Review Of Joseph
Heller’s Catch As Catch Can
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/16/06
If there’s ever been a greater example of a single author milking a single bit of work more than Joseph Heller I don’t want to read him. It’s been years since I read his classic Catch-22 satire of the Army during World War Two- although I aim to read it again within the year- and it was a good book, to my best recollection. But, my word, give it a rest.
The whole of Catch As Catch Can: The Collected Stories And Other Writings is a virtual homage to Heller’s most well-known book. Not even J.D. Salinger has sucked the life out of his The Catcher In The Rye like Heller has Catch-22. This book is divided into five parts- thirteen previously published stories, five previously unpublished stories, a play- Clevinger’s Trial- based upon Catch-22, a four piece non-fiction section called On Catch-22, and a single Recollection called Coney Island: The Fun Is Over. The recollection has moments, the only worthwhile thing in the On Catch-22 section is Joseph Heller Talks About Catch-22, in which the process of bringing book to film screen is engaged, and the two fiction sections amply demonstrate Heller’s limited range as a fictionist. It’s almost as if his obsession with his one hit is because he knows this mostly banal and dull collection is the best of the rest of what he had to offer.
Of the tales, there are no real standouts, no stories that are unforgettable, and most read like third rate John O’Hara. They are also very dated, and at best they reach mere competence. A Man Named Flute, for example, is a simpleminded anti-marijuana story where a booky decides to confront his son’s dealer. Look at the stiltedness of this scene. Even fifty to sixty years ago this confrontation with the drug dealer was laughably badly written- something out of a 1930s didactic anti-drug and socially aware film starring the Dead End Kids:
Murdock shook him away impatiently and walked back to the fourth table, his eyes fixed on the man but not noticing that Flute was as big as he himself was, with broad, level shoulders and thick forearms. Flute was bending over to make a shot when Murdock came up to him. Murdock tapped him sharply.
"I want to talk to you," he said.
Flute straightened up slowly and studied him with a careless interest, a slight, mocking smile coming to his strong face. "What about?"
"I'll tell you outside," Murdock said.
Flute thought about it a moment and then nodded. He put his cue down and followed Murdock out through the side door. Murdock walked until they were out of the light before he turned.
"You've been selling marijuana to my kid," he said.
Flute showed no emotion. "Who's your kid?" he said calmly. "I sell tea to a lot of people."
"That doesn't matter," Murdock said. "It takes a pretty low bastard to sell it to anyone."
"All right," Flute said. "Talk nice."
Four men came out of the darkness behind Flute, two on either side, and moved forward until they were around Murdock. As soon as Murdock saw them, he swung at Flute. Flute caught his wrist and held it, and before Murdock could move, he had his other arm, and in an instant Murdock was pinned back against the wall, unable to move. He kicked out viciously at the man's groin and struck his thigh. Then the leg moved and Murdock could no longer hit anything. The four men watched without moving. Flute held Murdock powerless with his arms and shoulder, making no attempt to hurt him. Murdock struggled feverishly to break free from the younger man, putting all his strength behind the effort. It was no use, and after a few minutes he sagged in helpless exhaustion. The anger went out of him, leaving him limp with defeat.
World Full Of Great Cities is a dull and too long look at what a couple might do to save their marriage. I Don’t Love You Anymore follows a similarly negative track on modern marriage. Here’s a typical Hellerian take on domesticity:
….She didn’t answer him immediately; she didn't know what to say. It wasn’t working out right. He had been home three days now and it was getting worse. The first day they had been uncomfortable, very cautious and considerate, feeling each other out as prize fighters do, not being themselves at all, and hoping to pick up the thread of happiness from where it had been dropped almost a year ago when he left. The second day should have been better, but it hadn’t been. She was still considerate, too much so, and he found that something in the routine was getting on his nerves and making him bitter. And now they were quarreling; not yet, but he could see it coming because he was deliberately bringing it on. He was being cruel purposely, not really wanting to be, but nevertheless deriving some perverse pleasure in seeing her unhappy. He had been thinking about her for ten months, thinking about how nice it was going to be when he got back to her, and now he was back and it wasn't nice at all.
He fingered the Chinese puzzle in his hands unconsciously, two metal rings, and without being aware of it, he deliberately thwarted himself each time from separating them. He caressed them with his hands, enjoying their cold firmness as he waited for her to speak.
“Harry and Edith are coming over,” she said finally.
“Will you put some clothes on?”
“Why won’t you?”
“I don't want to.”
In To Laugh In The Morning WWII veteran Nathan Scholl returns from a heroin treatment program in Kentucky to Washington, D.C., where he drifts through his old haunts dejected and uncured. The story is dull, long, depressing, and larded with poor dialogue. The Day Bush Left, from the 1990s is a poor satire of the first George Bush’s lack of ethics forcing him to resign the Presidency as a matter of principle and conscience. And on go the flimsy stories. About the only successful stories are Lot’s Wife, a decidedly Hemingwayvian piece about the aftermath of a car accident, Castle Of Snow- a solid portrait of an aging man losing his sanity and inhibitions, and Girl From Greenwich which follows a young writer schmoozing his way through a classic mid-Twentieth Century Manhattan literary cocktail party, only to meet the woman of his dreams who turns out to be a pre-Madonna Material Girl. The Catch-22-related material is of very hit and miss quality. Love, Dad is the introduction to a Catch-22 character, Edward J. Nately III. We are told ‘he was often lonely and nagged by vague, incipient longings. He contemplated his sophomore year at Harvard without enthusiasm, without joy. Fortunately, the War broke out in time to save him.’ Of course, he ends up dead, with his dad’s last letter returned to him, in typical Hellerian fashion.
The question I have is why such a piss-poor collection of B Side rot was ever released? Editors Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker state that the texts of the works in this book are unaltered because writers who have died cannot approve changes. I would submit that Heller probably knew the little literary quality these works had, so therefore never wanted to see them hit print, and would probably have been angered that four years after his death in 1999 this tripe was published. Fortunately, I paid under $5 for this new hardback version at Half Price Books. Don’t you pay a dime, unless you are just so devoted to every little fart and idea Heller had about his most famous work. Give the man his due- Catch-22, the phrase and novel, will be around as long as military and bureaucratic stupidity is, but this collection should never have seen print, for its existence only reinforces that claim with dramatically depressing conviction. Lesson learned: let the dead rest, in their graves and on their laurels.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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