How do you top Catch-22? Daugherty (English and Creative Writing/Oregon State Univ.; One Day the Wind Changed: Stories, 2010, etc.) attempts to answer that question and more in this first full-length biography of Joseph Heller (1923–1999).
When Heller’s sprawling World War II picaresque was published in 1961, few predicted it would become a defining novel of the decade, let alone add a new word to the language or still be selling a half-century later. Daugherty has a natural feel for the texture of Heller's worlds, both physical and cultural: his impoverished Coney Island youth, the gung-ho patriotic fervor of World War II, the Beat Generation and the corporate culture of Madison Avenue, where Heller worked by day while toiling on his first novel by night. Daugherty is especially good at capturing the whirlwind events of Catch-22’s publication—a “literary Manhattan Project” whipped into shape by editor Robert Gottlieb (who advised shuffling chapters to get to the funny parts quicker) and packaged and sold by superstar agent Candida Donadio. The author also has a strong sense of the 1970s cultural malaise against which Something Happened (1974) was written, and how Good as Gold (1979) anticipated a more materialistic age. Eventually, Heller’s success led to philandering, a messy divorce and estranged children; a crippling bout with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and waning critical esteem only made things worse. Throughout this absorbing biography, Heller’s moods, affability, wit, seriousness and selfishness all shine through. Daugherty’s attention to the details of his divorce and diet become mundane, and he can get a little too chummy with “Joe” the writer. However, he also has a fine sense of what Heller was up against with Catch-22, as he tried to forge a fresh, irreverent outlook—absorbed from writers such as Jaroslav Hašek, Celine and Nabokov—on a war that had already been defined by James Jones and Norman Mailer. Also, Daugherty scores some strong critical insights regarding the author’s style—e.g., “Instinctually, Joe knew the relentless rhythms of Borscht Belt jokes were like the incantatory prayers one finds in Psalms: The transition from one to the other was natural, almost unnoticeable.”
Essential reading about a writer whose major novels continue to command attention.