On the death of Joseph Heller...

by Gary Gordon
(published in the Santa Monica Mirror, Dec. 1999)
(an edited version was published in The Gainesville Sun)

     The author of one of the greatest novels of our time died yesterday. And while his death may or may not mean anything in the novel of life, certainly his writing was meaningful, profound, provocative; his writing was everything writing should be, and more. There was wit, insight, inventiveness, and that dash of magic that eludes so many so often.
     I am writing here of Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, who died yesterday, at the age of 76.
     When I first read Catch-22 it was love at first sight.
     My father, born as Heller was, in 1923, a veteran, as Heller was, of World War II, introduced me to Catch-22. He had read serialized portions of it in (I think) The Saturday Evening Post magazine, and one day we stopped into Mike's Bookstore in downtown Gainesville, before driving to Jacksonville on a shopping trip, to find something for me to read for the trip, for the drive, and while Mom shopped. And my dad recommended Catch-22.
     I laughed aloud so hard as I read it in the car that my sister flew into a whining rage and I had to put it down. But when I picked it up again, in the motel room, my laughter resumed.
     As some with Alice In Wonderland, as others with Homer or Shakespeare or Dos Passos or Lewis (or later with Kesey or Vonnegut) or any number of other authors through the centuries, I had found my doorway to the other side of the looking glass, where the absurd and insane is clearly sketched; where the accurate mirror is firmly held.
     Catch-22 was published in 1961, when novels still held an important place in our culture, were still part of dinnertime and between-class and coffeehouse conversation; when great novels, not sitcoms, inspired writers to write; when there was an unencumbered and always thirsty interest in exploring the fullness and lushness and complexities of life, when people would pore over text to spot nuance and discover meaning, long before everything became a sound-bite or spin or a punchline. It was a time when people would salivate upon hearing their favorite author was about to publish a new novel, when novels were at the center of helping define who we were; when great novels were indeed a religious experience in their ability to incite and inform and inspire.
     Catch-22 became my Bible. I read it at least 12 times between 9th grade and my junior year in college. I read portions aloud to high school friends who then went out and bought it and read it aloud to their friends. In speech class and other classes, when an assignment was given to read aloud, many of us read from Catch-22, so much so that we would have to coordinate so we didn't read the same passage. In college, I would read portions of Catch-22 (and listen to cuts off the 1st and 2nd Firesign Theatre album) before each mid-term and final. I met one of my best friends trading lines from the book as we walked back to the dorm. I would read chapters to girlfriends-- it they didnāt get it, I saw no reason to maintain the relationship. I gave my first copy, the one my dad had bought for me, to Beth Green, the first love of my life, in 1972. I wonder if she still has it.
     And I wanted to be a great American novelist, writing a novel as profound as Catch-22. I started one in 1974 and when it wasn't finished six years later I told myself, that's okay, Heller took eight years to write Catch-22. My 700-page novel, still unfinished, lies at the bottom of a footlocker. I tell myself it is as great as Catch-22, and someday I will finish it. In the meantime, I have written quite a bit, and I owe much of the foundation of my style and the freedom to express my humor to Joseph Heller.
     When my dad died of a sudden heart attack in 1978, I thought of Catch-22. My dad's death made no sense, and Heller's novel seemed to offer the most comfort, the best context, for dealing with the news, the fact, the grief. To oversimplify, in a world where so little makes sense, why should death make sense?
     There are three episodes I read over and over when I was in college and that I've read now and then since: Clevinger's Trial, Major Major Major Major, and The Loyalty Oath.
     In my current copy, a paperback signed by Heller in 1994, when he was touring, promoting Closing Time, Clevinger's Trial, which is in chapter eight, titled Lieutenant Schiesskopf, starts on page 70. Major Major Major Major is the subject of the chapter with the same title, chapter nine, starting on page 77. And the episode with the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade is in chapter eleven, titled Captain Black, starting on page 107.
     I urge you to pick up your copy, or buy a copy if you actually don't have one, and read the whole book, or at least read from these three chapters. I can think of no better Kaddash for such a great writer.

Gary Gordon 12/13/99


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