (the plane of laughter) one can disrespectfully walk around whole objects; therefore, the back and rear portions of an object (and also its innards, not normally accessible for viewing) assume special prominence” (23). Death, of course, is the object that Heller wants to inspect. By means of such elements as “the Snowdens of yesteryear,” the Death that behaves, and the litany of threats to Yossarian's life, Heller has taken his authorial audience on this kind of narrative walk in his peripatetic approach to Avignon. In the catalog of Snowden's vital organs, Yossarian, the narrator, and Heller act out the imperatives for Bakhtin's comic formula. Having already familiarized the reader with the elements of this catalog, especially the liver and the tomatoes, the beginning and ending of the catalog, Heller allows the reality of mortality to be known, familiarized in a laughter that ridicules. Death, as well as life, is stripped in Heller's catalog, his comic dismemberment destroying the power that death had when it was unknown.

In retracing some of Heller's steps to the Snowden death scene, one is reminded of the blacking factory sections of David Copperfield and how they have helped to explain so much of Charles Dickens's life and art. Like Dickens, Heller uses his art to digest personal shocks, to explain them to himself, and to give an intelligible picture of the world in which such things occur.25 So too like Dickens, Heller is a great humorist, and the acuity of his social vision frequently has been missed, as was Dickens's, in the laughter his fiction occasions. This laughter offers an escape from social institutions whose grip on the individual seems as intractable as that of Catch-22 on Yossarian. While providing the pathway and accommodation for Snowden's secret, this laughter is begotten by pain. Heller's early representations of Avignon instance this; there is no humor in “The Miracle of Danrossane” or “Crippled Phoenix.” For Heller, the painful recognition of Snowden's secret generates anger, anger usually expressed by black humor and unleashed by the genius of his novelistic discourse. He rages against the dying of the light.26


  1. Since childhood, Heller wrote stories and submitted them for publication, sending them to places like the New York Daily News, Liberty, and Collier's. He also dreamed of becoming a dramatist and in high school aspired to writing comedies like those of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufmann.

  2. Heller's interviews continually address the issue of correspondence between his life and fiction, with Heller giving a variety of answers, sometimes contradictorily so. For a representative selection of interviews treating his war experience, see: Heller, “Translating,” Gentlemen's Quarterly, Sam Merrill, Weatherby, Barnard, and Flippo.

  3. “The Miracle of Danrossane,” “Crippled Phoenix,” and all other unpublished material to which I refer are part of a collection of Heller's papers that Brandeis University Library holds. In addition to these stories, Heller also worked on a novel about the war as early as 1945, which involved a flier nearing the end of his required quota of bombing missions and thinking about the meaning of the war.

  4. James Nagel has done the seminal work on the manuscript and other working papers for Catch-22, but much more study remains to be done. Nagel isolates interesting and important changes between Heller's early plans and published novel, arguing that this material documents the author's “meticulous planning and analysis of his novel at each state of composition” (“Note Cards” 404); see Nagel.

  5. While the Snowden death scene in Catch-22 provides the most memorable formulation of such a death, variants on this story reappear at the end of the rest of Heller's work. In the novels, the crucial death always occurs in the penultimate chapter, with the exception of Good as Gold in which the funeral occurs in the penultimate chapter. In We Bombed in New Haven, Captain Starkey must tell and retell each newly named version of his son that he will die on the next bombing mission. In the ending of Something Happened, Slocum finally calls back to memory the details of the accident in which he killed his son, the spurting blood and twisted arms and legs. But he resists the knowledge available in this recollection, concluding it instead with the plea, “Don't tell my wife” (562). In a reversal of the pattern, Good as Gold closes with Bruce Gold standing at his mother's grave hoping for a message that does not come. The death of another “child,” his brother Sid, has brought him to the cemetery. God Knows concludes with King David yearning for a God who will understand and make understandable the grief he feels for his dead sons: “I feel nearer to God when I am deepest in anguish” (338). In Picture This, Heller revises one of history's most famous death scenes, that of Socrates, so that he dies with the retching and convulsions caused by ingesting hemlock. Finally, in Closing Time, Heller uses Kilroy's death to mourn the passing of the World War II generation, to parody the dead child story, and to cast a retrospective light upon Catch-22 in general and Snowden's death in particular.

  6. Said makes a larger point about the relationship between certain writers' careers and the texts produced by them that can usefully be applied to Heller and, by extension, to his authorial returns to Avignon: “the text is a multidimensional structure extending from the beginning to the end of the writer's career. A text is the source and aim of a man's desire to be an author, it is the form of his attempts, it contains the elements of his coherence, and in a whole range of complex and differing ways it incarnates the pressures upon the writer of his psychology, his time, his society. The unity between career and text, then, is a unity between an intelligible pattern of events and for the most part their increasingly conscious transformation into writing” (196).

  7. Each of these sites has personal significance to Heller: Rome, which Heller visited shortly after it was liberated, afforded him his most memorable wartime leave (see Note 12); Il Rousse was an army rest camp on Corsica near where he was based; Poggibonsi was the destination for his first bombing mission, a mission on which he got bored and dropped his bombs too late; and Ferrara was the first mission on which Heller's squadron lost a plane.

  8. There is a discrepancy in Heller's dating of this first Avignon mission; he lists it as August 8 in the “Chronology 2/13/66” and as August 3 in “Catch-22 Revisited.” In the “Chronology,” Heller describes the mission as follows: “Rail Road bridge. Hirsch shot down, Burrhus, Yellon killed. First plane I saw shot down” (Heller papers, Brandeis University).

  9. Notably, Robert Merrill, among others, agrees with Heller: “the fact that Catch-22 appeared sixteen years after the end of World War II suggests that its author was not primarily interested in recapturing the intensity of his own experiences” (4).

  10. See, for example, Sam Merrill 68 and Barnard 298.

  11. In recounting a letter that his editor received from Bruno Bettelheim, Heller extends the implication of this narrative pattern, admitting in the case of Something Happened that the protagonist may be complicit in the child's death: “Now it could be that in terms of drawing on recesses of my mind, with which I'm not in touch, what Bruno Bettelheim said was there [i.e., the validity of a death in which a father deliberately kills his son]. I was not aware that I was aware of it“(Ruas 164).

  12. Luciana apparently is an early version of the Luciana of Catch-22. As Cramer remembers her: “Luciana was best. Tall, young, and graceful, she was a novice at love, and he remembered her smile as she came to him, her ingenuous astonishment at the sudden force of her passion, and the fumbling manner.” This early appearance of Luciana is also interesting for the light that it sheds on Heller's artistic recycling of personal experience. As he tells interviewer Sam Merrill, “[Yossarian's] encounter with Luciana, the Roman whore, corresponds exactly with an experience I had. He sleeps with her, she refuses money and suggests that he keep her address on a slip of paper … That's exactly what happened to me in Rome. Luciana was Yossarian's vision of a perfect relationship. That's why he saw her only once, and perhaps that's why I saw her only once. If he examined perfection too closely, imperfections would show up” (64). As Catch-22 reveals though, the Luciana plot is more closely tied to Heller's core authorial concerns than his remarks about his own personal experience would indicate. In the novel, Luciana's “perfection” is already impaired, for she has been wounded in an air raid and wears a pink chemise to hide her scar even while making love with Yossarian. Yossarian, however, is fascinated by it, runs his hands over it, and insists that she relate its story. Later after he has torn up the slip of paper with her address on it, Yossarian's search for her leads him into symbolic encounters with death: death in his nightmares about the Bologna mission and proleptic death he looks for her in Snowden's room.

  13. While the allusion to Macbeth dissociates the experience from Heller's own, it also represents a connection, for Heller studied Shakespeare at Oxford while on a Fulbright Fellowship between writing his Avignon stories and planning Catch-22. This study may well provide another pathway between Heller's personal experience and the novel. The planning material to Catch-22 reveals the extensive role literary allusions played in Heller's conception of the novel, especially Shakespearean allusions. For studies of these allusions in Catch-22, see Larson, and Aubrey and McCarron.

  14. The importance of these elements—death, blood, guilt, and touch—is confirmed by the way that Heller reworks them in Something Happened. In its climactic episode, Slocum responds to the “streams of blood spurting from holes in his [son's] face and head and pouring down over one hand from inside a sleeve” by clutching him to his chest and in the process accidentally suffocating him (562). Unlike Yossarian, Slocum resists recounting the event, instead refiguring it, as Heller's chapter title tells us, into how “My boy has stopped talking to me.”

  15. David Seed shows how war novels like James Jones's From Here to Eternity and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead also contributed to Heller's evolving conception of Catch-22; see 23-33.

  16. Extending structuralist thought, Seymour Chatman uses the distinction, story and discourse, to differentiate between narrative content and the means by which this content is transmitted.

  17. Patrick O'Neill insightfully demonstrates the way in which humor in modern and postmodern texts depends upon privileging discourse over story. In particular, he is interested in what he calls entropic comedy, comedy that is aware of the fictionality of all discourse and “of the element of play” that is involved in the production of any meaning (23). O'Neill's discussion of Catch-22 as an example of entropic satire is also valuable, although I disagree with his conclusion that the novel's discourse undercuts the implications of its story.

  18. I borrow the notion of a synthetic element of narrative from James Phelan, although I am modifying his definition. Phelan explores the relationship between character and narrative progression, and he conceives of three aspects of character, which in turn contribute to narrative progression: thematic (as conveyer of narrative and authorial meaning), mimetic (as designation for a “person,” albeit a textual one), and synthetic (as linguistic construct). I use the concept of synthetic component of narrative progression, without attaching it to character.

  19. Peter Rabinowitz distinguishes between narrative and authorial audiences. The authorial audience is the ideal reader posited by an author, the reader who completely attends to authorial intentionality. By contrast, the narrative audience is the reader implied by the text itself, by its narrative and rhetorical structure; this reader participates in the illusion that the text is real, that it constitutes a world.

  20. There are several ways in which Heller's imagination links death and women. In the short stories, women frequently occasion symbolic, if not literal deaths. For example, in the unpublished “The Death of the Dying Swan,” when Sidney Cooper returns home, he gives up his quest for life and, in effect, accepts death: “He longed for people who were real, people who lived with honest passions and found vigorous pleasure in the mere event of existing, people for whom death came too soon” (Heller papers, Brandeis University). Something Happened and Good as Gold work variations on this pattern. But Heller also associates women with insensate death, that in which senility (the death of the mind) precedes physical demise. The most noteworthy example of this occurs when Slocum believes his mother's senility and death foretell his own: “I can see myself all mapped out inanimately in stages around that dining room table, from mute beginning (Derek) to mute, fatal, bovine end (Mother), passive and submissive as a cow, and even beyond through my missing father (Dad)” (401). Finally, Heller connects passion with death, as when he uses Yossarian's love-making with Nurse Duckett on the beach to set up the scene in which McWatt's plane hits Kid Sampson, thereby turning the ocean red with blood and severed limbs. Similarly, Yossarian's passion for Luciana leads to death, albeit via memory and dreams.

  21. Heller's comic strategies depend upon continually negating or reversing expectations. Typically, Heller's scenes suddenly darken in mood, as he reveals that what the reader has just been laughing at begets violence, death, or the morally outrageous; or similarly, dark scenes beget comic ones, dramatically changing the character of the text. Thus, the comic and the tragic function both as figure and ground in much the way they do in an Escher drawing. They constitute a pattern in which the relationship between figure and ground constantly reverses itself, so that first one element then another assumes the foreground.

  22. The threat to operate on Yossarian's liver extends a novel-long joke and set of allusions to the Prometheus myth. As in this instance, the effect is usually double-edged, occasioning laughter and signifying mortality. The motif culminates, of course, in the Snowden death scene when Yossarian inspects the wounded airman's liver along with the other viscera. Heller uses tomatoes to a similar end, especially all the jokes about the chaplain's hot plum tomato. The stewed tomatoes that spill out of Snowden's stomach take part of their meaning from the tomato jokes that preceded them.

  23. Heller reprises this conception in his conclusions to God Knows and Closing Time. In God Knows, the image of David's youthful self provides the catalyst for self-discovery. Lying on his deathbed, David serves as his own Snowden. In Closing Time, Yossarian and Sammy Singer, a narrator and Heller figure, talk about how Snowden, scarcely an acquaintance in life, becomes the closest of friends in death and the source for what they want to talk about for the rest of their lives.

  24. This inspection accomplishes another kind of education as well, one that undercuts the typical military education and that reproduces the experience of combat veterans. As an aside, it bears attention that Heller satirically treats military education throughout Catch-22; for example, in such episodes as Lieutenant Scheisskopf's parades and the many briefing sessions. As described by John Keegan in his classic study The Face of Battle, the aim of such an education “is to reduce war to a set of rules and a system of procedures—and thereby to make orderly and rational what is essentially chaotic and instinctive. It is an aim analogous to that … pursued by medical schools in their fostering among their students a detached attitude to pain and distress in their patients, particularly victims of accidents” (20). Yossarian has long recognized the insanity of war, but he has not, even while treating the wounded Snowden, taken the next step of recognizing his complicity in this insanity. Nor has he yet comprehended the effects of a “military” education. As his subsequent actions demonstrate, his studied recollection of Snowden's death occasions these recognitions. The death scene also serves as a brilliant representation of the sensations of the combat veteran. Again to draw upon John Keegan, in battle the combatants experience a “sense of littleness, almost of nothingness, of their abandonment in a physical wilderness, dominated by vast impersonal forces, from which even the passage of time had been eliminated. The dimensions of the battlefield (in this instance the inside of combat aircraft) … reduced [the combatant's] subjective role, objectively vital though it was, to that of a mere victim” (322). Keegan's account closely parallels Yossarian's sensations in the Snowden scene and defines what Yossarian—and by extension the reader—must be reeducated to reject.

  25. Edmund Wilson provides the classic formulation of the effects of childhood trauma on Dickens's subsequent career in “Dickens: The Two Scrooges.” In part, I have adapted Wilson's argument to discuss the effects Avignon have on Heller's fiction and to draw my characterization of Dickens's comic art.

