The Angel of Forgetfulness


Notes from a Biographer

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was first published fifty years ago this fall. Heller’s biographer, Tracy Daugherty, marks the occasion with a consideration of the author’s legacy.

Joseph Heller in Rome, summer 1966. Courtesy Erica Heller.

In the early 1970s, during the period he was writing his second novel, Something Happened, Joseph Heller, approaching his fifties, fretted about his health. He was shocked by how bloated he looked in mirrors. The double chins in his publicity photos bothered him. He began working out regularly at a YMCA in the sixties on Broadway in Manhattan, running four miles a day on a small track there. “The Angel of Death is in the gym today,” said the Y’s patrons every so often. Not infrequently, ambulance crews showed up to cart away, on a stretcher, an elderly man in a T-shirt and shorts who had collapsed while running or doing chin-ups.

While exercising, Heller avoided meeting anyone’s eyes. He pursued his laps with grim seriousness. He worried about the slightest ache or twinge—in his lower back, bladder, calves, the tendons of his ankles, or bottoms of his feet. Sometimes, faint vertical pains shot through his chest and up through his collarbone. This was a hell of a way to try to feel better.

In this melancholy spirit (stretching, rolling his arms to ease the needling pains), he squirreled away portions of Something Happened in a locker at the Y, in case fire ran through his apartment or his writing studio, or he keeled over one day.

In the spring of 1974—a fit fifty-one-year-old—he completed the manuscript to his satisfaction and decided to copy it for his agent. He took his teenage daughter, Erica, with him to the copy shop. “I figured if a car hit me, if I got mugged, or if I dropped dead of a heart attack, the manuscript might still be saved,” he later told Erica. 

“I asked him what would happen if he had a heart attack and I got run over,” she recalls.

“Then we’re both in trouble,” Heller told her.

When Something Happened appeared in print later that year, Kurt Vonnegut hailed it in The New York Times Book Review as “the [new] dominant myth about the middle-class veterans who came home from [World War II] to become heads of nuclear families … [They] commonly took jobs which were vaguely … stultifying, in order to make as much money as they could … and they used that money in futile attempts to buy safety and happiness. The proposed myth says that they lost their dignity and their will to live in the process. It says they are hideously tired now.”

In 2005, when I began to interview Heller’s old colleagues and friends for a proposed Heller biography (he died in 1999), the World War II generation was more than just tired, it was beginning to pass into the shadows. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the few remaining veterans of that war to still hold a prominent public position. He retired in 2010.

Of Heller’s surviving cronies, one was lucid in only a third of the phone conversations we held, another died a day after I had set up an appointment to speak with him, and a third passed on within a week of our conversation. “You ought to speak to my cousin. He was a friend of Heller’s,” said a New York acquaintance of mine. I had spoken to his cousin, two years earlier. The man did not remember.

Before embarking on the book, I was surprised that no one had attempted a Heller biography; now I began to wonder if I’d waited too long. The Angel of Death had long since left the gym and was busy abroad. What he overlooked, the Angel of Forgetfulness was sweeping up, mercilessly.

In Something Happened, and in his first, most famous novel, Catch-22, Heller had documented, more vividly and humorously than any of his contemporaries, the path of World War II veterans in our national life. As it turned out, their path was our national life until recently, which is perhaps why people said to me, time and again, when I mentioned I was writing about Joseph Heller, “Oh, I think of him as the most American writer.”

In stepping into Heller’s circle, I had felt the panting of the Angels of Death and Forgetfulness, and as a result I came to think of him as quintessentially “American” in another way. Our popular national literature consists of various genres serving many functions: speaking snippily, we might say these genres offer aesthetic formulas for those of us who don’t wish to work hard for artistic pleasures, or they provide dependable market niches for writers and publishers. But they also (I have come to understand, pursuing Heller’s path) form chambers to accommodate memories and experiences that are genuinely, eccentrically American.

Joseph Heller’s life was one genre story after another, utterly familiar in the way patterns are, and wildly, surprisingly delightful, for all the reasons genres become popular in the first place. We begin with the immigrant story. Born in Coney Island in 1923, the child of Russians fleeing the czar, and fatherless early, Heller could have stepped from the pages of Mike Gold’s novel, Jews Without Money, or Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, about the Old World’s clashes with the New, in a land not so full of opportunities, after all. For a while, during the 1930s, Heller’s older brother, Lee, hitchhiked west for work, in what could have been a chapter from our country’s best-known proletarian novel, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Then, of course, we get the war story, Heller’s near-brush with death in the Plexiglas nose cone of a B-25 bomber over Avignon, France, in 1944. Heller’s generation (including Norman Mailer, James Jones, J. D. Salinger, and William Styron) would reshape the American war story, surpassing the shock and cynicism of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway with allegory, ambiguity, and hideous laughter. Catch-22 would spawn a minigenre of its own—the comic war—à la McHale’s Navy (for which Heller wrote a screenplay) and M*A*S*H.

Joseph Heller (center) with his bombadier squadron in Corsica, 1944. Photo: Captain Everett B. Thomas, courtesy Dan Setzer.

“It was after the war, I think, that the struggle really began,” says Heller’s narrator in Something Happened, and during “peacetime” in the fifties and early sixties, Heller stepped into another genre, struggling with the faceless corporate world of the Organization Man, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the Mad Man (AMC’s successful television series draws heavily on Heller’s second novel).

“Along with success come … divorce … medication, depression, neurosis,” Heller quipped to a magazine interviewer in 1974, and he was not one to leave the “success” story alone, with its major subgenres, the medical and courtroom dramas. In the eighties, he was paralyzed, temporarily, by a bout with Guillain-Barre syndrome just as he was beginning to drag his wife and children through a nasty divorce ordeal. It wasn’t clear whether he would have his throat cut first (for a tracheotomy) or his soul bruised by self-inflicted wounds.

Heller survived both traumas and eventually remarried, living the remainder of his life in East Hampton, frequenting, for a time, what he called “Gatsby parties.” Here, in this last glimpse of the grand man of letters, he becomes the defining American writer once more, transcending genres, the way Catch-22 transcended, transformed, and forever refashioned war stories. He lives out his life among the pages of arguably our country’s greatest single novel, gazing, like Nick Carraway, at the late-evening sea as boats beat against the current along the continent’s wild, fresh edge. In reading Heller’s vivid, wry, and hilarious accounts of his generation, and in following the various genres of his life as he tried to stay one step ahead of the dark angels, we may, like Nick, like the Great American Novelists, “come face to face … with something commensurate to [our American] capacity for wonder.”

Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joseph Heller, Just One Catch, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in August.

Read George Plimptons Paris Review interview with Joseph Heller here.