The problem with "talking" to Joseph Heller . . .
"So g'wan, start your interview."
. . . is that at 61, despite the lingering debilities of Guillain-Barre' syndrome, which paralyzed him for months and left him more than $60,000 in debt. . .
"Hey, it was over a year before I could get up from the ground to my feet without help -- more than a year and a half before I could get on a bus in New York."
. . . despite a slew of reviews so caustic they'd give a warthog hives . . .
"Look, I've adjusted to this, that my books are not going to get unanimously good reviews. Though with this one I had the expectation. But all of my books deal in a very rough, rude fashion with subjects about which there are great conflicts of opinion." A breath. "And the average reader expects to be told in a few pages what the book is about, expecting the character to be fairly consistent in his personality."
. . . you can't get. A word. In. Edgewise. The guy is a manic maelstrom of phrase and gesture, hands waving like he's just walked into a wall of cobwebs, trademark mane shaking, sentiments tending to the midbrow demotic, though learned Latinisms bob up at intervals like stray carrots in the conversational stew.
All of it served up molto vivace in Heller's unreconstructed Coney Island accent, a high nasal blat like a clarinet full of paper clips. A cheerfully self-conscious vulgarian, brazenly open-shirted and flicking an incisor with one of the outsize toothpicks he habitually carries, he's not exactly a la mode here in the paneled barroom alcove at the Ritz Carlton, where the author of "Catch-22" ('61), "Something Happened" ('74) and "Good as Gold" ('79) is billeted on the promo trek for his beleaguered new novel, "God Knows."
But then Heller has always been a conspicuous anomaly in American letters -- a college English teacher and magazine ad man elevated at age 38 directly from oblivion to the rank of Major Novelist on the strength of a single book: the comic-absurdist cosmos of "Catch-22." Great expectations -- which, his critics say, he never subsequently fulfilled. Ditto this time. Newsweek called the new book "sometimes funny," but largely "a weariness of the flesh." The Washington Post dubbed it "a goof." Vanity Fair intoned that Heller "doesn't know when to put a cork on it." And Time derided "a disappointing hodgepodge of repetition and irrelevancy." That last, he says, "was like a slap in the face."
But The New York Times Book Review found Heller "at the top of his form again," a sentiment he finds "absolutely lovely." Indeed it was, written by author Mordecai Richler, one of the judges at the Book-of-the-Month Club -- which, as it happens, is selling Heller's novel.
And besides, he recalls, dropping his cheek to an upturned palm, the first reviews of the "Catch-22" were often equally brutal. "Emotional hodgepodge," snorted the Times Book Review; "a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness," said The New Yorker. But the book proved an immediate success in England, and went on to sell nearly 10 million copies in paperback.
By contrast, "God Knows," with a 150,000-copy first printing, has a much higher launch momentum. Heller estimates that it will pull in between $400,000 and $500,000 counting foreign sales ("the European publishers' advances are 10 times higher than I ever got before," he says, including more than $30,000 from Finland alone), and the paperback rights have just been sold to Dell, which acquired all four of his books.
"Let me tell you something," he says, as if this were an unlikely eventuality, rocking earnestly forward on his elbows. "It may be immodest, but I believe this book will be my biggest hit, because people love reading it."
"God Knows" is the protracted deathbed confession of the biblical King David, who lies brooding ("I hate God and I hate life"), recounting his history in anecdotes festooned with flyblown jokes, gobbets of borrowed prose, scores of one-liners ("Show him the door." "I've seen the door") and a hundred dismal memories. His son Absalom has been slain in rebellion against him; an infant son has died in forfeit for his murderous adultery with Bathsheba. Bathsheba herself, now indifferent to his sexual pleadings, connives for the success of her son Solomon, a patent dimwit and one of two unsuitable successors between whom David must choose. He is further tortured, Heller says, by "the longing I give to him -- and I don't believe it's there in the Bible -- for somebody who would be to him the father that he wants. Saul is inadequate, rejected him. And God as well has let him down." Hence his poignant last line: "I want my God back."
Where did the idea come from? "It had no genesis at all," says Heller agreeably, "other than vain ambition -- all is vanity and vexation of spirit! -- that is, other than the desire to write a novel.
"This one began with the whimsical idea of writing a love story, and what intrigued me was, 'What would a love story for adults be today?' And as I got into it, almost without knowing how it occurred, I was thinking, like David, 'I've got the best story in the Bible. I've got a sex story and a love story with the same woman. Who can compete with me? Job? Genesis? Forget it!'
"I do not have, and never had, any interest in either the Bible or religion. But the more I thought about it, the more promising it seemed." He repaired to scripture and "was astonished in the most ecstatic way at how much material there was -- episodes that would lend themselves to a love story, an adventure story, a sex story, a motion picture.
