He’s as reluctant a hero as you’re likely to find these days, a graying World War II bombardier from Coney Island whose shyness is continually at odds with his fierce pride. He has probably written more savage criticism of the U.S. government than has Pravda, although he does not spurn the rewards of capitalism, even while gleefully predicting apocalypse in these United States. He is unrivaled in his burning, single-minded hatred of Henry Kissinger.
This is Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, a book that may endure as the final indictment of bureaucracy and the total chaos brought about by the System. That the System will soon collapse under its own weight is a given, according to Heller. Capitalism is a gone goose, he told me as he let me pick up the dinner check at an elegant Manhattan restaurant. He can’t wait to see what happens when it goes. Unless, that is, chaos knocks on his own door. Then he might change his mind. That’s what I like about Heller. He is a man of many principles, the first of which is flexibility.
He is one of the world’s most revered writers. Yet his entire published work consists of three novels (Catch-22, Something Happened and Good as Gold), one play (We Bombed in New Haven), one screenplay (Sex and the Single Girl) and writing contributions to two other movies (Dirty Dingus Magee and Casino Royale). If it seems at all unusual that the author of Catch-22 would also pen a sex movie, consider this: he did it for the money. Writers of serious fiction in this country do not, traditionally, get rich. Joseph Heller’s advance for Catch-22 was $1500: $750 on signing and another $750 on acceptance of the manuscript. After two decades and more than 8 million copies, its royalties still can’t keep him in Chivas Regal.
Heller was born on May 1st, 1923, to Russian immigrants Lena and Isaac Heller. He started writing as a child and was publishing short stories while studying at New York University and Columbia. Then, one day, he abruptly quit writing. He had decided his fiction was no good. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, he did three years in the army air corps, he taught college, he worked in the advertising departments of Time, Look, and McCall’s.
The notion for Catch-22 came to him in the middle of the night: “It kind of burst into my mind. I was actually pacing the floor at four in the morning. I couldn’t wait to get into my office at this small advertising agency and scribble the first chapter.” Now, he says, if he had known it was going to take him seven years of work, he would never have written the book. He does not write fast. Something. Happened came out thirteen years after Catch-22 and was so unlike his first book that it perplexed critics and fans alike: despair had replaced black humor. A mere four years later, along came Good as Gold, a parody of presidential politics laced with vicious attacks on Kissinger. Even though Heller decided not to go to Washington to do research and depended instead on newspaper clippings for his political expertise, the New York Times Book Review said Gold’s portrayal of Washington was “perhaps more valuable to our understanding of our government than a library of presidential papers.” Obviously, people see in Heller just what they want to see.
What I see is a well-read, enigmatic, intensely private, acerbic, witty and opinionated man who contradicts himself with élan. The locale of our talks ranged from his favorite table at Elaine’s, where we were flanked by Yankees boss George Steinbrenner and Woody Allen, to the Lone Star Cafe, where Heller danced on a chair while the Sir Douglas Quintet blasted through “96 Tears.” He’s got, it seemed to me, a pretty good handle on his wheel.
He denied that he was “back on the lecture circuit,” even though he’d just spoken at several colleges in the South, had planned some more dates, and was about to leave on a swing through Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand. He said his new novel was going “rapidly,” although he declined to say what it was about.
He was also full of fatherly advice. “Never quit a job as a matter of principle,” he told me at one point. “You’ll always regret it.”
“Do it and you’ll find out.”
You always seem to incorporate real-life heroes and villains into your books, such as a Nelson Rockefeller or John Connally character. What if you didn’t have these people to draw from?
It’s not a problem for me. The villains will come along. There were plenty in the Carter administration, and there will be plenty with Reagan. I have a feeling this David Stockman [director of the Office of Management and Budget] is going to become a comic character. It will be like watching Edgar Bergen with two blocks of wood on his knees. Both Alexander Haig and Stockman look like blocks of wood. Haig is definitely made out of wood.