On Meeting Joseph Heller

James Mustich
May 17 · 4 min read

Something Happened in the shadow of Catch-22.

I met Joseph Heller socially on a couple of occasions — the first time, not long after the Modern Library had released its list of the one hundred best novels of the 20th century. Heller’s first and most famous book, Catch-22, had earned a spot high up on that chart — number seven, I believe. Since the author in person exuded a genially challenging wise-guy air that made such insouciance easy to offer, I ventured that I thought the judges had made a serious mistake. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Well, I have no quarrel with their respect for Catch-22,” I explained, “but Something Happened,” — Heller’s second novel — “has always struck me as a better book.”

I caught an extra glint in his perpetually glinting gaze. “Me too,” he said. “It took me thirteen years to write that book. It was a lot harder to do.” He said this with pride and a pleased measure of the quality of the result. “There was a time,” I told him, “when I could recite entire pages of that book.” “When was that?” “Oh, I was a kid. Twenty years old or so, twenty-two. I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be able to write like that. I had no idea how hard it could be.” Heller laughed.

Of course, I hadn’t put in the thirteen years, neither on paper nor in adult life, that might have earned me the right to hope to do so. I remember reading some years ago about the method of composition Heller employed. A phrase would come into his head, he would jot it on an index card and file it away until the sentences on the cards assembled into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages. The book’s phrase-based composition (usually simple phrases — “I get the willies when I see closed doors”; “In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid”) is perhaps what made the prose so welcome to my memory on first reading. It was as if Heller were pulling from the air fragments of actual conversation that he then treated as facts of social life, as exhibits in a carefully, caustically curated museum of contemporary America. He held the phrases on his page and turned them around — “Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen . . .” — until the beam of his invention called insights from every available facet.

As we talked, Heller expressed surprise that I had been so taken with the book as a young man. “It’s an older person’s book,” he said, and a look came over his face that recalled — just for a moment — all the middle-aged disenchantments the novel anatomizes. What had excited me about his novel, I explained, was the sheer literary invention, unlike any I had ever read, by which the banal life of its narrator was transformed, via an almost surreal focus on its very banality, into something so brilliant to observe. The circumspect adventures of Bob Slocum — a man on a career track that is a vicious and senseless circle; a husband whose marriage resides in a different dimension from his heart; a father terrified by the opacity, vulnerability, and willfulness of his children; an individual whose eager innocence has been tarnished by the indefinable something that so surely happened — were exuberantly funny to my young mind, perhaps because my heart wasn’t big enough to plumb the depths of the despair they embodied.

When I reread the book some years later, the overwhelming darkness of this blackest of comedies was impossible to escape. The banalities that struck me as so hilariously funny at twenty-two had turned, by the time I neared fifty, poignantly, fearfully, terrifyingly familiar. Heller’s comic ingenuity was still everywhere apparent, yet the absurdity of Slocum’s efforts to prove himself to himself was now deepened by the rueful sadness, the tragic sense of life the author had carefully woven between the lines — and which I, by then, had lived long enough to recognize. My second acquaintance with Bob Slocum had me praying “There but for the grace of God go I” as I turned each page, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was from within the echo of some similar plea that Heller himself wrote the book, and that he held it especially dear because it was the grace of its writing that kept him from the same benighted doldrums that claimed his protagonist.


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James Mustich

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Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (Workman Publishing). Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader. https://www.1000bookstoread.com/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +469K people. Follow to join our community.