  26. I have greatly benefited from the suggestions of Linda Van Buskirk, Randall Craig, Donald Purcell, John Serio, and Peter Freitag.

Works Cited

Aubrey, James R., and William E. McCarron. “More Shakespearean Echoes in Catch-22.American Notes & Queries. 3 (January 1990): 25-27.

Bakhtin, M. M. “Epic and Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Carl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas, 1981.

Barnard, Ken. “Interview with Joseph Heller.” A Catch-22 Casebook, eds. Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald. New York: Crowell, 1973. 294-301.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.

Craig, David M. “Joseph Heller's Catch-22 Revisited.” War, Literature, and the Arts. 1.2 (1989-90): 33-43.

Flippo, Chet. “Checking in with Joseph Heller.” Rolling Stone. 16 April 1981: 50 +.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

———. “Catch-22 and After.” Gentleman's Quarterly. March 1963, 95 +.

———. “Catch-22 Revisited.” Holiday April 1967: 44 +.

———. “On Translating Catch-22 into a Movie.” A Catch-22 Casebook, eds. Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald. New York: Crowell, 1973.

———. Something Happened. New York: Knopf, 1974.

———. Good as Gold. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

———. God Knows. New York: Knopf, 1984.

———. Picture This. New York: Putnam, 1988.

———. Closing Time. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Viking, 1976.

Larson, Michael. “Shakespearean Echoes in Catch-22.American Notes & Queries. 17 (1979): 76-78.

Merrill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Merrill, Sam. “Playboy Interview: Joseph Heller.” June 1975: 59 +.

Nagel, James. “The Catch-22 Note Cards.” Studies in the Novel. 8 (1976): 394-405.

———. “Two Brief Manuscript Sketches.” Modern Fiction Studies. 20 (1974): 221-224.

O'Neill, Patrick. The Comedy of Entropy: Humour/Narrative/Reading. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.

Phelan, James. Reading People, Reading Plots. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Rabinowitz, Peter. “Truth in Fiction: A Reexamination of Audiences.” Critical Inquiry. 4 (1977): 121-141.

Rougement, Denis de. Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion. New York: Pantheon, 1956.

Ruas, Charles. “Joseph Heller.” Conversation with American Writers. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Said, Edward. Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Basic Books, 1975.

Seed, David. The Fiction of Joseph Heller. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories. New York: Signet, 1960.

Weatherby, W. J. “The Joy Catcher.” Guardian. 20 November 1962: 7.

Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow. New York: Oxford UP, 1947.

Further Reading

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Keegan, Brenda M. Joseph Heller: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978, 152 p.


Craig, David M. Tilting at Morality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller’s Fiction. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997, 330 p.

Green, Daniel. “A World Worth Laughing at: Catch-22 and the Humor of Black Humor.” Studies in the Novel 27 (summer 1995): 186–96.

Hitchens, Christopher. Review of by Joseph Heller. Nation 270, no. 1 (3 January 2000): 6-8.

Kiley, Frederick T., and Walter McDonald. A Catch-22 Casebook. New York: Crowell, 1973, 403 p.

Selection of representative criticism including early reviews and analyses of form, structure, theme, and the relationship of Catch-22 to Absurdist literature.

Moore, Michael. “Pathological Communication Patterns in Heller’s Catch-22.Etc. 52 (winter 1995–1996): 431-39.

Nagel, James. Critical Essays on Catch-22. Encino, Calif.: Dickenson Pub. Co., 1974, 179 p.

———. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, 253 p.

Anthology of criticism including essays by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Clive Barnes, and John W. Aldridge.

Pinsker, Sanford. Understanding Joseph Heller. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991, 191 p.

Podhoretz, Norman. “Looking back at Catch-22.Commentary 109, no. 2 (February 2000): 32-7.

Sorkin, Adam. Conversations with Joseph Heller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993, 301 p.

Woodson, Jon. A Study of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. New York: P. Lang, 2001, 165 p.

Additional information on Heller’s life and career is published in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors,Vol. 5-8R, 187; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 42, 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 8, 11, 36, 63; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 28, 227; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980, 1999; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Popular Fiction; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 131; and World Literature Criticism.

Daniel M. Murtaugh (review date 24 February 1995)

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SOURCE: Murtaugh, Daniel M. Review of Closing Time, by Joseph Heller. Commonweal 122, no. 4 (24 February 1995): 57-58.

[In the following review, Murtaugh finds Closing Time to be ultimately disappointing in its “central organizing idea.”]

In Joseph Heller's two best novels, Catch-22 and Something Happened, the narrative circles obsessively around a repressed memory that it is the stories' business finally to confront. We feel the tremors of its eventual eruption in each book even as the narrator frantically distracts us with slapstick improvisation. In his newest novel, Closing Time, Heller brings back the (anti-) hero of Catch 22, John Yossarian, and once again something horrific is building beneath his life and those of his generation and their century as they all draw to a close.

But this time it is not a brute fact lodged in memory, the something that draws its power simply from having happened. It is instead something that is going to happen—we're going to die—and it draws its power from—well—how we feel about that. The problem is that we may not all feel the same way about our approaching death, as we cannot fail to do about Howie Snowden bleeding to death on the floor of the bomber in Catch 22. We cannot really imagine our death. On the other hand, try as we might, we cannot help imagining Snowden. It comes down to a question of authority, the authority of an author's claim on our imagination. There is less of it in Closing Time.

It reaches for such authority by reading into the passing of the World War II generation a paranoid apocalypse in the manner of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Yossarian's life goes into and out of a kind of virtual reality involving a Dantesque underworld entered through the false back of a basement tool locker in the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal. Beneath this underworld runs an underground railroad meant to provide indefinite protection for the elite of the military/industrial/political complex chosen by triage to survive the coming nuclear holocaust. As catalyst for that holocaust we are given a mentally challenged president known to us only by his affectionate nickname, the Little Prick, who is enthralled by the video games that fill a room just off the Oval Office, especially the game called Triage which enables him eventually to trip the wire on the conclusive Big Bang.

Heller's underworld has some fetching attributes. It is managed by George C. Tilyou, the Coney Island entrepreneur who ran the Steeplechase amusement park before World War I. Tilyou died before any of the novel's protagonists was born, but the remembered stories about him and his slowly sinking house with the family name on the front step qualify him as a jolly major domo of hell, a man whose love for his fellows sincerely expressed itself in fleecing them. Now, below the sub-sub-basement of the bus terminal, he rejoices in having taken it with him, for his house and eventually his whole amusement park sank down around him. Rockefeller and Morgan come by and panhandle miserably for his wealth, having learned too late that their more conventional philanthropy could not sanctify their plunder or secure their grasp on it.

Other aspects of Heller's grand scheme are less successful. Two characters from Catch 22, Milo Minderbinder and ex-Pfc. Wintergreen, are strawmen representatives of the military-industrial complex, peddling a nonexistent clone of the Stealth bomber to a succession of big-brass boobies with names like Colonel Pickering and Major Bowes. Much of this is the sort of thing that killed vaudeville and is now killing Saturday Night Live.

Against these gathering forces of death, Yossarian asserts his allegiance to life in a way that is by now a reflex of the Norman Mailer generation: he has an affair with and impregnates a younger woman, a nurse whom he meets in a hospitalization of doubtful purpose at the opening of the novel. Thank heavens, I thought as I read, that I belong to the only sex capable of such late and surprising assertions. But, as the euphoria ebbed, I had to admit that Yossarian's amatory exertions were more than faintly repulsive.

So the novel is disappointing where it hurts the most, in its central organizing idea. Why, after all, does Yossarian's generation get to take the whole world down with it? Well, it doesn't, really, and yet the veterans of World War II do have a special claim on us as they pass from our sight. This claim is more convincingly urged by the long first-person narratives of two characters who, we learn, moved invisibly on the periphery of events in Catch-22.

Lew Rabinowitz and Sammy Singer are non-neurotics whose stories reveal their limitations and, at the same time, allow us to see around and beyond them. This is harder to do with normal people, and Heller brings it off beautifully. Rabinowitz is an aggressive giant, the son of a Coney Island junk dealer, an instinctively successful businessman who lacked the patience for the college education offered him by the G.I. Bill, and who never comprehended as we do his own delicacy of feeling. Singer, a writer of promotional and ad copy for Times, is, by his own account, a bit of a pedant given to correcting Rabinowitz's grammar. Heller sometimes allows Singer's prose style to stiffen in a way that is entirely in character and that gives an unexpected dignity and pathos to passages like those that describe his wife's last illness.

Rabinowitz and Singer basically get more respect from their author than Yossarian and the characters who figure in his story. The two new characters tell us stories embued with an unforced humor and with the sort of gravity that attends good people as they come to terms with their mortality. And this goes for their wives as well, for both men make good and entirely credible marriages that last a lifetime. Yossarian should have been so lucky.

Joseph Heller and Charlie Reilly (interview date 24 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Heller, Joseph, and Charlie Reilly. “An Interview with Joseph Heller.” Contemporary Literature 39, no. 4 (winter 1998): 507-22.

[In the following interview, which took place on October 24, 1996, Heller discusses his themes, influences, and techniques for writing his novels.]

Despite the fact that he has also composed two memoirs (No Laughing Matter [1986] and Now and Then [1998]) and a drama (We Bombed in New Haven [1967]), Joseph Heller's reputation rests, in general, upon his six novels, and in particular upon the first of those six, Catch-22 (1961). Although Catch-22 remains his most celebrated work, each of Heller's novels was written and has been received as a work of literary fiction, and each has been praised in that special context. His rich humor, high satire, and relentless experimentation have earned him professorships (at Oxford, Yale, and Penn, to name a few), honors, and literally millions of readers during his four and one-half decades of writing.

Though laced with humor, Heller's novels are fiercely critical of his times. As is often the case with satire, again and again his works involve a startling confrontation with the reader. The world of Heller's fiction is an eerily insane one—perhaps an eerily sane one—filled with preposterous characters mired in outrageous circumstances. But long before each novel's end, the reader recognizes the connections between Heller's apparent absurdity and the target of his satire. Though speaking about Catch-22, Heller described his overall modus operandi when he said to me, “My objective is not merely to tell the reader a story but to make him a participant—to have him experience the book rather than read it” (Delaware Literary Review Spring 1975).

With more than ten million copies sold, Catch-22 remains one of modern literature's most admired novels. Drawing upon his World War II experiences as a bombardier, Heller plunges the reader into a world in which generals cheerfully send men to be slaughtered, officers lie and steal, whores become heroines, and, as Falstaff puts it in a similar context, “Honor is a mere scutcheon.” Time has been turned upside down in the world of Catch-22. Characters killed off in early passages pop up noisily in later chapters; dead men live on in empty tents; living men are “disappeared.” Some characters get rich selling chocolate-covered cotton; others vault hundreds of miles in apparent seconds. When all is said and done, Heller composed a brilliant attack not only upon the horror and lunacy of a just-completed war but upon the hypocrisy and savagery of the ongoing McCarthy witch-hunts. In addition, as he explains in this interview, his work was closely entwined with Homer's Iliad. And, with “Catch-22” itself, he added a phrase to the language.

Conscious of his first novel's extraordinary success, Heller spent thirteen years “doing something different.” The result, Something Happened (1974), is a chilling description of the deterioration and breakdown of a Manhattan business executive. Again, Heller's work operates in the worlds of literature and satire. The author does not hesitate to credit Samuel Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable for the book's most striking feature: the forlorn, almost detached voice of its first-person narrator. Heller's attack on the aridity and agonies of corporate existence is superbly handled, but more than anything else it is the narrator's description of his own dissolution which makes the novel so arresting.

Each of the next three works reflects Heller's determination not to repeat himself and his continued use of satire and literature. Good as Gold (1979) ferociously criticizes modern politics in general and Henry Kissinger in particular. Its method of narration is reminiscent of a Barth-like postmodernism: the unnamed third-person narrator plays an important role in the tale and at one point butts in to concede that he could have better served the protagonist. But Heller's inspiration predates postmodernism: much of his manipulation of point of view, he has said, derived from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (“Talking with Joseph Heller,” Critical Essays on Joseph Heller [Hall, 1984] 178-79).

God Knows (1984) continues the march. Again, the work is filled with satiric humor. Again, it is rich in literary allusions. God Knows is a lengthy deathbed monologue by the Bible's King David. On the one hand, David seems like a stand-up comedian, railing against a God who owes him an apology, deploring the thick-wittedness of his son Solomon, and shaking his head over Michelangelo's depiction of an uncircumcised member. On the other hand, Heller comments tellingly about the misapprehensions and misery that have followed in the wake of far too many Biblical passages.

Picture This (1988) raises Heller's fascination with narrative point of view to new heights. Reduced to its simplest terms, the book considers Rembrandt's famous painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. But the novel is really a satire on war and politics—in ancient Athens and Sparta, in seventeenth-century Holland and Vietnam, and in twentieth-century America and Vietnam. Heller's use of point of view in Picture This is his most ambitious to date, with his tale alternately “told” by Rembrandt, Aristotle, and Homer, each brilliantly re-created.

Closing Time (1994), the subject of this interview, reflects a startling change for Joseph Heller. For the first time in his fiction, he comes face to face with the legacy of Catch-22—and does so in a sequel which resurrects some of the more memorable creations of that legendary first novel. In the interview, Heller speaks tenderly of the “real life” characters in his book, the most realistic he has ever created, and describes the intricate and carefully planned method he uses to create his novels. In addition, he speaks at length about his use of a dual point of view, the relationships between Catch-22 and Closing Time, and the connections between Catch-22 and the Iliad.

This interview took place on October 24, 1996, at Joseph Heller's home in East Hampton, New York. Words cannot express my gratitude for Mr. Heller's generosity, his hospitality, and his wise responses to my often fumbling questions. To make a splendid day perfect, Mr. Heller took me for a post-interview stroll on a windswept beach, then led the way to “the Hamptons' best tomato stand.”

And there was no catch.

[Reilly]: A few years ago Mordecai Richler wrote that the Brooklyn passages in Something Happened contained some of best writing you have ever done. Closing Time spends a lot of time in Brooklyn, especially in your old Coney Island section, and it contains some of the most grippingly realistic characters you have ever created. Did they play an important role in the original plan of the novel?

