Joseph Heller will always be remembered for a single book. That book, of course, is "Catch-22," possibly the greatest antiwar novel ever written in the English language, a ribald farce of World War II in which the absurdity of armed conflict and military bureaucracy is cast in stark relief.
First published in 1961, "Catch-22" helped define the sensibility of a generation, presenting despair through a comic filter, poking fun at the capricious nature of authority even as it acknowledged that authority has us at its mercy, that we all live under its thumb. This idea is best summed up by the fictional Army Air Corps regulation from which the novel takes its name:
"There was only one catch," Heller writes, "and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
" 'That's some catch, that Catch-22,' he observed.
" 'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."
The irony is that, in the wake of his first and best-known novel, Heller fell victim to a kind of literary Catch-22. Although he went on to write about other issues -- the false promises of suburbia in "Something Happened," politics and statecraft in "Good as Gold," even the mind of the deity in "God Knows" -- he never struck the same chord with the public imagination, never again produced a book that resonated in such a lasting way. Partly this had to do with the work itself, which, with the exception of "Something Happened" (a profound exploration of one man's ennui and disconnection), is generally lax, full of easy targets, a pallid reflection of the sharp insights and bitter comedy that mark "Catch-22."
But even more to the point, Heller seemed, in some strange sense, to be overwhelmed by his own novel, caught in its grip in a way he couldn't escape. As far back as the 1960s, he had already begun to recycle the material; his 1968 play, "We Bombed in New Haven," treads similar ground, and, throughout the early 1970s, he published essays and commentary that sought to make sense of "Catch-22's" impact, not only on the culture but on himself. Finally, Heller seemed to give up altogether and, during the last decade of his life, produced a series of spin-offs, including "Closing Time," a sequel, and "Now and Then," a memoir dealing, in part, with his experiences during World War II. Fully half of his 12 books are related to "Catch-22."
"Catch as Catch Can," a posthumous collection of short stories and other writings, is the most recent (and, presumably, final) installment in this sequence, a volume that has "Catch-22" encoded in its very DNA. That's apparent from the title alone, with its play on both the serendipitous nature of the contents and their connection to the author's most iconic effort, a connection that emerges in overt and subtle ways. As for the overt, nearly half of "Catch as Catch Can" deals with "Catch-22" directly, including four essays and a one-act play, "Clevinger's Trial," based on a chapter of the book. In addition, "Catch-22" infuses four of the 18 stories here, among them "Catch-23: Yossarian Lives," the 1990 novella that reintroduced Yossarian after nearly three decades and evolved into "Closing Time."
Of these works, the strongest, not surprisingly, are "Love, Dad" and "Yossarian Survives," two chapters cut from the original novel and subsequently published as stand-alones. "Love, Dad" is a broad satire that lampoons the hypocrisies of class and breeding by uncovering the Main Line background of Lt. Edward Nately, who, in "Catch-22," falls obsessively in love with an Italian prostitute. "Yossarian Survives," on the other hand, is a stunningly cynical portrait of Army culture, in which a calisthenics instructor named Rogoff teaches survival techniques like tap dancing and judo to enlisted men. "He tried to conjure up visions of Allied soldiers," Heller notes of Yossarian, "jabbing, judoing and tap-dancing their way though enemy lines into Tokyo and Berlin to a stately four-beat count, and the picture was not very convincing." After Yossarian opts out of exercise by faking a stomach ailment, Heller administers the coup de grace. "Rogoff caught his breath finally," he writes. " 'Don't just lie there while you're waiting for the ambulance,' he advised. 'Do push-ups.' "
At moments like this, we come face to face with the authority of Heller's vision, a vision defined in equal parts by humor and rage. The ridiculousness of the situation is only heightened by the drollery of the author's telling, which, in turn, allows us to recognize the folly of all military training, during which human beings are, essentially, taught how to die.
Unfortunately, that clarity is missing from much of the rest of "Catch as Catch Can," especially the early stories that fill out the book. Here, too, it's hard not to see "Catch-22" as a defining presence, not because the stories are related but because as apprentice works, dating mostly from the late 1940s and featuring both previously unpublished writing and material that appeared in Esquire, Story and the Atlantic Monthly, they illustrate not just where Heller started but how far he had to go. Occasionally, a piece will offer up a clear line of association, as does "Lot's Wife," in which a man waits with an injured driver after a car crash, a scene that parallels the death of Snowden in "Catch-22." Still, with the exception of "Castle of Snow," in which a young boy watches his uncle succumb to despair during the Depression, and "MacAdam's Log," which takes us into the imagination of a retired grandfather who likes to fantasize about traveling on ocean liners as a way of bringing vigor to his disregarded life, Heller's early stories are for the most part undistinguished, generic even, studied bits of urban melodrama that don't really take us anywhere beyond the clipped narrative conventions of their time.
The issue all that raises is why anyone should read this -- anyone, that is, other than the Heller faithful, for whom his every word has value of some kind. Yet although it remains an open question, "Catch as Catch Can" does provide an interesting perspective on the author, albeit not quite in the manner it intends. With its derivative juvenilia and its uninspired later work, the book suggests that "Catch-22" does, in fact, appear to have emerged out of nowhere, a literary miracle Heller could neither duplicate nor get over, no matter how he tried. In that sense, perhaps, the most revealing line here may be one of the earliest, from the 1948 story "Girl From Greenwich": "[N]othing is so disappointing as victory."