- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

By Joseph Heller
Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoliand Park Bucker
Simon and Schuster, $25, 333 pages

That arch British Imperialist pioneer-buccaneer-millionaire Cecil Rhodes famously observed wrongly as it turned out that he had achieved true immortality because the central African nation of Rhodesia had taken its name from his. "They can't change a country's name, can they?" he boastfully but plaintively observed, never dreaming that within 100 years "his" country would dissolve into "Zimbabwe" and " "Zambia."
A truly apt expression, however, is likely to endure, for who is going to change a catchphrase which shines a spotlight on a circumstance which formerly took a mess of words to describe? Which brings us to Joseph Heller, who does seem to have achieved immortality for as long as spoken English contains the phrase Catch-22.
The New Oxford American Dictionary gives it a remarkably concise definition, "catch-22: a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent circumstances," but even so, it takes 18 words to describe what Heller achieved in one and a half. And certainly this dictionary gives him his due, going on to say: "ORIGIN 1970s: title of a novel by Joseph Heller (1961), in which the main character feigns madness in order to avoid dangerous combat missions, but his desire to avoid them is taken to prove his sanity." So Heller has made a contribution to the language, has perhaps identified as well as named a troublesome conundrum, but what of his contribution to literature?
Insofar as he has made one, it has to rest on "Catch-22," certainly Heller's magnum opus, and light years ahead of any of his other novels, let alone the odds and ends contained in this depressing little collection, "Catch As Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings." Even the title of this posthumous volume is a blatant effort to ride on the wings of the one thing he wrote which has any vestige of literary merit. Yet, how much does even "Catch-22" possess?
That master of satirical war fiction, Evelyn Waugh, certainly did not think much of it. In what must have been one of the most misguided literary publicity efforts of all time, Heller's publishers sought a blurb from the author of "Sword of Honour," the crowning achievement of World War II fiction. The middle-aged curmudgeon's reply was not merely a crushing blow to the publicist's enterprise, but is also a devastating judgment upon the book:
"[Catch-22] suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of 'Milo' should be eliminated or greatly reduced.
"You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches often repetitious totally without structure.
"Much of the dialogue is funny.
"You may quote me as saying: 'This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.'"
Waugh's critique goes to the heart of what is wrong with the novel. Heller is not alone in emerging from World War II with stories to tell about snafus and incompetence. Waugh himself did it who can forget his indelible portrait of the unsuccessful assault upon Dakar, as well as scores of incidents large and small, rife with tragicomedy? And Heller's contemporaries, from Norman Mailer to James Jones and Leon Uris, showed the confusion of military life in that great war of liberation. But Heller lacks not only literary skills but also real passion, which even a writer like Uris was capable of harnessing in a novel like "Battle Cry."
The smallness of Heller's vision, his determination to visit his hero's (and one suspects his own) inadequacies on the whole enterprise upon which he is engaged, his lack of any gravitas all these contribute to a profoundly dispiriting credo.
It's one thing not feel you have to trumpet the "greatest generation," but to lose sight entirely of the essence of the conflict is to miss the opportunity to put his personal kvetch into some sort of context.
People will continue to read Ivan Turgenev's great novel of the generation gap, "Fathers and Sons," for its literary qualities and for what it has to say about human nature and not merely because it is the book where the term "nihilist" was coined. In the end, all that is of value about "Catch-22" is the catchphrase: The book itself is dispensable.
But the novel was not only an instant phenomenon, it continued to burgeon, a legend in its own time. And what a time it was, that other low, dishonest decade, the Sixties. In "Reeling in Catch-22," one of the essays which the editors of "Catch as Catch Can" saw fit to add to the pieces of fiction that make up the bulk of the volume, Heller comments on the serendipitous confluence of "Catch-22" and its time:
"'Catch-22' came to the attention of college students at about the same time that the moral corruption of the Vietnam War became evident. The treatment of the military as corrupt, ridiculous and asinine could be applied literally to that war. Vietnam was a lucky coincidence lucky for me, not for the people. Between the mid- and late-Sixties, the paperback of 'Catch-22' went from 12 printings to close to 30.
"There was change in spirit, a new spirit of healthy irreverence. There was a general feeling that the platitudes of Americanism were horse sxxt. Number one, they didn't work. Number two, they weren't true. Number three, the people giving voice to them didn't believe them either. The phrase 'Catch-22' began appearing more and more frequently in a wide range of contexts. I began hearing from people who believed I'd named the book after the phrase."
The author seems very pleased with his good fortune, but what if it wasn't entirely accidental? Art, after all, can influence life, for better or worse. It is a little scary to contemplate the role this self-indulgent, whiny novel might have played in making its era something of a mirror to its destructive, corrosive qualities.
And what of Heller's later career? There are novels such as "Good as Gold," which make me wince as I remember their crude caricature combined with an air of monumental self-satisfaction. Having sat through his play "We Bombed in New Haven" (still another version of the "Catch-22" story), when it was appropriately enough given its premiere in the eponymous city at the Yale Drama School, I can testify that his skills as a dramatist were not noticeably superior to those as a novelist.
The phrase heard most often about the play that evening in the late Sixties was that It had indeed bombed in New Haven, a quip for which this hubristic and more than usually self-deluded playwright seemed to be asking. As for the stories collected in "Catch as Catch Can," they are banal beyond belief, some of them rising almost to the level of competence but none of them having anything original to contribute to the reader's understanding of either ideas or the human condition.
Indeed, some are so generic that I felt that I had read them before even though to the best of my recollection I had not.
Given the artistic level of both the published and heretofore unpublished short stories, it is unfortunate that the editors should have chosen to make such extravagant claims for Heller: "Heller set out to become a professional writer and became a literary genius."
Not even close. Say a quiet thank you to Joseph Heller for inventing catch-22 if you are so inclined, read the novel if you are very curious as to the phrase's etiology and if you prefer satire that employs a blunt instrument rather than a rapier - but do not waste your time on the scraps of an undistinguished literary career contained in this overblown book.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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