[Heller]: My ambitions lay elsewhere. To one degree or another, the characters you are describing were based on people who have been on my mind for a long time—maybe it has something to do with being in my seventies. I never wanted to write an autobiography, but part of my plan was to write a novel which contained autobiographical elements. The structure of Closing Time was very carefully planned; everything in there was intended to be in there. It was a different matter with Catch-22, where some of the characters, like Milo and Major Major, had a far greater effect than I had originally intended.

My original plan, and I can't think of a good word for it, was more literary than anything else. I knew from the start I wanted to develop a sharp contrast between realistic and surrealistic techniques, and I wanted to keep two sets of characters and styles apart for most of the novel. With one exception, when Sammy visits Lew in the hospital and sees Yossarian, the scenes with the Brooklyn characters were consciously written in a realistic style.

That hospital scene, by the way, illustrates another difference between Closing Time and the other novels. In Catch-22 I probably would have further developed the discussion about the extent to which modern medicine has become unnatural, the extent to which it interferes with the natural direction of biology.

Those scenes seemed different from ones in your other novels. Certainly Bob Slocum is realistically portrayed in Something Happened, but Lew, Sammy, Claire, and Glenda seemed so real that I feel I could drive over to Coney Island today and bump into them. Are they based on real people?

Glenda Singer is a combination of three people, one of them my ex-wife, but she is mostly based on an old friend. When I was at Time magazine, I became close to a guy named Jerry Broidy and his wife, and she died of ovarian cancer pretty much the way Glenda did. At times Sammy Singer is me, but only at times; ultimately he's a literary character. The story of Claire Rabinowitz is no story; it actually happened: when they met, how they married, even the business about her virginity. Lew is a very real figure. We met in elementary school and remained close friends until the day he died. You could call us disease-ridden pals: he lived fourteen years with Hodgkin's disease and I've been living with the residual weaknesses of Guillain-Barre Syndrome since 1981.

I've never talked about it much, but I have a very special memory of Lew and Catch-22. When the book came out and got that terrible review in the Times book review section, my first wife and I got out of town. We went up to Middletown to spend the weekend with Lew and his wife. To this day I don't know how he managed it, but he arranged for the one bookstore in town to fill the window with copies of Catch-22. It was the perfect gesture at a time when I would have been grateful for any gesture. You know, despite our lifelong friendship, I have no idea whether he ever read the book. Or any of my books. It didn't matter; he was a friend, not a reader.

Claire Rabinowitz and Glenda Singer were so vivid, so convincing. They are beautiful creations.

Thank you; they were intended to be. I'm happy to hear your response to them, and I think I know the reason why. Closing Time is the first time in my work, and, I think, the first time in the work of any American male novelist in this century, where women are consistently treated with respect and where marriage is consistently described as a desirable condition. Three strong influences on me when I was younger were Ernest Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, and John O'Hara. I don't think you can find a woman in any of their works who is treated with sympathy of a marriage which is described as nourishing.

Closing Time is not all about disease and death, but there is a lot of disease and death in it.

You're right: there is a recurrent theme of cancer, of malignance, and, I hope, a not too obvious attempt to link that malignance with imperialism and social behavior. If you read the book again, you'll find there are remarks linking the way cancer cells spread to the way imperialist nations colonize and destroy. I didn't want to beat the point to death because at this stage of the history of novels, and at my own stage in my small history of novels, it would be emphasizing what is fairly obvious. Nor am I the first one to compare certain industrialists of the past to malignant forces. The unfortunate difference is, unlike empires, they don't wind up destroying themselves. They wind up getting rich.

When I contemplated the death and destruction in Closing Time, I found myself thinking about Swift's epitaph, about his savage indignation. I wonder what the effect was of writing about the deaths of characters who were part of your own life, and about the deteriorating condition of the planet. Did it take its toll? Did you find yourself savagely indignant?

No, no. It's something I discovered while writing what became the first draft of Catch-22. The attitude of the writer is very much different from that of the reader—at least I hope it is. Writing is a ruthless process, a detached process. I can be furious about a subject before or after writing, I can be furious during research. But during the act of writing, if it's done well, I'm happy. Elmer Edgar Stoll once made a very wise comment about Shakespeare. He said it was ridiculous to assume Shakespeare was depressed when he wrote Hamlet and Lear. Depressed people, Stoll said, don't write.

The way Snowden's death is, ultimately, described in Catch-22 is a good example. I wrote it in longhand—I still write my first drafts in longhand—and I deliberately described it in a traditional manner: precise details, normal time sequence, and so forth. I've reread it on a number of occasions, and, even though I knew what was going to happen, it had an extremely powerful effect on me. But at the time I wrote the scene it took me two, maybe three, nights to get it right, and when I finished I knew it was good. I'll never forget it: at that moment I had an impulse to laugh out loud. Giddy, triumphant, relieved? But certainly the effect it was intended to have on the reader was profoundly different from the feelings I was experiencing. I had a similar detachment with those realistic scenes in Closing Time.

I suspect this is true of all the arts. It became clear to me while writing Picture This that, while Rembrandt was working on The Crucifixion, he was at least as concerned with the painting as with the crucifixion. Certainly he didn't break down and start praying to the image he was creating. Probably the most moving of the literary arts is the theater because it's actually taking place in front of you. But if you stop to think of the process of putting on a play—all the rewriting, all the rehearsals—you can see the subject matter becomes increasingly less important. And, when it's done, the experience of watching it in the audience is not the experience of putting it together.

I do an enormous amount of planning, of prewriting, so in the process of writing I always know what the next chapter will be about and where the book is going. Emotionally, the writing is not difficult. What takes its toll is the act of writing, the struggling for the right word or sentence or image. And, of course, the revision; I cut more than two hundred typed pages from Closing Time. So any time I find the fight word for a sentence or get an idea which I know is the right one, I am exhilarated. I am tempted to say that's probably true for all novelists, but “exhilarated” might not be the right word to describe Samuel Beckett. He always seemed depressed.

I guess I'm headed for another “No” because I was deeply touched by No Laughing Matter and wondered if you were using all you went through with Guillain-Barre Syndrome when writing about the suffering in Closing Time.

How about, You're right in that you're not right? In Closing Time you'll find the emphasis is on the natural deterioration of the human being. What you have with Sammy, Glenda, and Lew are natural processes. Sammy's wife gets cancer and dies; Lew gets Hodgkin's disease and lives—lives well, in fact—until his time runs out. By the end, the emphasis is on the inevitability of death. Yossarian and Sammy are in their seventies. Each of them knows he is not going to have much more time. Sammy's resigned to it; he doesn't expect anything surprising or important to happen to him. Yossarian is the eternal optimist. He's falling in love again and he's going to live for the day.

Something that fascinated me about Closing Time was its dual nature. There were times with Milo and Yossarian when I was almost helpless with laughter, the satire was so biting.

Yes, good.

And then, all of a sudden, wham! The scenes with Lew and Sammy were so riveting. With Lew you can see him slipping, you can feel the pain, and you get to like him so much. Did you write the two “halves” of the novel the way I read them, or were they written as separate pieces?

I wrote the chapters consecutively—in other words, just as you read them—and I had that dualism in mind from the very beginning. I was consciously working with two different forms of fiction: realism and something which is at least analogous to surrealism. I wanted to write a novel which was consistent with the way the human mind works. It works consciously, it works unconsciously, and it very much deals with memory. George C. Tilyou is literally a fantastic figure, and yet there is a scene where he shows up with Lew and with a couple of “real” characters from Catch-22. I was dealing there with what we might call consciousness and the part of the human mind that remembers.

I'm not sure I follow that.

Think about the idea of an afterlife and the existence of a fantasy life. At one time or another, everyone speculates about some form of afterlife, whether we believe in it or not. In Closing Time there is an afterlife of sorts—I'm thinking of J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, George C. Tilyou, and the other dead characters who seem to return to the world of the living. With Tilyou, you are aware you're dealing with fantasy, and, within the context of the novel, you know Chaplain Tappman is a real person. When the two almost meet, there is a fusion, a fusion between the real and the fantastic. Again, think of the way the human mind works.

How long did Closing Time take?

The usual, between four and five years.

And right from the start did you know where you were going?

Oh yes. With all of my novels, by the time I really start writing I know where it's going and how it will end. In fact, with almost every one I had a precise opening sentence in mind before I began. Sometimes that particular sentence didn't wind up at the beginning of page 1, it wound up somewhere else in an early passage. But from the very beginning of Closing Time, I had that sentence: “When people our age speak of the war it is not of Vietnam but of the one that broke out more than half a century ago and swept in almost all the world.” That sentence was the genesis of the novel. Then I decided, if I'm going to do a work about the war, it's got to be somewhat autobiographical in nature, and then I decided it made sense to work in my own novel, Catch-22, in some way or another.

Had something like Closing Time been in the back of your mind for a long time?

No, it hadn't; it was a sudden thing.

Do you think somewhere in the back of your mind you were avoiding a return to Catch-22?

No, I neither consciously avoided it nor sought to improve upon it. I have enough trouble coming up with an idea for a novel, so I certainly wouldn't be inclined to avoid anything. Throughout my career I've always had only one idea for a novel at a time. This one started out as a wish to write about the war and a subsequent wish to include autobiographical materials. If I had begun by thinking about a sequel to Catch-22, I probably would have rejected the idea out of hand. Although Closing Time is a sequel.

At the same time, so much of it was inspired by current events. With the wedding in the Port Authority bus terminal, I know I had The Great Gatsby somewhere in my mind, and I know I had been struck by a social event in East Hampton where the hostess put together living tableaux of her favorite paintings. But once I decided to include the wedding scene, my real inspiration was newspaper and magazine clippings about real, spectacular weddings. It was fascinating reading, and by the time I started to write that chapter, I had quite a portfolio. Then it was largely a matter of exaggeration.

It was a wonderful touch to use the Port Authority bus terminal. I've been in and out of it since I was a kid and was always struck by the way it seemed a cross between a bustling urban transportation center and, well, a zoo.

It was just what I had in mind. You'll find just about every level of American society there except the very wealthy—who don't take buses and who give their galas in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the New York Public Library. Closing Time reflects the fact that, even in the best neighborhoods, homeless people and beggars can no longer be hidden. At least I was trying to make that statement.

Could we talk about the climax of Closing Time?

I'd be happy to. I worked hard on it, and while I won't say it's even better than the ending of Catch-22, I wouldn't want to choose between them. Closing Time began with Sammy, and I knew I wanted to end with Sammy. As a rule I have the final chapter of a book at least in rough draft, sometimes in finished prose, very early in the writing process. With Closing Time I had those last pages written before I was halfway through the book. The same thing was true of Catch-22.

When I finished the novel I was deeply stirred and quite confused. Characters are descending forty miles below the ground, dead people are walking around, Gaffney says we don't need the wedding now that we have it on tape, Yossarian goes back up the escalator, apparently convinced he and Melissa and the baby will survive. And, at the same time, the sun is an ashen gray, McWatt and Kid Sampson, the “ghost riders in the sky,” have to go in again for yet another bombing mission, and the radio system on Sammy's airplane seems to have failed. The book ends from Sammy's point of view, and he reports, “the yellow moon turned orange and soon was as red as a setting sun.” I don't know quite how to ask this question, but it seems clear the world is about to be blown up.


To be honest, I had been counting on the reviewers to help me out, but with two exceptions they all but ignored the approaching apocalypse. Would you comment on the ending?

Either the world is ending or it's not. Yossarian doesn't know what he'll find when he goes outside, and I don't know either. Whether the end is taking place fight there on that page, or whether it will take place in a week or two when the missiles come back, or whether it will take place in a billion years when the sun explodes, it's going to take place. Some of the imagery in the final pages comes from Revelation—for example, the comments about the ships being turned over and the moon being red.

I deliberately included contradictions between what Sammy and Yossarian see and think. I don't know the answer. The people you want to ask are Yossarian, Sammy, and Claire. Me, I have no idea, and I don't want the reader to have any idea. They asked me the same question about the ending to Catch-22, and I have the same answer: I really don't know.

Fair enough; you're the author. But after all the uproar about the “fairy-tale” ending of Catch-22, the critics went back to what you wrote and decided what you had in mind made sense. And I think you cleared matters up in Closing Time.

Good. I guess some critics didn't want Catch-22 to end the way it did. I suppose it could be called a fantasy ending.

But in fairness to you, at the end of Catch-22 your text makes it clear that Yossarian isn't doing anything fantastic. As he says, the point is he is trying, and someone's got to break the chain.

That's correct. Yossarian is running into danger, not away from it. He says there's a little girl in Rome whom he might be able to save. It's ironic that, after all the discussion about the ending of the novel, the film depicts Yossarian trying to row to Sweden. Nothing could have been farther from the case in the novel.

I loved the way in Closing Time someone asks Yossarian, Didn't you get away on a little yellow raft? and he replies, That only happens in the movies.

A couple of people who have written about the book, especially after the film came out, seem to think the book ends that way.

Catch-22 doesn't end that way, and neither does Homer's Iliad. You've said there are connections.

Conscious ones. Catch-22 was not an imitation of the Iliad—for example, there is so much fantasy and humor in my novel. But I was very conscious of Homer's epic when writing the novel, and at one point, late in the book, I directly compare Yossarian to Achilles. At the same time, I'd be the first to agree that, as a hero, Yossarian is different from most heroes of antiquity. From most heroes, period.

My ending had the same problem the Trojans had, that damned horse. Most people think the Iliad ends with the Trojan horse, but Homer's work, and mine, stop long before. Just as the Iliad is ending, there's that magnificent scene when Achilles meets with Priam and his sympathy and emotions finally come pouring out. The ending of Catch-22 shows Yossarian going through a similar experience.

Were you thinking of Homer's ending when you wrote the conclusion to Catch-22?

Very much so. The Iliad was one of the first books I read and enjoyed as a child. The first version I read was a children's version, and it came “complete” with the horse and the fall of Troy. I recall that the first time I read the real Iliad I was shocked; I thought I had stumbled upon a corrupt edition. But the more I thought about “Homer's ending,” the more I admired it.

