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Joseph Heller's war: the impossible but true story behind Catch-22

George Clooney in the forthcoming TV adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22
George Clooney in the forthcoming TV adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 Credit: Smokehouse Pictures

It’s one of the most read and most loved novels of all time. It has defined war, satire and circular logic for generations. It made its author, a first-time novelist, one of the most famous in history, and now it’s being adapted at tremendous expense by one of Hollywood’s finest. It’s not going to work though. You see, there’s just one catch: Catch-18.

(We’ll get back to that.)

Joseph Heller was born May 1 1923, and his childhood on Coney Island inspired his later novels and the bulk of his memoir Now & Then. It begins with the image of a fake gold ring on a carousel, not a B-25. Nevertheless, his early life informed Catch-22. Much as Heller and his gang used to spend their summers alternating between roller coasters and daring each other to swimming further and further out to sea, the Corsican base in the novel feels like an off-season resort, with lithe young men lounging around on the beach between dangerous missions.

Coney Island’s barkers and hucksters recall Milo Minderbinder, the unfettered capitalist who hawks everything from chocolate covered cotton to outsourcing bombing runs on his own airfield. Heller understood the value of money, and its intrinsic link to life and death. He remembered being handed coins by relatives at his father’s funeral. “My Aunt Esther gave me a whole dollar,” he wrote in Now & Then. “I felt rich.”

Death was a major preoccupation, the threat of it, or the aftermath. In his memory, Heller’s childhood was full of near-misses – mincing machinery, cars screeching to a halt, perilous climbs to retrieve kites. Heller’s father died in 1929 after an operation that would now be routine, leaving Joseph to be raised by his mother along with step-siblings from his father’s previous marriage.

Although initially claiming he was unaffected (Heller didn’t ask how his father died until well into adulthood) he later noted how often father and son relationships appeared in his writing, and how the conclusion of his novels tended to be preceded by deaths other than those of the main character. The death of Snowden, a gunner in Yossarian’s plane, bookends Catch-22. 

It was only decades later, while taking a psychological evaluation for an advertising job (it was the 1950s) that he “realized for the first time how extensively I was focusing on the grim details of human mortality, on disease, accidents, grotesque mutilations. I was again awash in the reds and pinks of the Rorschach color cards, in blood, in the deaths of such characters as Kid Sampson and Snowden and even with my colorless Soldier in White.”

“There was certainly an awful lot for a novel that has since been described by many as among the funniest they’ve read.”

The themes were set: death, money and the circle. In 1942, age 19 and lacking a clear direction, Heller and his friends volunteered. “Along with so many other Americans of my generation in an era of economic depression that had not truly passed,” he wrote, “I’d been biding my time, waiting in numb hope for some unknown, defining reality finally to pop up that would clarify the course I should follow, wind me up, and start me on my way. We had not thought it would be a war.”

Catch-22 author Joseph Heller in 1998 Credit: ap

Heller’s time as a bombardier on Corsica was the direct inspiration for Catch-22. His superiors and bunkmates became characters. Major –– de Coverly in the book was Major Cover in real life, the squadron executive officer who secured his men luxurious accommodation in Rome moments after (or perhaps even before) it was liberated by American troops. A pilot from Kentucky named Ritter – ingenious at both making contraptions like their tent’s heater and ditching into the sea after fraught missions – became Orr. The real Joe Chrenko was the fictional Hungry Joe. Yossarian received his name from Heller’s friend Francis Yohannon, although Heller describes the rest of his character as “the incarnation of a wish.” Yohannon’s pet dog became a cat, “to protect its identity.”

Most of all, Heller derived the book’s unmistakable atmosphere from his own response to war, where sanity is the worst way of surviving an insane world.

“They were trying to kill me, and I wanted to go home,” he remembered. “That they were trying to kill all of us each time we went up was no consolation. They were trying to kill me.” (As Yossarian says, if the Germans weren’t trying to kill him “then why are they shooting at me?”)

Heller took great pride in one mission, “my sole assertion of leadership”, where after realising there was no need for a bombardier, he “resolved to sit [it] out - literally.” Bundling himself in flak suits, he hunkered down in the most heavily armoured part of the plane. One mission to Avignon saw him tend to the thigh wound of his plane’s gunner, which became the death of Snowden.

The poster for Mike Nichols' 1970 film of Catch-22

“The rest of the details are all pretty much as I related, except that I did not, like Yossarian, discard my uniform or sit naked in a tree, and I was not given a medal while undressed.” 

Although throwing an elbow at “the miscalculations historically and endemically inherent in high commands,” Catch-22’s satire of bureaucracy and circular logic isn’t massively apparent in Heller’s memoir. “I never had a bad officer,” he once told historian Stephen E. Ambrose. In fact, he found the military machine surprisingly efficient in sending him back to his mother after she was injured in a fall. On the way to the hospital, he became irrationally terrified he wouldn’t recognise her.

“Anyone who has recently read Catch-22 for the third or fourth time,” he wrote in Now & Then, “might be struck by the parallel… [with] an episode in the novel in which Yossarian is visited in a hospital bed by a family of tearful strangers, but I don’t remember that I consciously had the former in mind when I was devising the latter.”

