Catch-22. The story behind the story.
October 20, 2015
IT WAS ALMOST CALLED Catch-18. But fate had other plans for it.
It was almost called Catch-14. But 14, Joseph Heller told his publisher, wasn’t as funny as 22.
So the novel became Catch-22.
It spoke to a new generation. It spoke to those against war. It spoke to those afraid of war.
It almost didn’t speak at all.
Joseph Heller was a most miserable young man. At age 19, he joined the U. S. Army Air Corps and flew fifty bombing missions during World War II. He saw the horrors of war. He found the graveyard humor of war.
They boiled inside his psyche for years, and Joseph Heller had no idea what to do with them. He was filled with angst. He had moments of depression. He had weeks of depression. He could be heard screaming in the night.
But Joseph Heller was a writer. Maybe he could free himself from his demons by writing, he thought. After all, he was an advertising copywriter in New York. He knew the art of slinging words together.
Nobody had a sense of humor as warped as his, and nobody could write as funny as he did.
Heller told a British journalist that he had been influenced by conversations with two friends. He said: Each of them had been wounded in the war, one of them quite seriously. The first one told some very funny stories about his experiences, but the second one could not reconcile any humor with the horrors he had seen of war. It was after that discussion that the opening of Catch-22 and many incidents came to me.
He was lying in bed one night, and in the darkened room, an opening a line came to him: It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, someone fell madly in love with him.
He didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain. He could have been a prison chaplain. But, he said: As soon as the opening line was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind – even most of the particulars … the tone, the form, many of the characters. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliché says you are supposed to do. I jumped out of bed and paced the floor.
Joseph Heller sat down and wrote twenty pages. He thought it would be a short story.
The manuscript was only ten pages long.
Agents were not impressed. The writing may have been brilliant, but they found the story incomprehensible. Here was an American soldier named Yossarian in a hospital “with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.”
Yossarian is quite pleased to be lying in bed. He is excused from flying bombing missions. A man flying bombing missions can be killed. So Yossarian never tells the doctors his liver pain has gone away. He has decided to spend the rest of the war in the hospital.
A year passed, and Heller finally got around to writing the second chapter of Catch-18. Three more years slid by, and Heller finally had a seventy-five-page hand-written manuscript.
He said: “I would become furious and despondent that I could only write a page a night. I’d say to myself, ‘Christ, I’m a mature adult with a master’s degree in English. Why can’t I write faster?”
A friend, working as his agent, sent the seventy-five pages to Robert Gottlieb, the editorial director of Simon & Schuster. The company was in turmoil. Six executives had died or moved to other firms during 1957. And Gottlieb was the only one left. He was twenty-six.
He loved Catch-18. It was dark comedy. It was zany. It was theater of the absurd. His staff didn’t care for the novel at all. They thought the book’s view of the war was offensive and would never sell.
Gottlieb forged ahead, sending Heller an advance of $750 and promising to pay another $750 when the manuscript was finished. Heller had a definite deadline. He missed the deadline by four years.
Another problem suddenly rose. The book couldn’t be titled Catch-18. The noted novelist Leon Uris had written a new book called Mila 18 about the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Uris wrote bestsellers?
Who was Joseph Heller?
The title had to go.
There was no room for two 18s on bookshelves at the same time.
For a while, the book was called Catch-14, but Heller believed 22 was funnier, so the title was changed again. Seven years after Heller thought up the line, “It was love at first sight,” the book saw the light of day.
Heller ran from one bookstore to the next at night, taking the novel off the shelf and putting it on a special display rack when no one was looking. He buried bestsellers beneath copies of his own book.
The first printing of 7,500 copies sold out in ten days. Newsweek reported: The book obviously inspires an evangelical fervor in those who admire it. It has already swept the cocktail-party circuit where Catch-22 is the hottest topic going and Joe Heller himself is the hottest topic.
The Chicago Sun Times called the Catch-22 “the best American novel in years.” Other critics derided it as “disorganized, unreadable, and crass”.
During the next ten years, the novel went through thirty printings and sold 1,100,000 copies.
Heller’s fans eagerly awaited his next novel.
They had to wait for almost two decades for Something Happened.
It would be known as Heller’s forgotten novel.
And it would be another twenty years before the sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time, was finally written and published.
Even fewer care.