Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What We're Reading: Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller

Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty.

This is the first full-length biography to be written on Joseph Heller’s life. It is fitting that it should appear this year, a year that marks the 50th anniversary of his most enduring book, Catch-22. Writing a biography, it seems, is one of the most difficult projects a writer might attempt. The resulting book often seems ponderous and uneven, engaging in some parts but less interesting in others, and inevitably it is shaped by the vagaries and happenstance of available primary source material. The lives of some subjects are more publically documented than others. Some subjects may have kept personal journals or have written voluminous correspondence, others may have done neither. There may be friends that survived them and can be interviewed, or the generation of friends that knew an author may have passed. The author of the biography might have personally known his subject, or he may never have met him. And then the expectations of the reader must be met. In addition to getting an intimate sense of what the subject might have been like, it would be expected that a political biography, for example, would help explain decisions and the origins of the person’s ideas, or that in the case of a literary figure, we might come to understand more about why certain themes were important in their work and perhaps develop a better understanding of what they had written and a greater appreciation of their achievement. Of all major genres of writing, biography, once you get past the basic framework of birth and death, is the least formulaic. This is a circumstance that affords an opportunity for the display of sound judgment and creativity, but is also full of dangers. There is no template. Each biography must be as individual as its subject, and in some way stand in for that person in all their complexity.

Tracy Daugherty has written a remarkable biography of Joseph Heller, one that tells us not only about the man but about the world that made him. We learn of his early life growing up in the mixed immigrant community of Coney Island, particularly the attitudes and values of his Jewish parents and neighbors and what it meant to be Jewish in America in the 1920s and 1930s. We learn about the routes to social assimilation and the particular contributions of Jewish ethnicity to American popular culture. Daugherty is at his best in giving us a picture of what was happening in modern literature in America during Heller’s early years as a writer; he explains how trends in American culture and literature helped to inform Heller’s choice of themes and forms of expression. He also gives us an understanding of how each of Heller’s novels came to be written and a perceptive analysis of Heller’s major themes and intentions in each novel. And we get a picture of Heller’s life as an author. Catch 22, released in 1961, had a modest audience at the beginning, but by the end of the '60s it had become such a widely read and respected book that it made Heller a literary celebrity. The two books that followed, Something Happened and Good as Gold, were eagerly sought after by publishers and became bestsellers. His close circle of friends included other Jewish writers and critics as well as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen. Heller spent a lifetime trying to write something that would top his first novel; most critics felt that he never did.

In any biography, literary or otherwise, in addition to a sense of the formative cultural and social context of the subject’s life, we also want to come away with a sense of what they were like on a more intimate and personal level. We tend to make the same demands of biography that we do of fiction, demanding a plausible and complete development of character and a life told as a “story.” Daugherty, it would appear, did not know Heller personally, and so the sense of his character that he gives us must come from the recollections of friends, from memoirs, and interviews. But it is to Daugherty’s credit that he has avoided the temptation to create a speculative portrait, to pretend to an intimate knowledge of motivations or psychology that he does not have. The picture emerges slowly, but so does a sense of empathy for Heller. In the end, this is a moving portrait of the author. The greatest measure of the merit of a literary biography is whether or not it instills in the reader a desire to read more of the writer’s work, or to re-read the author’s work with a better understanding. That is the most intimate acquaintance we can hope to make, and Daugherty’s biography of Joseph Heller, a fine literary work itself, does just that.

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