Even more than the bombing runs or the names of cats, it would be these inchoate, faceless fears that stuck with Heller, the image of planes silently going down in long, wheeling circles in the distance. After returning to America, he refused the easy pay bump from being placed on flight duty on home turf. “The lie I thought I was telling [the doctor] turned out to be true, for by then, I realized, I had genuinely grown terrified of flying.” At 22, he vowed to never ride a roller coaster again.

A first edition of Catch-22 Credit: abe books

A picture taken in his tent after completing his requisite 60 missions, and awaiting posting back home, shows Heller posing with his bunkmate’s typewriter. He considered writing a war story called ‘Hello, Genoa’, told entirely over a plane’s intercom. (He never did, as far as he could remember.) In fact, his first published story – titled ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’ – came after the war, and was about a husband who didn’t love his wife anymore. (“Whatever that was meant to mean, I truly had no idea. It was a convention.”)

Far from the counter-culture hero he would become, Heller lived a conventional post-war life. Married with children, he studied at University of Southern California, then was a college instructor at Pennsylvania State, before working as advertising copywriter at a New York ad agency straight out of Mad Men.

“As an unexpected employee benefit, I drank my first Gibsons with a copy chief named Gert Conroy and learned to love extra-dry martinis in a chilled glass with a twist of lemon peel.”

Nevertheless, he wrote constantly, undeterred by equally constant rejection letters. One morning he “arrived at work with my pastry and container of coffee and a mind brimming with ideas, and immediately in longhand put down on a pad the first chapter of an intended novel.” The concept had come to him, he claimed in an essay in 1977, “as a seizure, a single inspiration.” The chapter was eventually published in 1955 by the magazine New World Writing. Its title: Catch-18.  (The same issue featured a chapter of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, appearing under the pseudonym ‘Jean-Louis’.)

Christopher Abbot as Yossarian in the 2019 TV version of Catch-22 Credit: hulu

Three years later, he submitted the first chunk of it to Simon & Schuster, where it was accepted. More years of writing followed, but Heller’s daughter Erica remembered only moments of doubt when he set the book aside. “Within a week, he’d become so sullen that soon he was scurrying exultantly back into the waiting arms of Catch, telling my mother that he honestly couldn’t imagine how anyone survived who didn’t have a novel to write.”

Sitting at his rickety typewriter, he was “hunting-and-pecking his way to more opulent times.”

It’s strange to think of Catch-22 as being a product of the morally absolute Second World War – it would have been ahead of its time, if it hadn’t taken so long to write. Heller finally submitted the manuscript in January 1961, just as John F Kennedy was inaugurated and America geared up for its first ironic war. Vietnam, with its military euphemisms and ‘credibility gap’ between official statements and reality, was the perfect venue. “Catch-22 wasn’t really about World War II,” he told Playboy in 1975. “It was about American society during the Cold War, during the Korean war, and about the possibility of a Vietnam.”

Heller was 37. The novel was still Catch-18. Editor Robert Gottlieb, who would later go on to run Simon & Schuster and edit the New Yorker, was worried it would be confused with Mila 18, another war novel by Leon Uris. Erica Heller remembered her parents trying out different titles. “’Catch-27?’ Nah, my father shook his head. ‘Catch-539?’ Too long, too lumbering.”

14 was unfunny. 11 was too Sinatra. It was Gottlieb that eventually had the ‘eureka’ moment. "It's Catch-22!”

Even then, the job was not done. Huge chunks were removed. Gottlieb cut the book apart and pinned it to his wall, creating its looping, halting structure. (The process would later be repeated by generations of English students trying to make sense of the novel, including this writer, who still owns a massive pin-board covered in chapters, post-its and coloured ribbon like a conspiracy theorist’s front room.) 

The book was eventually published in October of that year, while Heller was working in the advertising department of women’s magazine McCall’s. Initial reviews were lukewarm, but its popularity in Britain travelled back home. College students of the 1960s made it a sensation. It wasn’t until Heller sold the motion picture rights a year later that he felt confident enough to leave his job.

“Unless they had money, would inherit money, or would marry money,” he used to tell aspiring authors, “they were going to have to work at something else for quite a while, even if everything they wrote from that moment on found publication.”

“Nobody ever enjoyed his success more than Joe,” said Gottlieb.

The catch in writing about Catch-22 is it’s impossible to be funny about the funniest novel ever written – everyone ends up imitating the mock professorial tone I’m trapped in now. (Major Major: “He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.”) George Clooney's new adaptation is billed as a drama or, at best, ‘dark satire’; Heller’s genius was in turning war into a comedy. The catch in spending decades writing Catch-22 comes once you’ve written it. Heller’s success was hard won and hard worn. His later novels (his second, Something Happened, followed 13 years afterwards) became more transparently biographical, ending with the posthumous Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, about a writer trying to match his earlier work. Another loop.

Finally, the catch Clooney faces is the impossibility of replicating its creation – like the catch itself, simply asking the question of how to adapt the novel disqualifies you from answering. Catch-22 is a triumph of patience, perseverance and pure luck, the right author at the wrong time, working at it for long enough that the culture had come around to meet him.

And yet, like the Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice, we’ll see it adapted again at some point. The novel is too big, too inescapable to be left alone. Despite all of the difficulties for Heller and those who follow him, in the end, there’s only one catch.

Catch-22 begins on Thursday June 20, at 9pm on Channel 4