The opening lines of an epic are so important. The Iliad's very first line talks about “the dreadful anger of Achilles”—not about the fall of Troy or the Trojan horse or anything else. And the final scene with Priam shows Achilles' nobler side overcoming that wrath. Catch-22 went beyond that, of course; it was very much concerned with attitudes toward war, attitudes toward bureaucracy. It occurred to me at one point that I could draw an analogy between Yossarian and Colonel Cathcart, on one hand, and Achilles and Agamemnon on the other. But it wouldn't have worked. Agamemnon and Cathcart are completely different people.

There is another echo of the Iliad insofar as the hierarchy of power is concerned. At the beginning Homer makes it clear Achilles isn't interested in acquiring another concubine; he wants Agamemnon to return the priest's daughter. When Agamemnon returns the girl and then steals Briseis, Achilles finds himself powerless. He broods in his tent until Patroclus is killed and then he finally takes action. Yossarian is faced with a similar problem. He is powerless until, after Nately's death, he is driven to break the chain.

And yet in Closing Time some of the chain seems unbroken. I thought one passage in the conclusion was heartbreaking: when two characters who were killed in Catch-22, McWatt and Kid Sampson, almost sigh as they realize they'll “have to go in again.”

It is heartbreaking. Since I began Closing Time, we've had Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War. They'll find a reason to go in again, and again, and again.

In Closing Time you provide some fascinating information about what happens “after” Catch-22. For example, you have someone explain to Yossarian that “they sent us home as soon as they caught you.”

I've been asked that question by so many readers: what happened to the rest of them after Yossarian broke the chain? It was a case of feeling that anyone who read Catch-22 with some respect was entitled to an explanation.

Dante's and Thomas Mann's works play very important roles in Closing Time. Were they on your mind from the start?

Death in Venice was there almost from the start. The scene when Yossarian was in the hospital seemed a good place to make a literary analogy between Yossarian and Aschenbach, although it didn't occur to me at the time that Yossarian was a good deal older. I especially had Dante in mind in the final chapters. The references to a sea of ice and lake of blood are from the Inferno. In the scene where Yossarian is walking with his son, the images of blood under the wheels of the limousine and the cartridges that look like arrows are from Dante.

At the risk of going too far, why?

You might ask the same question about the literary allusions in Catch-22, and the answer would be the same: I don't know why. It seemed appropriate to me in those books to make use of them. Now I'll say this: Closing Time is very much about literature, contemporary literature, as expressed in its various literary styles.

I didn't mean it to be a smart-aleck question.

I didn't take it that way. I took it as an effort, like Einstein's, to get a unified theory. It was important to me that Closing Time maintain a literary approach and not be unduly concerned with physics and quantum mechanics and atomic bombs. The potential of nuclear destruction is such an important issue, and so often it's treated the way they treat Chaplain Tappman when he starts passing heavy water: “He's a big problem and we're kind of sorry we discovered him.”

Closing Time contains some gripping descriptions of the fire-bombing of Dresden, and Kurt Vonnegut appears in the novel. What were your descriptions based on?

I did some research—a book which very much impressed me was an autobiography of a woman who had lived through it as a girl—and many of the details came from Kurt Vonnegut himself. My wife and I have gotten to know him and his wife. They're very nice people.

It occurs to me for the first time that you were a bombardier and Vonnegut was bombed on. Did you ever talk about it?

No, never together.

Are you ever haunted by the memory of the bombs you dropped?

No. Remember the first line of Closing Time: “When people my age speak of the war. … ” It was a different time. If I had had orders to bomb Dresden, I would have bombed Dresden. At the same time, most of our sixty missions were directed at bridges, and I know I concentrated on the bridges, not the people who might be nearby. There was one mission, though—it found its way into Catch-22—where we had to bomb a village into a road. We had to destroy it, in other words, in such a manner so it would become a roadblock.

Yes. That's where Dunbar deliberately misses the target, and Yossarian reaches a point where he is able to say he no longer cares where his bombs fall. That really happened?

It happened. That time I was aware we were bombing civilians, but I can't say it had much of an effect on me. Even when I got to that part of Catch-22—it was almost ten years to the day—the writing didn't affect me. But thinking about it did. Thinking about it certainly affects me now.

You know, I have often thought about the differences between a German soldier and an American soldier back then. I can't carry the idea too far myself since, if I had been a German, they would have put me into an oven instead of an airplane. But I guess while I lasted I would have been as patriotic a German as I was an American. Which is not that patriotic. You do what you're told, to become socially acceptable.

I guess anyone who didn't live through it can only imagine what it was like.

I can't say I lived through “it.” I've talked to some of the people in the infantry and read about what was going on in Eighth Air Force, and I feel I was not in that war. They had a totally different experience. Paul Fussell has a new book out—its title, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, says so much—and his description of combat is harrowing.

This is my “Say it ain't so, Joe” question. Closing Time closes down so many things …

Oh no, it's not my last book—if for no other reason than I'd have nothing else to do all day out here in East Hampton. I enjoy writing more than anything else. I enjoy spending two or more hours a day being lost in it, being absorbed by it. It's not that simple, of course. A problem I always have is, What do I write next? I don't want to imitate myself, ever.

I think of Catch-22 and Something Happened and Picture This and Closing Time. You'd have a hard time imitating. …

Actually it would be easy, but I would never be what I call absorbed in such a project, and it would not be successful. I've often been asked to describe my “literary talent,” and when you get asked that enough, you get to thinking. As a rule the basic story line, the sequence of action, plays a minor role in my books. It's the texture, the approach, which makes them distinctive. I don't deal with conventional plots, most of my novels don't even follow chronological sequence. To write, I need a new idea, a complicated idea—not an imitation of something I've already done.

For a time I toyed with another biblical book but it wasn't right for me. I had the first line, though: “God's wife had been against the idea from the start.” It's a good beginning, and if I had been younger, if I had thought of it after Catch-22, I might have done that book. But it would take me a year just for the planning, and I've done too much of it already—the biblical humor, the feminism, God's life.

I guess part of the fun with Joseph Heller is that the reader has no idea what the next book will be about.

Joseph Heller doesn't know either. He puts together a vision of a novel that he feels ought to be written, a novel that he, that I, can write. Imitation has nothing to do with it. There are some authors whom I find delightful, but I know I would be foolish even to attempt to imitate them. Right now I am fascinated with John Barth's latest book, On with the Story. I read it once and was so intrigued I sat down and read it again. It's a collection of short stories, but I found myself reading it as a novel. There are connecting episodes which I suspect deal with the same couple, and I feel there is a good deal of autobiographical material too. It's a terrific book—well conceived, well executed. Now I could never write like John Barth, and I'd be foolish to try. He has such an impressive mind and such an array of literary techniques. Right from the start, from Floating Opera and End of the Road, you could see how talented he was. And he wrote them both in a very short period of time, some say in a year.

In any case, no, it's not closing time for me. I am working on something new, but I try never to talk about works in progress.

James Nagel (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11927

SOURCE: Nagel, James. “The Early Composition History of Catch-22.” In Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings, edited by James Barbour and Tom Quirk, pp. 262-90. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Nagel explores Heller's writing process for Catch-22, finding the early draft manuscripts rich with implications for the final published version of the novel.]

In 1978, the Wilson Quarterly conducted a survey of professors of American literature to determine the most important novels published after World War II. To be sure, the result was a most impressive list, but Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was ranked first.1 Its position in this survey indicates the esteem and seriousness with which literary scholars have come to regard Heller's first novel since it appeared in October 1961. Only two months later, on December 7, 1961, Heller took obvious pleasure in writing to the dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame that “Catch-22 is already being discussed in literature courses at Harvard, Brown, and two universities here in New York City.”2 Since Heller had taught for two years in the Department of English at Pennsylvania State University, he was fully conversant with the academy, with both its genuine intellectual stimulation and its professional excesses. Indeed, in the early stages of planning Catch-22, Heller had planned a satiric scene in which Major Major “meets an old drunk at an MLA convention who was ruined by a man who said he liked Henry James.”3 In another section Major Major “was from the winter wheat fields of Vermont and a former teacher of English. Made the mistake of stating publicly that he did not like Henry James,” and there is a suggestion that Major Major “never realized that Proust and Henry James were the same man.” Although these comments did not survive to the final version of the novel, no one would have enjoyed the satire more than Heller's former colleagues in the academy.

Beyond its high regard in universities throughout the world, Catch-22 has become an enormous commercial success as well, selling well over ten million copies in just the first two decades after it was published. Such enormous popularity seems to have come as something of a surprise to both author and publisher, since Simon and Schuster is reported to have ordered a first printing of only 4,000 copies. The financial arrangements, too, suggest modest expectations for all concerned; Heller's advance for the novel was only $1,500, $750 upon signing the contract and another $750 when the manuscript was delivered.4 Nor did the novel enjoy immediate success: it did not make the best-seller list in hardbound and did not become an international sensation until the paperback edition was released. Some of the attention paid to the novel was surely due to its satiric treatment of war and to the escalating antiwar feeling throughout the 1960s, what Pearl K. Bell labeled “that passionately antiwar decade and its nay-saying, antinomian, black-comic Zeitgeist.”5

It was a fortuitous coincidence, for nowhere in the Catch-22 materials is there any reference to the Vietnam War or anything like it, although the novel and the manuscripts resonate with antiwar sentiments, including a notation Heller recorded in 1955 that Douglas MacArthur, in his seventy-fifth-birthday speech, urged “people to let their leaders know that they will refuse to fight wars.”6 But even without the Vietnam War, Catch-22 would have been notable on purely artistic grounds, for writers and literary scholars quickly responded to its robust wit, devastating satire, and complex satiric method that hearkened to the eighteenth century as well as to the twentieth. John Steinbeck, for example, wrote to Heller in July of 1963 to say that he felt peace had become as ridiculous as war and that he found the novel “great” for both its attitude and its writing. Among others, James Jones, himself the author of a highly regarded war novel, wrote to Simon and Schuster to express his sense of awe at the conflict of tragedy and comedy in the book, finding it “delightful” and “disturbing.” Perhaps illustrative of the broad appeal of the novel, actor Tony Curtis wrote to Heller as early as 1962 expressing an interest in doing the movie and calling himself Yossarian.7

Despite the enormous popularity of Heller's first novel, and the volume of critical attention it has received in the three decades since it was published, relatively little attention has been paid to the composition history of Catch-22, even though the record of the growth of the manuscripts reveals a great deal about the development of the central themes and devices as the concept grew over the years.8 Of particular importance are the early notes and drafts of the manuscript, for they are enormously detailed and complex, often direct in stating Heller's objectives and reservations about what he was doing with his material. Heller's memories of the beginning of his first novel have been recorded many times in interviews, always with the same basic story:

I was lying in bed in my four room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain ‘Someone’ fell madly in love with him.” I didn't have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn't necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind, even most of the particulars—the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn't use. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliché says you're supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in long hand. Before the end of the week, I had typed it out and sent it to Candida Donadio, my agent. One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two.9

The idea was to offer it as the first chapter of a book, and, as a result, it appeared as “Catch-18” in New World Writing later that year.10

Precisely when the original composition of the novel began has been a matter of some confusion, since Heller has indicated both 1953 and 1955 as the starting dates for the novel, probably referring to different stages in the development of the concept. There are indications in the manuscript, however, that Heller started working on the idea in 1953, trying out many different approaches to the novel before he arrived at the strategy used in the first chapter that was published two years later. By this time Heller had drafted hundreds of note cards outlining virtually every character and incident in the novel along with pages of sketches, conversations, time schemes, and the development of various themes.11 It is clear that by 1955 he had a first chapter to publish but did not have a major section of the novel completed until 1957, when he submitted it to Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster. Gottlieb was only twenty-six at the time, and a junior editor, but he expressed his interest in the project, made some suggestions, and Heller signed a contract the following year. It took him three more years to complete work on the novel. After publication in late 1961, Heller became an international sensation, and Robert Gottlieb became editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf.

The initial composition of Catch-22 is important in several senses. On the simplest, perhaps the most important, level, it records the process of invention of one of the most remarkable novels of the twentieth century. It is no inconsequential body of papers that will reveal the process of significant creation at work, and the manuscripts clearly show Heller suggesting ideas to himself, discarding them, outlining possible structures for the shape of his narrative, trying out absurd conversations that underscore important themes. There is much to be learned about both characters and themes in material that was never published, for the manuscripts often are clear about motivations for various actions that are unclear in the novel, why Yossarian went into the hospital with a false liver ailment, for example. In many instances scenes and speeches in the manuscripts elucidate an episode in the published novel. A world of biographical reference in the manuscripts is largely lost in the published novel (in which the setting and the names of characters were changed): references to the places and people Heller knew during his service in the Army Air Corps in World War II, depictions of some of the men in his unit, some of the notable events that preoccupied them during the summer of 1944. These various documents, written in Heller's hand, provide an invaluable guide to understanding the composition and meaning of a monumental contemporary novel.

