Just One Catch: A Biog­ra­phy of Joseph Heller

Tra­cy Daugherty
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
Joseph Heller emerges from this excel­lent biog­ra­phy as dark a fig­ure as he was before­hand. This is not to say that Daugh­er­ty sheds no light on his sub­ject, only that even ful­ly lit, Heller is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly pleas­ant or admirable human being. It is use­ful to learn that he came by his cur­mud­geon­ly char­ac­ter hon­est­ly, but that under­stand­ing does not make him sig­nif­i­cant­ly more lik­able or inter­est­ing.

If this book has a flaw, it is Daugherty’s over­wrought attempt to ele­vate the crit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion of vir­tu­al­ly every­thing Heller wrote. There is no doubt that Heller’s first nov­el, Catch-22, is a clas­sic of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, but despite Daugherty’s plead­ing it is dif­fi­cult to clas­si­fy Heller as a great writer. Noth­ing he wrote after Catch-22 came close to his mas­ter­piece, and toward the end of his career many crit­ics right­ful­ly dis­missed him as com­plete­ly writ­ten-out. A fine writer him­self, Daugh­er­ty is at his best when evok­ing the worlds Heller inhab­it­ed through the course of his life: Coney Island in the 1930’s, the Catskills in the 1940’s, the Man­hat­tan lit­er­ary scene and Heller’s East Hamp­ton retreat from it in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est are the details of how changes in the pub­lish­ing indus­try over the course of Heller’s career affect­ed his writ­ing. As a vir­tu­al unknown, Heller earned rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle from Catch-22.Many of his lat­er projects were moti­vat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by an unabashed need and desire to cash in on his rep­u­ta­tion, and the increas­ing­ly cor­po­ra­tized world of pub­lish­ing was increas­ing­ly able and will­ing to help. The mon­ey came, but at a price.
Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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