"And I also found those few things that I generally need for my books to give a thread of seriousness and pessimistic philosophy underlying all the comedy." So just as Yossarian in "Catch-22" was estranged from the machinery of authority and law, and Bob Slocum (antihero of "Something Happened") from the humane promptings of society and kin, so David -- bedridden, impotent and guilt-nagged at 70 -- is estranged from God and man.
His work, Heller says, carries "a tremendous amount of gloom about the immorality of much in life. Most of my books are very moral," attacks on "the presence of pain, the inevitability of age, early death. I try very hard, either as a protest against it or as a complement to it, to deal hugely with laughter of all kinds -- including bad jokes and old jokes, particularly if the jokes were Jewish.
"One of the original bold steps of the imagination I took in 'God Knows' is in making King David Jewish. In the Old Testament, we don't think of these people as being Jewish. You don't think of Samson as being Jewish, or Josh. But in making this book, it suddenly occurred to me -- David is Jewish, and if he's Jewish, then to us he's Yiddish and he should be able to speak with Yiddish inflections and idioms." Including answering a question with a question. "Another discovery I made was that when God speaks to Cain and asks a question, Cain answers with a question! 'Am I my brother's keeper?' -- a typical Yiddish answer! Bathsheba is also Jewish, so I have her speaking dialect."
Heller also wanted to examine a failed covenant with "the ideal of a father. David says, 'I've had three fathers in my life -- Jesse, Saul and God -- and all have disappointed me, all have let me down.' " A major theme -- yet the author's own father, a Russian immigrant, died when he was 5, and "I never had a father figure." His notion of paternity is "esthetic, in the same way that I got the family scenes in 'Good as Gold.' That's not my family -- I only have one brother and one sister." (Step-siblings, actually, as he discovered to his shock at age 15.) "It just comes from listening to people and being able to envision certain situations and combining them."
Veteran Heller watchers will discern an obvious parallel between the effects of Guillain-Barre' syndrome -- a mysterious, rarely fatal paralysis -- and King David's enervated plight. But Heller says no: "That was fortuitous and perhaps prophetic. I was working on the work about a year and a half and had about 300 pages done when I got sick."
While he was in intensive care, so weak that for four months he was fed through a tube in his nose, Heller says he kept his sense of humor -- even though when he was hooked to two intravenous bags, "people started making jokes about the Soldier in White." At one point, his old friend Mel Brooks turned up. "He was horrified. Mel Brooks fears death more than anybody in any of my books. I wasn't expecting him. He came in looking glum, and the first remark out of his mouth was, 'Did it begin with numbness in your feet and work its way up?' He'd been reading up on ascending paralysis, and was afraid he had it. And I said, 'I know why you're here -- you want me to immunize you, don't you?' "
The illness, which stretched between 1981 and 1982, proved costly in a way reminiscent of biblical retribution: The year before, Heller had left his wife of 35 years, and in the ensuing confusion, he says, he misplaced a $90 payment form and "my major medical policy was not renewed." As the rehabilitation costs mounted, he found himself $60,000 in debt and too weak to work for months.
The ordeal "did not affect the content of the book. I don't begin writing a book until I know the ending." He wrote the last paragraphs of "Catch-22" five years before finishing the novel. A prudent practice, since he's no fountain of inspiration. "I've only had four ideas for a novel in my life, and I've written all of them.
"What would be terrifying and paralyzing is to start a book and not know where I'm going. I once met Philip Roth at a party and at that time he was trying to discipline himself to write every day. He said he would often begin a story and after 60 or 70 pages just scrap it because he didn't know where it was going! I said, 'I don't do that because I'm afraid of just that.' "
Besides, "I write very slowly, though if I write a page or two a day five days a week, that's 300 pages a year and it does add up. I can't write on a typewriter. If I do, I do it too fast and it comes out in terrible sentences." Working by hand results in fewer rewrites. And although he has taught English at Penn State and the City College of New York, and spent two decades in the ad biz at Time, Look and McCall's, "I'm unable to write nonfiction -- I would take weeks trying to find an opening sentence for the opening paragraph." As for his recent mini-essay (a promotional coup) in TV Guide, "I said, 'Send somebody out with the questions you want me to answer, let me talk into a recorder, give me a typescript and I'll rewrite it.' "
And as for the stage, the author of "We Bombed in New Haven" (1968) will never write a play again: "I like the experience of writing a play. I don't like the experience of production. At the first meeting the act of compromise comes in. The thing I like about a novel is it's so isolated." He writes in three or four intense two-hour bursts per day. "I love the work, it's so personal and intimate. I bask in it, I lose myself in it."