One point that should be made at the inception of any discussion of the stages of composition of Heller's first novel is that from beginning to end the title of the book was “Catch-18,” a title with somewhat richer thematic overtones than “Catch-22.” The early drafts of the novel, particularly the sketches and note cards, have a somewhat more “Jewish” emphasis than does the published novel. In Judaism, “eighteen” is a significant number in that the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “chai,” means “living” or “life.” Eighteen thus has a meaning for Jews that it does not have for other people: the Mishnah promotes eighteen as the ideal age for men to marry, and Jews often give personal gifts or charitable contributions in units of eighteen. Thematically, the title “Catch-18” would thus contain a subtle reference to the injunction in the Torah to choose life, a principle endorsed by Yossarian at the end of the novel when he deserts.12

It is also clear that the title was changed not because Heller had second thoughts but because a few weeks before the scheduled printing of the novel, Heller's publisher learned that Leon Uris, who had earlier written Exodus, was coming out with a novel entitled Mila-18. A change had to be made, and there was discussion of using “Catch-11” in that the duplication of the digit 1 would parallel the structural use of the repetition of scenes. But “11” was rejected because of the movie Ocean's Eleven and the now familiar concern for using a number already current in the public imagination.13 Then Heller found a new title he liked, “Catch-14,” and on January 29, 1961, he wrote to his publisher in defense of it: “The name of the book is now CATCH-14. (Forty-eight hours after you resign yourself to the change, you'll find yourself almost preferring this new number. It has the same bland and nondescript significance of the original. It is far enough away from Uris for the book to establish an identity of its own, I believe, yet close enough to the original title to still benefit from the word of mouth publicity we have been giving it.)” For whatever reason, and legend has it that Robert Gottlieb did not find “14” to be a funny number, the title was finally changed once again, this time to “Catch-22,” recapturing the concept of repetition. Since the central device of the novel is déjà vu, with nearly every crucial scene, until the conclusion, coming back a second time, the title was once again coordinate with the organizational schema of the narrative. As Heller remarked, “the soldier in white comes back a second time, the dying soldier sees everything twice, the chaplain thinks that everything that happens has happened once before. For that reason the two 2's struck me as being very appropriate to the novel.”14 On this logic, and a decidedly accidental series of events, the phrase “catch-22,” rather than “catch-18,” became the term for bureaucratic impasse the world over.

It did so, however, only because readers found in the novel something they felt was important, a level of humor that was painfully resonant of their own experience, a grim reality that, in the 1960s, seemed all too close to current events. But even these aspects of the novel would not have had much impact were it not for the craft of the book, an artistry won through years of Heller's meticulous attention to the details of his novel. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the writing of Catch-22 is that Heller seems not to have discarded anything from the very beginning of composition, as though he somehow knew even from the start what a sensation his first attempt at extended fiction would be. As a result, the Catch-22 manuscripts contain literally thousands of pages of materials, note cards, early sketches, drafts of scenes, outlines of chapters, detailed lists of the appearance of each character in each chapter, outlines of thematic progressions, chronologies in which the events of the novel are measured against actual events in 1944, and hundreds of other pages dealing with proposed scenes and characters. They constitute a truly remarkable creative record, one unmatched in the papers of any other important American novel.

One of the most fascinating stages in the growth of the manuscript is a collection of note cards on which Heller, writing at his desk at work, planned the structure of the novel before composition and then analyzed its contents after the first complete draft.15 The most important of these is a group of thirty-seven cards, written in Heller's hand, headed “CHAPTER CARDS (outlines for chapters before they were written.)” Based on what Heller has said in a letter, these cards would have been assembled in 1953, at the earliest stage of composition, two years before the “sudden inspiration” that resulted in “Catch-18.”16

Perhaps the most striking feature of these cards, especially in light of the frequent charges that the novel is “unstructured,” “disorganized,” or even “chaotic,” is the detail of the initial plan. Not only are the main events in each chapter suggested, but characters are named and described, and such matters as structure, chronology, and various themes (including sex and “catch-18”) are set into a complex pattern. Other cards indicate the relationships among events, with key sentences written in. A typical card, about twelfth from the beginning,17 treats the characters and events for what was projected to be a single chapter:

  1. Cathcart's background & ambition. Puzzled by _____ de Coverley.
  2. Hasn't a chance of becoming a general. Ex-corporal Wintergreen, who evaluates his work, also wants to be a general.
  3. For another, there already was a general, Dreedle.
  4. uTries to have Chaplain say prayer at briefing.u
  5. Description of General Dreedle. His Nurse.
  6. Dreedle's quarrel with Moodis [sic].
  7. Snowden's secret revealed in argument with Davis.
  8. Dreedle brings girl to briefing.
  9. Groaning. Dreedle orders Korf shot.
  10. That was the mission in which Yossarian lost his balls.

The section of the published novel that relates to these items now comprises much of chapters 19 (“Colonel Cathcart”) and 21 (“General Dreedle”), with chapter 20 (“Corporal Whitcomb”), unrelated to these matters, interspersed between them. Thus the ten items on the card resulted in roughly twenty-one pages of the novel.18

The business of Colonel Cathcart's background and ambition now begins in chapter 19 with a description of him as a “slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general” (Catch, 185). These matters cover a bit over two pages and then give way to item 4 on the card, “Tries to have Chaplain say prayer at briefing.” To demonstrate how closely Heller worked with the note cards, this item had directional arrows pointing up on both sides of it, and, indeed, in execution the matter listed was moved forward in the chapter. This move underscores the logical relationship between the two concerns: “Colonel Cathcart wanted to be a general so desperately he was willing to try anything, even religion …” (Catch, 187). The idea develops systematically: Cathcart is impressed by a photograph in The Saturday Evening Post of a colonel who has his chaplain conduct prayers before each mission and he reasons, “maybe if we say prayers, they'll put my picture in The Saturday Evening Post” (Catch, 188). The humor of the situation progresses as Cathcart's thinking begins to take shape in his conversation with the chaplain:

“Now, I want you to give a lot of thought to the kind of prayers we're going to say. … I don't want any of this kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff. That's all too negative. What are you making such a sour face for?”

“I'm sorry, sir,” the chaplain stammered. “I happened to be thinking of the Twenty-third Psalm just as you said that.”

“How does that one go?”

“That's the one you were just referring to, sir. ‘The Lord is my shepherd I—.’”

“That's the one I was just referring to. It's out. What else have you got?”

(Catch, 189)

Cathcart's logic leads him to an admission that “I'd like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can” and to the true object of his desires: “Why can't we all pray for something good, like a tighter bomb pattern?” (Catch, 190). But the plan for prayers is abandoned altogether when the chaplain reveals that the enlisted men do not have a separate God, as Cathcart had assumed, and that excluding them from prayer meetings might antagonize God and result in even looser bomb patterns. Cathcart concludes “the hell with it, then” (Catch, 193). Thus the first item on Heller's note card and the elevated matter regarding prayer grew to make up all of chapter 19. The secondary notions of each of these items were moved: Cathcart's puzzlement at _____ de Coverley was delayed to chapter 21, and the revelation that Milo is now the mess officer was placed earlier, in chapter 13, when Major _____ de Coverley promotes him out of a desire for fresh eggs.

The remaining items on the card became chapter 21, “General Dreedle.” This chapter presents two main issues: the first is the string of obstructions to Cathcart's promotion to general, one of which is General Dreedle; the second is General Dreedle himself. In the novel, the chapter develops the topics equally. The balance is enriching: the ambitious colonel trying to get promoted contrasts the entrenched general trying to preserve what he has. Cathcart's problems in the novel reflect precisely what Heller listed as items 2 and 3 on his note card:

Actually, Colonel Cathcart did not have a chance in hell of becoming a general. For one thing, there was ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, who also wanted to be a general and who always distorted, destroyed, rejected or misdirected any correspondence by, for, or about Colonel Cathcart that might do him credit. For another, there already was a general, General Dreedle, who knew that General Peckem was after his job but did not know how to stop him.

(Catch, 212)

Heller demoted Wintergreen from “ex-corporal” in the notes to “ex-P.F.C.” in the novel. General Peckem, called P. P. Peckenhammer throughout the note cards and the manuscript, has been added as a further complication.

The business of General Dreedle, note card items 5 through 9, now occupies the last half of the chapter (Catch, 212-20) with only minor alterations from the notes. “Moodis” is changed to “Moodus”; in the incident of the “groaning” at the staff meeting, Dreedle orders Major Danby, not “Korf,” shot for “moaning” (Catch, 218). Two items are not treated: the business of Snowden's secret was saved for the conclusion of the novel (Catch, 430), where it becomes climactic of the déjà vu technique and the most powerful scene in the novel. Placed where it is now, the further revelation of Snowden's secret, that man is matter, emphasizes the theme of mortality just when Yossarian is most concerned with death and survival.

The second idea not treated, relating to Yossarian's castration, Heller later rejected in manuscript revision. The incident of Yossarian's wound was ultimately moved to chapter 26: Aarfy, called “Aarky” throughout the note cards, gets lost on the mission to Ferrara and, before McWatt can seize control of the plane, flies back into the flak and the plane is hit. Yossarian's wound in the novel is in his thigh, but his first assessment follows the suggestion of the note card:

He was unable to move. Then he realized he was sopping wet. He looked down at his crotch with a sinking, sick sensation. A wild crimson blot was crawling rapidly along his shirt front like an enormous sea monster rising to devour him. He was hit! … A second solid jolt struck the plane. Yossarian shuddered with revulsion at the queer sight of his wound and screamed at Aarfy for help.

“I lost my balls! I lost my balls! … I said I lost my balls! Can't you hear me? I'm wounded in the groin!”

(Catch, 283-84)

Heller changed a terrible reality to an understandable confusion that represents a normal fear in war. In its revised state the idea unites the sexual theme with the dangers of war and the destructive insensitivity of Aarfy. Yossarian's wound also serves the plot in getting him back into the hospital, where the themes of absurdity, bureaucracy, and insanity are explored: Nurse Cramer insists to Yossarian that his leg is “certainly … not your leg! … That leg belongs to the U.S. government” (Catch, 286). It would have been difficult to make this conversation humorous if Yossarian had been castrated. Nonetheless, the relationship of the published novel to the suggestions on the note card reveals that although Heller continued the creative process throughout the composition and revision of his book, the final product is remarkably consistent with his initial conception. The central tone, the key events, the characters (although often with changed names), and the underlying themes are essentially what Heller recorded on a note card eight years prior to the publication of the novel.

Another note card of particular interest is one entitled “Night of Horrors” in the notes and the manuscript chapter derived from it but “The Eternal City” in the published novel. The card contains seven entries, the first four of which concern matters not eventually made part of the chapter. These have to do with the discovery of penicillin (which Yossarian apparently needs for syphilis), Yossarian's attempts to get the drug through Nurse Duckett, and the acquisition of it by “Aarky.” The discovery by Yossarian that the old man in the whorehouse is dead, and that the girls have been driven out of the apartment by the vagaries of “catch-18,” thus would have been the result of his search for a cure. He has come to the apartment in Rome to see Aarky. The villain in this episode turns out to be Milo, as item 7 explains: “Milo is exposed as the source of penicillin [sic], tricking both Aarky & Yossarian, and as the man who infected the girl to create a demand for his new wonder drug. Yossarian breaks with him.” This concept, finally rejected, would have been an interesting but perhaps unnecessary further development of Milo's corruption. It would also have been an overt expression of Yossarian's underlying values, one not in the novel because Milo simply leaves Yossarian in Rome out of a desire to make money from the traffic in illegal tobacco.

This idea and all but one of the other suggestions on the card were finally abandoned or subordinated to what appears as item 5: “Yossarian finally walks through the streets of Rome witnessing various horrors, among them the maid, who has been thrown from the window by Aarky.” It is this concept that ultimately became the heart of “The Eternal City” (Catch, 396-410). Yossarian, in Rome to look for Nately's whore's kid sister, in an attempt to keep her from a life of prostitution, discovers a nightmare world. In the novel Milo shares these generous motives until he learns of the smuggling of illegal tobacco (Catch, 402). What emerges in the chapter is Yossarian's “night of horrors,” his surrealistic walk through Rome at night, in which greed, violence, corruption, insanity, and death, prime themes throughout the novel, converge on his consciousness from all sides, and he is arrested for being AWOL.

There are numerous other note cards as intriguing and significant as these two and several individual ideas that were developed or abandoned after their first conception in the notes. That Snowden will be killed on the mission to Avignon, that in response Yossarian will parade in the nude and sit naked in a tree during the funeral, are all established on a card entitled “Ferrara.” An example of the kind of minor detail that Heller frequently changed is the suggestion on this card that when Yossarian is awarded his medal, still standing naked in formation, “Dreedle orders a zoot suit for him.” Another such revision concerns what is finally chapter 30, “Dunbar” (Catch, 324-33), but is called “McAdam” in the notes. (The name “McAdam,” of course, was later changed to “McWatt.”) The two most dramatic events of the chapter are here suggested: McAdam dives low over the beach, slicing Kid Sampson in half, and then commits suicide. The note card indicates an indefinite “man” as the victim and also suggests that “McAdam kills himself & Daneeker,” which was revised, but the main focus of the published chapter is all there. This card also contains a fascinating suggestion: “Nurse Cramer's family tree traced back to include all known villains in History. She completes the line by being a registered Republican who doesn't drink, smoke, fornicate, or lust consciously & [is] guiltless of similar crimes.”

An entry for chapter 40, entitled “Catch-18” in the notes, reads “in the morning, Cathcart sends for Yossarian and offers him his deal. Big Brother has been watching Yossarian.” The concluding phrase makes explicit an underlying thematic allusion to George Orwell's 1984, one now more subtly beneath the action of the novel. The same card contains the suggestion that Nately's whore will stab Yossarian as he leaves Cathcart's office, which occurs in the novel, and that she will shout “olé” as she plunges the knife in, which does not.

The note for the final chapter, “Yossarian,” contains not only plot suggestions but some interpretive remarks as well. There is a good deal of interest in Yossarian's mortality: “Yossarian is dying, true, but he has about 35 years to live.” Another provocative entry, one rejected, suggests that “Among other things, he really does have chronic liver trouble. Condition is malignant & would have killed him if it had not been discovered.” It is fortuitous that this idea was changed, for Yossarian's trips to the hospital are now linked to his protest against the absurdity of the war and his personal quest for survival; to add to those ideas the serendipitous saving of his life through the discovery of his cancer in a military hospital he has falsely entered would have been to compound too many levels of irony. Perhaps the most important comments on this note card are those relating to the thematic significance of Yossarian's refusal of Cathcart's deal. In the note card, Yossarian discusses the ethics of the deal and his alternatives with an English deserter: “Easiest would be to go home or fly more missions. Hardest would be for him to fight for identity without sacrificing moral responsibility.” The following entry reads “He chooses the last, after all dangers are pointed out to him.”

In the novel, the English deserter has been replaced by Major Danby, who, since he does not appear in the preliminary notes, would seem to be a late invention. The conception of the “fight for identity” has been altered: Yossarian says, “I've been fighting all along to save my country. Now I'm going to fight a little to save myself. The country's not in danger any more, but I am” (Catch, 435). The “identity” motif has been submerged into the “survival” theme, one centered on Yossarian's physical and moral survival. Thus Yossarian can now claim, “I'm not running away from my responsibilities. I'm running to them” (Catch, 440). In thematic terms, this change is among the most important ideas in the preliminary note cards. What is remarkable about them as a group, however, is how closely they correspond to what Heller eventually published some eight years later. It is a dramatic testimony to the clarity of his initial conception, for, although there were many early changes and deletions, along with alterations in the final version of the manuscript, the finished product is well described by the note cards Heller developed in his advertising office, shaping and defining and trying out his idea in miniature before he actually wrote the first draft.

In addition to the note cards, Heller also worked on a number of other documents prior to writing the first full draft of his novel. One group of these that is particularly important is composed of “plans,” outlines, sketches, brief exchanges of dialogue, summaries of the role of a character, ideas for plot developments, checklists on which Heller indicated that a certain idea had or had not been included in the first draft. These pages, somewhat more than a hundred, allowed Heller more room than did the note cards to expand on concepts and outlines, although to some extent they serve the same function. For example, on the sheet for “Catch-18” Heller recorded his ideas for the permutations of that concept:

  • A. Censoring letters
  • B. Increases Wintergreen's punishment
  • C. Colonel must request transfer
  • D. Sanity in soldier
  • E. Drives girls out
  • F. Will send Nately Back
  • G. Deal With Yossarian.19

Heller had thus decided before he began writing that the matter of “catch-18” would occur at least seven times in the novel. Further, as the outline indicates, the general direction of the recurrence progresses from humor to tragedy, from the business of having Wintergreen dig holes to contain the dirt created from previous holes to the final matter of Yossarian's being trapped in a moral dilemma in which his self-respect and his very life are seriously threatened.

Some of Heller's notations to himself reveal a considerable interpretive intelligence. On a page about Corporal Snark, Milo's first chef in the novel and the character who poisons the squadron with soap in the mashed potatoes to prove that the men have no taste (Catch, 63), Heller records his comments about this relatively minor character. It is clear that Snark is to be thematically opposed to Milo in that Snark cooks for the “art” of his craft and Milo is interested only in the commercial aspects of food. Heller wrote that Snark “would like to forge within the smithy of his soul the uncreated soufflés of the world.” Another entry is particularly ironic: “Spots the significance of Milo's enterprises. An egg, in case the critics have missed it, is a symbol of creation. A hard-boiled egg is the symbol of the creative process frozen. A scrambled egg is the symbol of creation scrambled. A powdered egg is the symbol of the creative process pulverized—destroyed.” No one reading through Heller's plans would doubt that he gave extraordinary attention to every detail of his novel, including the role and thematic impact of every character in every scene. This pertains even in instances in which Heller did not follow his suggestions, as with some of his ideas for Snowden: “Snowden's innards are loathsome things brought up through a crack in the earth. … Snowden's luggage in the bedroom at the enlisted men's apartment … Snowden's secret is that they are out to kill Yossarian.” These ideas, particularly the last, are not implemented in the novel, nor are such related plans as the notion that General Eisenhower and Harry Truman want Yossarian dead.

One of the documents deals with the war novel that Yossarian and Dunbar struggle to write, a matter suggested on a note card and developed in Heller's plans but not incorporated into the final novel. The note cards contained two suggestions that relate to this document: one entry, item 7, suggests that “Yossarian & Dunbar write novel, although Jew won't conform & they still lack a radical” and the second, item 10, indicates a “parody of Hemingway in introduction of attempt to assemble cast for war novel.” In the brief sketches derived from the note-card entries, Heller wrote a half-page developing each idea, the first of which, entitled “Perfect Plot,” begins

now they had just about everything to make a perfect plot for a best-selling war novel. They had a fairy, they had a slav named Florik from the slums, an Irishman, a thinker with a Phd, a cynic who believed in nothing, a husband who's [sic] wife had sent him a Dear John letter, a clean-cut young lad who was doomed to die. They had everything there but the sensitive Jew, and that was enough to turn them against the whole race. They had a Jew but there was just nothing they could do with him. He was healthy, handsome, rugged, and strong, and if anybody else in the ward wanted to make something out of anything he could have taken them in turn, anybody but Yossarian, who didn't want to make anything out of anything. All he cared about was women and there was just nothing in the world you could do with a Jew like that.20

Several matters are of interest in the paragraph, including the suggestion that Yossarian is Jewish, an idea buttressed by Heller's comments in a letter in 1974.21 That Yossarian and Dunbar would be writing a novel about war would be thematically awkward in the context of the progressive immediacy of danger and death. The writing of fiction implies remoteness, the vantage of the observer, more than direct involvement. Heller's idea that an outfit with an ethnic distribution would somehow parody Hemingway seems confused, since Hemingway never wrote any novels along those lines. The parody would seem better directed at some of the popular war movies that circulated in the 1950s. Another important dimension to this scene is that Yossarian and Dunbar are in the hospital, implying either that they are ill or wounded or, more likely, that they are feigning illness to escape hazardous duty, a ruse that runs throughout the novel.

Another Heller document, however, explores alternative reasons why Yossarian wants to go into the hospital. On a page entitled “Conspiracy to Murder Him,” Heller outlined some thoughts about Yossarian's growing preoccupation with death:

Grows aware of it with Snowden's death. They were all shooting at him, and when they hit someone else it was a case of mistaken identity. They wanted him dead, there was no doubt about it and there was no doubt that it was all part of a gigantic conspiracy. … Colonel Cathcart wanted him dead. General Dreedle wanted him dead. … Eisenhower and Harry S Truman wanted him dead. It was the one thing upon which even the enemies were agreed. Hitler wanted him dead because he was Assyrian, Stalin wanted him dead because he wasn't. Mussolini wanted him dead because he was Mussolini, and Tojo wanted him dead because he was short and far away and couldn't make himself understood. … The only safe place for him in the whole world was in the hospital, because in the hospital nobody seemed to care whether he lived or died.

This material has genuine comic potential, even in Heller's brief outline of it, although it makes Yossarian's fear of death somewhat more paranoiac than in the novel, where his continuous proximity to death is a matter of circumstance rather than malevolence. Heller's decision not to develop this idea was part of a general pattern of excision of references to real persons. Without the resonance of the names, the humor of the passage is greatly diminished.

Several of the other sketches Heller worked on are also intriguing documents, including a page on which Yossarian, Orr, and Hungry Joe all move the bomb line before the mission to Bologna. This page, entitled “Rebukes Yossarian for moving bomb line,” contains dialogue in which Clevinger argues with his obtuse good sense that Yossarian was unfair to the others in moving the line on the map. In the following paragraph the plot thickened in a way it does not in the novel:

It was another clear night filled with bright yellow stars he knew he might never see again. Moving the bomb line was not fair to the other men in the squadron, men like Orr, who tiptoed out into the darkness and moved the bomb line up an inch, and like Hungry Joe, who moved it up another inch, and the steady stream of all the others, each one moving it one inch so that it was up over Sweden when daylight glowed.

Yossarian alone is culpable in the novel, but this passage establishes the universality of his apprehension in a manner that may have enriched this motif. On the other hand, Heller's ultimate rejection of a scene in which Yossarian explains to the chaplain how much he enjoyed touching Snowden's torn flesh and organs, and how he rubbed blood over himself to impress everyone back at the base, was wisely deleted. In this sketch Heller seems to have been exploring the possibilities of his material, developing ideas before discarding them. The obvious thematic incongruence of Yossarian being pleased by the very death that transforms him would have considerably weakened the Snowden scenes.

There are other related documents that seem to have been written at this stage, after the note cards but before the first draft of the novel. Heller was obviously very concerned about the chronology of the action, not only that it progress in accord with certain key scenes but that these events be consistent with the history of the actual war. At one point he constructed a detailed outline of events in the European theater from 1943 to 1945. He begins in 1943 with the landings in Sicily on June 11 and follows with the Anzio landings in January of 1944, the Normandy invasion on June 6, and the stabilization of German forces in Italy (which necessitated the bombing of transportation lines). He did a separate page on events in Italy between May and August of 1944 (the period of his own bombing missions), outlining the objective of the Italian campaign (“tie down Germans; gain air bases near S. Germany”) and the stalemate in southern Italy that delayed the Allied advance. He particularly notes the taking of Rome on June 4, 1944, D-Day two days later, and the victories in Pisa and Florence. His broad outline continues through 1945 and the Battle of the Bulge, the advance of the Russians on the eastern front, the execution of Mussolini, the crossing of the Po, and the fall of Berlin on May 3.

With the historical facts clear, he worked on the chronological outline of his own narrative, using the closest paper large enough to contain his detailed notations, the blotter on his desk. On this document Heller recorded not only the general events of the novel but, within a grid crossing time values with characters, the action for each character at the time of the central events. Heller's chart would then tell him, as he worked on a given scene, what all of the characters were doing. For example, the entries indicate that when Yossarian is wounded he comes into contact with Nurse Duckett and gets psychoanalyzed by Major Sanderson, Dunbar cracks his head in the hospital, Nately refuses to enter the hospital, Aarky gets lost on the mission, Orr has a flat tire, the Soldier in White reappears, and the old man of the Roman brothel continues to be a mystery. Reading the chart down, Heller could follow the activities of any character he chose; reading it across, he could coordinate their activities and keep a complex chronology straight. In this he did not entirely succeed, but, given the intricate time structure of the novel, he needed a method of organizing the complex events.22

At some point Heller constructed other documents that also clarify the actions of the characters and the key themes of the novel. Taking their interaction in the plot apart, he meticulously recorded the progression of events involving each character. These documents cover nearly a hundred pages and reveal the painstaking care and detailed attention that Heller gave to the structure of his fiction. Many of these entries contain humorous ideas not in, or submerged in, the novel, one being that Major Major “was from the winter wheat fields of Vermont and a former teacher of English. Made the mistake of stating publicly that he did not like Henry James.” Another entry explores the idea that “Rome was a sort of school for sexual experience.” Other entries explore the “Night of Horrors,” later changed to “The Eternal City,” and others the concept of free enterprise. One outline reveals Heller's plan for the ending, which begins “Yossarian is wounded, recovers, and continues flying combat missions until he completes seventy.” The emphasis is on Nately's whore, how she tries to stab him when he tells her of Nately's death. That sketch takes him through to the end:

Yossarian can lend himself obediently to all Colonel Cathcart's designs and lose his life; he can accept Colonel Cathcart's proposition and lose his character. Or, he can desert, and risk losing both when he is eventually apprehended, as he knows he will probably be. There is no way he can remain a citizen in good standing without falling victim to one dishonorable scheme or another of his legal superior.

In the end, he runs off, closely pursued by Nately's mistress, the embodiment of danger and of a violent conscience that will never leave him in peace.

As these comments indicate, Heller often gave his ideas critical substance even before he wrote the scenes, acting as creative writer and interpreter simultaneously in a manner rarely equaled for detail and insight in American fiction.

The most important manuscript of Catch-22 is a handwritten draft a good deal longer than, but essentially the same as, the published novel. It is complete save for the first chapter, which was published separately as “Catch-18” in New World Writing in 1955, and for chapter 9, which is simply missing from this draft although present in the typescript. This manuscript displays the additions, deletions, insertions, typeovers, misspellings, and informal punctuation of the type normally found in first drafts.23 It is essentially handwritten, although there are paragraphs and occasionally pages that are typed, indicating, perhaps, some revision simultaneous to the initial composition. Two chapters of the manuscript do not appear in the novel (as a result the numbers of the chapters are different in each case) and hundreds of brief passages were deleted. Indeed, Heller's revisions consisted more of deletion and addition than of alterations in scenes. The pages are numbered sequentially by chapter, although as other pages were inserted, varying numbering and lettering schemes were used to keep order so that pages frequently have several numbers or letters on them. As was true on the note cards, many of the names of characters differ in the manuscript from the novel: Aarfy appears consistently as Aarky; Peckem is known throughout the manuscript as P. P. Peckenhammer. Nately is a more important character in the manuscript than in the novel, and an entire chapter about his family was deleted. One important character in the manuscript, Rosoff, does not appear at all in the novel. But the central point is that Heller's first draft remains remarkably close to what he outlined in his note cards and to the published novel.

There are other matters in the early composition stages that are significant. One of them is that the location of Yossarian's base throughout the note cards and manuscript is Corsica, where Heller himself had been stationed. Pianosa was not introduced until the manuscript and even the typescript had been completed. The manuscript is more detailed than the novel in describing features of the setting, since Heller had been to Corsica himself and knew the topography intimately; there is no evidence that he ever visited Pianosa. Yossarian's unit in the manuscript is also Heller's old outfit, the Twelfth Air Force, whereas in the novel it is the Twenty-seventh, a nonexistent unit. In the manuscript there is a much more “literary” frame of reference than in the final novel, and Yossarian is compared to Ahasuerus, Gulliver, and Samson Agonistes, reflecting Heller's graduate training in literature. The manuscript is also somewhat more sexually explicit than the published version, as in the scene in which Daneeka shows the newlyweds how to make love. In the manuscript Daneeka says, “I showed them how penetration was accomplished and explained its importance to impregnation.” This reference was dropped in the final draft. In a similar vein, the manuscript has more scatological dialogue, so that when Milo maneuvers a package of dates away from his friend, “Yossarian always did things properly, too, and he gave Milo the package of pitted dates and told him to shove his personal note up his ass.” This passage, and this tone, did not survive to publication (Catch, 64).

Another area of frequent revision is the final paragraphs of the chapters, which show a great deal of revision, more than any other section of the manuscript. For example, in the first draft the last paragraph of chapter 7, which concludes a section on Milo's complex investment schemes, reads

the only one complaining was Milo. And the only ones who were happy, as it turned out, were Milo and the grinning thief, for by the time McWatt returned to his tent another bedsheet was gone, along with the sweet tooth and a brand new pair of red polka dot pajamas sent him with love by a wealthy sister-in-law who despised him for what he had been told was his birthday.