By late '82 he was able to dress himself, walk short distances and write in his wheelchair, and "God Knows" was completed at the East Hampton home he has occupied for the past three years. (His divorce arrangement gave his wife the New York apartment.) "When I could begin moving again, I wanted to get familiar with what I'd written, since this is not a chronological story, and there were paragraphs and episodes that appear early in the book that could just as easily appear in the middle, and I'd forgotten where I'd put them." While editing, "I did start adding in some of my physical symptoms, such as the trembling fingers. You won't notice them now because I'm waving." But there is a perceptible quaver as he reaches for his coffee cup. And the left side of his face hangs slack, garbling the last syllables of some words -- a grinding frustration to Heller, who envies the fluency of genteel raconteurs like William F. Buckley Jr. or Gore Vidal, not to mention S.J. Perelman, whom he once met: "His whole vocabulary was a literary vocabulary."
Though East Hampton is a traditional summer venue for vacationing literati, Heller mixes primarily with a crony klatch of bachelor businessmen -- known ironically as the "Gourmet Club" -- with a fondness for bas cuisine. He's also close to novelist Mario Puzo, "but we were friends before I was a novelist." Camaraderie among authors, he says, "is not the way it used to be. Possibly in San Francisco and Santa Fe, writers do seek each other's company. In New York you tend to avoid each other -- there's a sense of self-consciousness, competition, rivalry." (Though during his convalescence he was feted by such local luminaries as Craig Claiborne and Irwin Shaw; and the Russian Tea Room sent out his favorite meal.)
Two companions proved invaluable during his paralysis. One is his long-time friend, retired executive Speed Vogel. "He was decorating my apartment when I got sick -- I've never lived alone, I didn't know how -- and then he moved in. He's an amateur artist, so he was able to sign checks for me when I no longer could, and he inscribed books for me that would come in the mail." The other is his former nurse, Valerie Humphries. When he was ambulatory, "she naively thought she'd be going back to the city. She's still there. I would call it a love story."
He and Vogel are now cowriting "No Laughing Matter," the story of Heller's illness with alternating chapters told from each author's point of view ("as my life deteriorated, his improved"); and Heller collaborated with a screenwriter on a script about a fortyish novelist abruptly striken with GBS. No takers yet: "We did it originally with Dustin Hoffman in mind, but he's busy with 'Death of a Salesman.' "
If this seems a somewhat pedestrian agenda for the fabled creator of "Catch-22" -- a book whose sense of baffled, helpless outrage perfused the subsequent decade so thoroughly that its title now ranks a place in Webster's -- well, don't look to Heller for belletristic high-mindedness.
He is unashamedly pragmatic about the origins of his masterpiece. After an MA in English at Columbia, a year's Fulbright scholarship at Oxford and two years of teaching at Penn State, he returned to New York and took up advertising. "The way 'Catch-22' began is that I'd just turned 30 and one day I decided maybe I was ready to write a novel. Not that I thought there was a need for a certain kind of novel. It began narcissistically: I was reading novels and reviews. And I began to feel I could do at least as well. Yet even then I proceeded with a great deal of caution and self-doubt." He wanted to avoid topicality, as he has in every book except "Good as Gold" (about the seductions of political power), and "I wasn't really writing about World War II in which he served as a bombadier . And the savage reactions -- other than the fear in those few missions -- were not mine. I was a dumb kid in the war and it was like a Hollywood movie to me."
His agent, Candida Donadio, submitted the first chapter to a literary quarterly. They took it, and "there was enough incentive to go on." It is widely believed that the book was repeatedly rejected until it finally reached editor Robert Gottlieb, then at Simon & Schuster and now at Knopf, who wanted to publish it. Actually, says Heller, it went to Gottlieb first. "It is conceivable that if my agent had submitted it to 12 publishers -- all of whom rejected it -- that I, who seem to have so much self-confidence, would have been practical enough to conclude that it was not as good as I thought it was" and aborted the project.
Heller received an advance of $1,500 -- "$750 now and $750 later," Heller recalls in deadpan. The paperback rights sold for $31,000, which after the publisher's split and agent's commission netted the author about $13,000. "It was never a best-seller in hardcover, and it took about four or five years before the name Joseph Heller would register with people." Meanwhile, he supported himself by teaching at the City College of New York until "Something Happened" became a best seller and freed him to write full time.
The monstrous acclaim finally accorded "Catch-22," he says, "was never an inhibiting factor to me -- if anything, it was a source of tremendous encouragement," since he could write the next book "confident that it would be carefully read and thoughtfully reviewed. If 'Something Happened' had been a first novel by somebody unknown, it might have run into a great, great deal of trouble. Even then, nearly half the reviews expressed disappointment that I had not produced another 'Catch-22.' "
Ten years later, he's still dogged by the same dismay. No matter. As he found when "Catch-22" was still a hopeful manuscript, "every person sitting down to write a book feels that it's the best book he's ever written, if not the best. That's a natural opinion, if not an objective one."