Heller crossed all of that out in his manuscript and substituted “but Yossarian still didn't understand.” By the time the novel appeared the passage had become

but Yossarian still didn't understand either how Milo could buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents,

(Catch, 66)

which better conveys the absurd humor.

One way in which the manuscript differs from the novel is that there are more passages of interpretive comment in the first draft, such as a comment in chapter 2 about the Texan. In the manuscript the narrator says

that's what was wrong with the Texan, not that he never ended kneeding [his jowls], but that he overflowed with goodwill and brought the whole ward down trying to cheer it up. He was depressing. He was worse than a missionary or an uncle. ‹The Texan› {He} wanted everybody in the ‹ward› {hospital} to be happy. He was really very sick.

In the novel this passage has been reduced in a manner typical of Heller's changes:

The Texan wanted everybody in the ward to be happy but Yossarian and Dunbar. He was really very sick.

(Catch, 16)

In shortening this passage, Heller also changed its impact, making the Texan's illness ambiguous. The manuscript implies that his unrestrained ebullience and goodwill are so out of keeping with reality as to be pathological; the novel seems to suggest that because he does not want Yossarian and Dunbar to be happy there must be something wrong with him.

Another expository assertion of theme originally opened chapter 3:

Colonel Cathcart wanted fifty missions, and he was dead serious about them. Yossarian had one mission, and he was dead serious about that. His mission was to keep alive. His mission was to keep alive as long as he could, for he had decided to live forever or die in the attempt. Yossarian was a towering one hundred and ninety-two pounds of firm bone and tender flesh, and he worshipped the whole bloody mess so much that he would have lain down his life to preserve it. Yossarian was no stranger to heroism. He had courage. He had as much courage as anyone he'd ever met. He had courage enough to be a coward, and that's exactly what he was, a hero.

This assessment of Yossarian's character is the kind of comment reserved for the other characters in the published novel, with Yossarian's role revealed dramatically. Heller deleted this passage and presented the idea with the remark that Yossarian “had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive” (Catch, 29), a more concise formulation. Heller made scores of alterations in the manuscript along these lines, nearly always with the result of reducing expository comment, compressing a scene without losing the effect, or clarifying the motivation of one of the characters.

Occasionally Heller's original ideas were abstract and the revisions concrete and specific, lending realistic detail where there had been only generality. For example, in chapter 3 Heller had written a passage about

General Peckenhammer's directive requiring all tents in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations to be pitched with entrances facing back proudly toward the future along imaginary parallel lines projected perpendicular to the chain of events that had made the present inevitable.

In terms of the setting of the novel, always very specific, this passage makes little sense and is not humorous. Whatever philosophical value there might be in these abstractions, they do not comment in any important way on Yossarian's situation, nor does the deterministic suggestion carry much thematic weight since if circumstances are inevitable there is little point in protesting against them. Heller's revision works better: it is clear that General Dreedle is angry about

General Peckem's recent directive requiring all tents in the Mediterranean theater of operations to be pitched along parallel lines with entrances facing back proudly toward the Washington Monument.

(Catch, 26)

This version is more deeply comic, with its absurd patriotism motivated by Peckem's unbridled ambition. Dreedle's anger has more to do with his struggle for power with Peckem than with whether the directive makes any sense, although “to General Dreedle, who ran a fighting outfit, it seemed a lot of crap.” On another level it also parodies the regimentation of all aspects of military life.

Some passages had an element of humor but were deleted anyway in the revision of the first draft. In the published novel, “Yossarian shot skeet, but never hit any. Appleby shot skeet and never missed” (Catch, 35). Heller does not do much with this business, although the passage reinforces the general idea that Appleby is capable and very competitive, whereas Yossarian is mediocre and not at all competitive. In the manuscript, however, Heller made more extensive comment:

Yossarian couldn't shoot a skeet to save his ass. The only time Yossarian ever shot a skeet was the time he discharged his shotgun accidentally and shot a whole box full of skeet right out of Appleby's hands ten minutes before the firing was scheduled to begin. Appleby, one of those who never missed, was impressed profoundly.

This incident makes Yossarian's innocence somewhat more dangerous than in the novel, and it also gives Appleby a more generous spirit.24 The joke in the manuscript surpasses that in the novel, but it comes at the cost of making Yossarian a dangerous threat. In the final version he is essentially a life-affirming character fighting for survival in a hostile and threatening world.

Another important revision relates to the conclusion of chapter 8, which contains the scene known as “Clevinger's Trial,” an intense and shocking section in which Clevinger appears before the Action Board for such crimes as “mopery,” “breaking ranks while in formation,” and “listening to classical music” (Catch, 74). The board consists of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, Major Metcalf, and a “bloated colonel with the big fat mustache.” What disturbs Clevinger is not only that he is presumed guilty, in fact must be guilty or he would never have been charged, but that he senses the intense hatred of his superior officers. In the novel, that point is emphasized in the conclusion, in which Clevinger realizes that nowhere in the world, not even in Nazi Germany, “were there men who hated him more” (Catch, 80). This conclusion is sharp and effective, perhaps the best final line in any of the chapters. It is also a major improvement over what Heller had originally written, which was that

these were men who were on his side, who pledged allegiance to the same flag. It was a ruinous, shattering encounter, for that was the one thing Clevinger had not learned at Harvard, how to hate, and the one thing Yossarian could not teach him. They were not the enemy soldiers he had enlisted to fight, yet he was the enemy they had enlisted to fight, and it gave them the decisive advantage in whatever incomprehensible struggle they had plunged themselves into against him.

Although there may be elements of tragic wisdom in this insight, its verbosity diffuses the impact of the shorter and more pointed conclusion. Here, as in many instances, Heller demonstrated his considerable skill at revision, making the concluding paragraph in the novel much better than that in the first draft.

Many of Heller's deletions from the manuscript are essentially compressions retaining the same basic themes and the same attributes of character. The reductions thus have the effect of leaving some matters unstated but nonetheless consistent with the passages that appear in the published version. For example, chapter 8 of the novel begins “not even Clevinger understood how Milo could do that, and Clevinger knew everything,” referring to Milo's ability to sell eggs for less than he pays for them and still make a profit. The manuscript went on to detail various categories of what Clevinger knew:

Clevinger knew who was fighting the war and why, who had started the war and when, who would pay for the war and how, and why the war had to be one [won] and by whom, even though winning the war would mean giving everything back to the same sinful people of poise, power, and pretension all over the world who had helped get it started in the first place, just so they could fuck things up all over again with a brand new one that would make it necessary for Yossarian to dump his wet, warm blood out still one more time in ‹senseless› {meaningless} payment for their headstrong and supercilious blunders. It would all go back to them by default, for they were the only ones willing enough to work full time at getting, keeping, and misusing authority.

In addition to unnecessarily elaborating on an idea inherent in the events, this passage introduces an element of futility in both the war itself and Yossarian's protest. Since everything will revert to its original condition even if the Allies win the war, every level of the action is absurd. In the conclusion of the published novel, Yossarian takes a rather different stance, stating, “I've been fighting all along to save my country.” He clearly feels that it does make a difference who wins; that conflict having been resolved, however, he now must devote himself to saving both his life and his integrity, which explains his desertion. The final portion of the deleted passage, a protest against oligarchy and a call for political activism, remains only by implication.

Some of Heller's deletions constitute a pattern that, in effect, diminishes the role of characters or themes. For example, the triumvirate of Scheisskopf, his wife, and the accommodating Dori Duz is more important in the manuscript than in the novel. Many passages involving Yossarian and Dori Duz were deleted in chapter 8, for example, most dealing with Yossarian's lust and her capacity to tantalize him. In another section Dori replaces Mrs. Scheisskopf in bed so that the wife can go out on the town with Buddenbrooks looking for someone interesting “to shack up with.” Despite the humor in these passages, Dori has less moment than Mrs. Scheisskopf, and Heller diminished her role appropriately in the novel.

Mrs. Scheisskopf gets more attention in the manuscripts than in the published version. Much of what was cut about her, however, contained generalized comments about women that would have introduced tangential issues, and Heller wisely deleted them. For example, he originally wrote in chapter 8 that

like all married women who have been denied the essential childhood advantages of a broken home and a tenement environment, she yearned to be a slut with lovers by the thousand. Unlike all married women, she had the vision, courage, and intelligence to make a gallant try.

Although this passage would have provided a plausible explanation for her promiscuity, it would have done so in a school of red herrings. So, too, a related section Heller deleted. He originally wrote that

she was pleasant and confused, with a misplaced sex urge located somewhere in her frontal lobe in the unyielding nut of some trite and treasured neurosis in which only she had any curiosity. She was the sort who in olden times would undoubtedly have run off with her colored chauffeur. What stopped her from doing it now was her colored chauffeur. He couldn't stand her. He found her too bourgeois.

Beyond the humor in the etiology of her insatiable desire, there are again unfortunate racial and socioeconomic implications in the chauffeur business that had to be deleted. It seems probable that Heller, unfailingly liberal and humane in his personal views, was initially inspired by some stereotypic comic strategies that, upon reflection, were inconsistent with the themes he was developing.

The role of Scheisskopf in this chapter was also reduced somewhat, although not fundamentally altered. There was originally more of his obsession with marching and winning parades, with the men being forced to drill in the dead of night with their feet wrapped in burlap bags to muffle the sound. Heller's style in some of this material took on an anomalous tone:

Not a human voice was distinguishable throughout the whole clandestine operation; in place of the usual drill commands, Lieutenant Scheisskopf substituted the sigh of a marsh hen, the plash of a bullfrog, and the whir of quails' wings on a slumbrous Friday afternoon.

The rhapsodic mood of the passage is inconsistent with the inhumane, even unhuman, ambition of Scheisskopf, who cares nothing for the men in his unit and would gladly nail them in formation if it would help win the weekly prize in the Sunday parades.

Heller also deleted a good deal of material from chapter 10, which deals with an array of matters starting with Clevinger's death in a cloud, the Grand Conspiracy of Lowery Field, and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen's devotion to digging holes in Colorado, and proceeding through to the ominously escalating number of missions required in Pianosa. There was originally a good deal more elaboration on Wintergreen's prodigious digging, with several pages detailing how he would dig until he could find the match, thrown by a Lieutenant Tatlock (who did not survive to the published novel), at the bottom of a hole. All of this proceeds from the fact that “it was ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen's military specialty to keep digging and filling up [pits] in punishment for going AWOL every time he had the chance.” There was much elaboration in the manuscript on all of this, even to the point that “Staff Sergeants Bell and Nerdlinger set up a bookmaking stand several yards away and gave odds to all comers on how long it would take him to find each match.”

Two other deleted passages in chapter 10 of the manuscript are of particular interest, including one that explains why Milo chose his own squadron to bomb and strafe after he convinced the Germans to conduct the war on a businesslike basis:

Actually, Milo bombed all five squadrons in the Group that night, and the air field, bomb dump, and repair hangars as well. But his own squadron was the only one built close enough to the abandoned railroad ditch for the men to {take shelter there} seek safety there and be machine gunned repeatedly by the planes floating in over the leafy trees blooming in luxuriant silhouette against the hard, cold, ‹spectral› {ivory} moon.

The diffusion of Milo's attack in this passage to the entire Group generates rather different values than the more focused raid on the squadron in the novel, in which the danger and threat to life are immediate and devastating.

But a more important passage was cut from this chapter, one that deals with Yossarian's mental condition as it relates to the Snowden scene. A three-page section in the manuscript was deleted that develops some of the causes of Yossarian's “insanity” as seen by others, in this case Sergeant Towser:

Yossarian had gone crazy twice, in Sergeant Towser's estimation. The symptoms began subtly with a morbid hallucination about a dead man in his tent right after the mission to Orvieto, where the dead man in his tent was really killed, and erupted disgracefully into outright insanity on at least two occasions with which Sergeant Towser was personally familiar, first on the mission to Avignon, when Snowden was killed in the rear of his plane, and again shortly afterward when Yossarian's close friend Clevinger {was} ‹had been› lost in that mysterious cloud.

What is explicitly clear here is that Yossarian is “insane” only because Towser is insensitive to Yossarian's grieving for a lost friend, to his remorse for the death of a man he did not know, to his feelings about the horrible death of Snowden, and to his general sense of the immediacy of death in their lives. There are further explanations in the deleted sections clarifying the point that Yossarian initially discarded his clothes because they were covered with Snowden's blood and that Yossarian's subsequent retreat into the hospital was occasioned by Clevinger's death. In the published novel this event supports other interpretations: for example, that Yossarian took off his uniform to indicate his rejection of his military role.

This section continues from Towser's point of view, and, since Towser works in Major Major's office, it deals with Yossarian's vigorous attempts to confront his commanding officer. A related passage, also deleted, explores Towser's memories of Mudd, the dead man who lives in Yossarian's tent: “He looked exactly like E=MC2 to Sergeant Towser because he had traveled faster than the speed of light, moving swiftly enough to go away even before he had come and say so long even before he had time to say hello.” There is more of this on Mudd, including a scene in which Yossarian returns from a mission to discover that the man in his tent has been killed, and all of these passages were deleted. The effect is that the novel now says little about the details of the Mudd incident or the background of how Yossarian came to walk around naked. A perceptive reader has a sense of the motivational line, but it is not as definite as in Heller's first draft.

One incident that Heller revised rather substantially is the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade in chapter 11, an obvious parody of the American loyalty statements of the 1950s and not of military practice in World War II. In the manuscript this crusade targets Communists in the squadron and is not, as in the novel, simply an attempt by Captain Black to discredit Major Major. In the manuscript Black several times asserts that his duty as intelligence officer requires him to identify Communists and to prevent them from examining the bombsights in the planes. Heller repeatedly deleted references to Communism in this section. He also somewhat softened the inconvenience caused to the men by the crusade. He cut out a passage in which the men had to get up at midnight for morning missions and at dawn for afternoon flights because of the necessity to sign so many oaths.

Heller made literally thousands of revisions of this kind as he worked and reworked his material, drawing nearer to publication. In some cases entire chapters were deleted, one involving a calisthenics instructor named Rosoff, who in many ways duplicated Scheisskopf in his excessive zeal for regimentation, and another in which Nately writes home to his father, which shifted some attention away from the theater of war and toward the United States. Many references to actual persons were dropped, including prominent military figures, and the names of men in Heller's unit were changed to avoid any chance of libel suits. But the fact remains that, over the nine years of composition of the novel, the central characters, themes, and incidents that Heller had initially planned in the early stages of the novel remained essentially intact, and in these documents resides one of the most complete, and fascinating, records of the growth of an American classic.


  1. See Richard Ohmann, “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975,” Critical Inquiry 10:1 (1983): 206.

  2. See Joseph Heller's letter to Dean Sheedy (December 7, 1961), in the Heller Manuscripts at Goldfarb Library, Brandeis University. Unless otherwise indicated, all manuscript references are to this collection. I am grateful to Joseph Heller for permission to quote from these documents.

  3. Joseph Heller, planning document. Prior to actually beginning the composition of the novel, Heller wrote hundreds of note cards and manuscript pages on which he proposed scenes, defined characters, organized the chronology, and outlined the structure of the novel. Unfortunately, such documents are not sequentially numbered and are not organized into a discrete unit, making precise reference to them problematic. I will, therefore, minimize documentation to them in routine cases. Similarly, in composing his manuscripts, Heller frequently deleted sections, started over (using a new numbering scheme), moved material, or otherwise revised in such a way that reference to specific manuscript page numbers is all but useless. Indeed, Heller interspersed numbered pages with lettered pages, sometimes going through the alphabet twice in a given chapter before returning to numbered pages once again.

  4. On early sales, see William Hogan, “Catch-22: A Sleeper That's Catching On,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 1962, p. 39; on financial arrangements, Chet Flippo, “Checking in with Joseph Heller,” Rolling Stone, April 16, 1981, pp. 51-52.

  5. Pearl K. Bell, “Heller's Trial by Tedium,” The New Leader, October 28, 1974, p. 17.

  6. This document is on file in the Heller Manuscripts.

  7. John Steinbeck, letter to Joseph Heller, July 1, 1963, Heller Manuscripts. The letter from James Jones is also in this file. Tony Curtis to Joseph Heller, October 16, 1962, Heller Manuscripts.

  8. Indeed, three recent books on Heller's fiction ignore the composition history of his work. See Robert Merrill, Joseph Heller (Boston: Twayne, 1987); Stephen W. Potts, Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel (Boston: Twayne, 1989); David Seed, The Fiction of Joseph Heller: Against the Grain (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989).

  9. Joseph Heller, quoted in George Plimpton, “How It Happened,” New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1974, p. 3.

  10. See Heller's comments in Richard B. Sale, “An Interview in New York with Joseph Heller,” Studies in the Novel 4 (1972): 63-74. Joseph Heller, “Catch-18,” New World Writing 7 (April 1955): 204-14.

  11. About the beginning date of the book's composition, see Sale, p. 67, where Heller suggests that he started the novel in 1955, and Josh Greenfeld, “22 Was Funnier than 14,” New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1968, 1, where 1953 is given as the beginning date. Some of my comments about the note-card stage of development were previously published, in somewhat different form, in “The Catch-22 Note Cards,” Critical Essays on Joseph Heller, ed. James Nagel (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), 51-61 (reprinted from Studies in the Novel 8 [1976]: 394-405).

  12. On the significance of the number 18, see Melvin J. Friedman, “Something Jewish Happened: Some Thoughts about Joseph Heller's Good as Gold,” in Critical Essays on Joseph Heller, 196.

  13. For the discussion of the change of title from “Catch-18” to “Catch-11” to “Catch-22,” see Ken Barnard, “Joseph Heller Tells How Catch-18 Became Catch-22 and Why He Was Afraid of Airplanes,” Detroit News Sunday Magazine, September 13, 1970, pp. 18-19, 24, 27-28, 30, 65.

  14. Heller's letters to Alfred A. Knopf are on deposit in the Heller Manuscripts. See Barnard, “Joseph Heller Tells,” 24. Although the manuscript of the novel was entitled “Catch-18” for nearly the entire period of composition, I will refer to the manuscript materials as the “Catch-22” manuscripts unless I specifically wish to indicate the chapter entitled “Catch-18” or the story published under that title.

  15. On Heller's writing at his desk at work, see Alden Whitman, “Something Always Happens on the Way to the Office: An Interview with Joseph Heller,” Pages 1 (1976): 77. My comments here closely follow those in “The Catch-22 Note Cards,” 51-61. The note cards are lined, 5″ × 8″ Kardex cards of a type used by the Remington Rand office Heller worked in during the composition of the novel. Heller's comments on the cards are variously in blue, red, and black ink, with occasional pencil notations. The variations in ink would suggest that the planning progressed slowly, during which the implements on Heller's desk changed. The cards might also suggest that some of the planning work was done in the office, whereas Heller has indicated that the writing of the novel was done at home, in the evenings, whenever he felt like it. He did not rush, and the development of the novel was stretched over eight years.

  16. Joseph Heller, letter to author, March 13, 1974, p. 2, Heller Manuscripts.

  17. Given the disorganized state of the Heller manuscripts, it is difficult now to determine the precise order of the cards and even, in some cases, whether a given card was written before or after the initial draft. All references to the numbers and groups of cards are therefore based on my own judgment of the most likely function of the cards when they were written. Heller's comments to me in conversation about the manuscripts has guided my judgment, but even he was unable to remember precise details after a lapse of many years.

  18. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), 185-92, 206-20. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Catch.

  19. These sheets are not organized or numbered in any coherent fashion, suggesting that they were written at various times and not as a discrete stage of composition. Some pages are not numbered, while others begin the numbering or lettering scheme all over again. The “Catch-18” sheet is numbered 17, which is crossed out, and renumbered 15. The letters on the outline are enclosed in circles, which I do not indicate in my text.

  20. This entry is on a sheet entitled “Hospital.” For a more detailed transcription of Heller's paragraphs, see James Nagel, “Two Brief Manuscript Sketches: Heller's Catch-22,Modern Fiction Studies 20 (1974): 221-24.

  21. Joseph Heller, letter to Daniel Walden. I have read this letter but do not have a copy. In it Heller says that he always thought of Yossarian as Jewish. However, in other places Heller has said directly that he wanted Yossarian to be without ethnic identity.

  22. For copies of Heller's blotter, I am indebted to Colonel Frederick Kiley of the United States Air Force, who was generous with both his time and materials when I spoke with him in Washington, D.C. Kiley used the blotter for the cover of his book A ‘Catch-22’ Casebook, ed. Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald (New York: Crowell, 1973).

  23. I will use the term manuscript to designate the handwritten draft of the novel, distinct from the typescript. Some of the pages of the manuscript have been typed and inserted; some paragraphs were typed with handwriting following, suggesting a revision during the process of composition. In my quotations I will attempt to represent the manuscript accurately, adding only periods to end sentences (sometimes on the manuscript it is not clear if there is a period or not). Throughout my transcriptions, [ ] will be used for editorial interpolations, ‹› to indicate additions made to the text, and {} to denote deletions by Heller.

  24. There is a suggestion in the deleted dialogue that Havermeyer and Appleby discuss the incident and agree that Yossarian shot the gun on purpose, which would change the attitude of Appleby.

Charles Glass (review date 20 March 1998)

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SOURCE: Glass, Charles. “Shy Raconteur.” New Statesman (20 March 1998): 54.

[In the following review, Glass finds Now and Then lacking as autobiography.]

Now and Then is a detailed guide to subway travel and cheap food in 1930s Coney Island, New York. It begins in Coney Island, lingers in Coney Island and, somehow, ends in Coney Island. Its title could have been No Escape from Coney Island or—because the author also wrote Catch-22Catch a Life in Here if You Can. Or, as writer of that other masterpiece, Something Happened, Joseph Heller might have called this Nothing Happened. Nothing much does.

You can almost hear the rocking chair creaking on the front porch as Old Joe Heller recalls, to anyone who will listen, the childhood of Little Joey Heller. He grew up with his widowed mother, his half-brother and half-sister in “four rooms, looking out on West 31st Street near Surf Avenue”, near Coney's giant amusement parks.

He knew where to find the best hot dogs and ice cream, but no one told him his brother and sister had a different mother. She had died in Russia before his father emigrated. When he learnt this from a toast at the wedding of his brother, Lee, “I felt victimised, disgraced. My response to rage then, as it chiefly is still, was to break off speaking to the person offending me.”

The person was his father, who was already dead.

Although Joey was five when Heller père died, Heller did not discover the cause was a bleeding ulcer until he himself was in his thirties. Everyone assumed, as with the maternity of his siblings, that someone else had told him. Old Joe writes: “If anything, the passing away of Mr Isaac Daniel Heller was for me more a matter of embarrassment than anything else.”

And later: “But not only did we not complain much in my family, we didn't talk much about anything deeply felt. We didn't ask for much either.”

None of the three grown children would care for the mother when she grew old, and they deposited her in a “Hebrew home for the aged”. Heller's only reflection is: “The subject never arose, but I would guess that each of us secretly suffered at least some remorse. In our family, we did not talk about sad things.”

When he left for training in the army air corps that he would satirise mercilessly in Catch-22, his mother sobbed only after his trolley car had carried him away. “My mother never mentioned the occasion to me, and I never brought it up with her. Our family tendency to keep disturbing emotions to ourselves has lasted as long as we have.”

He evokes a time when, he writes, the poor didn't know they were poor, no one locked a door, Italian and Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods overlapped and no whites thought about black people. Much of it is tedious: “The summer would begin officially for us, I suppose, on that day in late June we called ‘promotion’, when we would come running jubilantly home on that last day of school, waving our report cards, me with my A in classwork and B+ in deportment, calling out to everyone who flew by that we had been promoted. ‘Over the ocean / tomorrow's promotion’ was a refrain we chanted. Another was ‘No more classes / no more books / no more teachers' dirty looks’.”

He mentions in passing that he took the name of the main character of Catch-22 and Closing Time, Yossarian, from a fellow airman named Yohannon. He does not say why. Other Catch-22 characters—Orr, Major _____ de Coverley, Hungry Joe—were in the same unit, but he keeps to himself the secret of how and why they evolved into fiction.

There are brief references, no more, to the Guillain-Barré syndrome that nearly crippled him for life and to the nurse for whom he left his wife of 35 years. Again and again he steps towards the brink of some revelation and withdraws. If he wanted to maintain the family tradition of silence, why did he write his memoirs? He admits: “I am walking proof of at least part of Freud's theories of repression and the domain of the unconscious, and perhaps, in writing this way here and in other things I've published, of denial and sublimation, too.”

You want to listen to the old man in the rocker, repeating himself, recalling unrelated incidents and people from childhood, because he is Joseph Heller. And Joseph Heller, one of the great postwar American novelists, deserves respect. “In my book Closing Time I say of a character, Yossarian, that he couldn't learn to make a bed and would sooner starve than cook,” he tells you in Now and Then.That is autobiography.”

This isn't.

Publishers Weekly (review date 29 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Review of Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man, by Joseph Heller. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 22 (29 May 2000): 52.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic finds Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man lacking in profundity but worth reading for the insight it provides into Heller's reaction to his own aging.]

This slim posthumous novel [Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man], playing blithely with the idea of an elderly novelist in search of a subject, is the last thing the author of Catch-22 left us. Although not a profound leave-taking, it is nonetheless a pleasant reminder of the author's great charm and fluency. Eugene Pota, Heller's alter ego here, rifles the back corners of his mind for a new novel that will restore to him some of the luster that shone from his earlier efforts. In the beginning he tries to do something with Tom Sawyer, first with a postmodernist Tom on Wall Street, then as a character determined to run down the secrets of success for an American writer. But Pota discovers, in his wry researches into the lives of Tom's own creator, Jack London, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville, Henry James and many others, that a combination of prosperity and cheerfulness are profoundly elusive for an author. This segues into a speech Heller himself used to make about the many afflictions, particularly alcoholism, of noted American writers. Pota toys with the idea of a book to be called The Sexual Biography of My Wife, then realizes he doesn't know enough about women's sexuality, and doesn't like to ask his wife, so he calls on some old flames, and begins a few cautious, elderly flirtations. He plays, too, with the idea of the Creation from God's point of view, has some fun with Hera and Zeus, and engages in regular, despondent talks about his lack of progress with his editor (who is unfortunately about to retire). Some of this is familiar, some is simply rambling, but it is all done with a spirit of faintly irritated self-reproach that is endearing. At the very least, this is a frank and at times funny look at how a legendary American novelist coped with the onset of old age.

Robert L. McLaughlin (review date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man, by Joseph Heller. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 3 (fall 2000): 144-45.

[In the following review, McLaughlin considers Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man a bittersweet and satisfying final work.]

Joseph Heller's posthumous Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man is a more fitting and satisfying final work than either his ill-considered Catch-22 sequel, Closing Time, or his been-there-done-that memoir, Now and Then. Seemingly autobiographical, the novel focuses on Eugene Pota, an aging writer who has never been able to match the success of his first big novel and who is desperately trying to find an idea for a final masterpiece. This situation allows for meditations on the effects of old age, a dissection of writer's block, an examination of the despair that has historically beset writers near the ends of their lives, and the presentation of scraps of Pota's aborted attempts at that final novel, some of which are so funny, one wishes they went on longer. Heller, through Pota, wrestles here in a thought-provoking way with the challenges of creation: he can find nothing to write about in his own experiences that won't repeat his earlier books, yet he can't summon the energy to do the research necessary to write outside of his experiences; he is also paralyzed by the literature-of-exhaustionish discovery that everything he attempts has already been done by someone else. Thus his false starts are all self-conscious reworkings of other texts, from Classical mythology to the Bible to The Metamorphosis to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. If Heller didn't give us a final masterpiece, he has given us a smart, funny, bittersweet, personal novel about writing novels as a farewell gift.

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Joseph Heller Long Fiction Analysis


Heller, Joseph (Vol. 1)