Monday, November 7, 2011

Catch-22 Week: "Emotional pretzels"

A first-time novelist is a sensitive creature, like one of those fragile fish you bring up from the deepest, darkest ocean trench.  There is a good chance it will dissolve in sunlight or, more likely, explode under pressure.  I should know.  I'll be one of those pale, anxious trench-dwellers when my first novel hits bookstores next year.

Before that comes the most fragile of fragile times: the moment the debut novel lands on book critics' desks.  I should know.  I've been reviewing books for more than a decade and I know the weight a careless adjective can carry.  (Not that I'm Michiko Kakutani, but I like to think one or two of you out there are maybe paying attention to my opinions.)

In early October 1961, Joseph Heller sat in his New York City apartment waiting for the reviews of Catch-22 to start trickling in.  The Simon and Schuster publicity machine had already pulled out all the stops, sending copies of the unpublished book to potential blurbers.  Art Buchwald sent a telegram from Paris: PLEASE CONGRATULATE JOSEPH HELLER ON MASTERPIECE CATCH-22 STOP I THINK IT IS ONE OF THE GREATEST WAR BOOKS STOP SO DO IRWIN SHAW AND JAMES JONES.  Harper Lee opined that "Catch-22 is the only war novel I've ever read that makes any sense."

Click to enlarge

In the September 11 issue of Publishers Weekly, Simon and Schuster took out a full-page ad which said, in part, "The growing ferment of interest in Catch-22 confirms our faith that Joseph Heller's outrageously funny, powerful, totally original novel will be one of the major publishing events of the fall."

Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Studs Terkel gave it an enthusiastic rave review:  "Page after page, you will howl, you will roar.  You may even fall off your chair as I did.  Suddenly you will sit up and mumble:  'What's so funny?'  To call it the finest comic novel of our day is faulting it.  To call it a surrealistic commentary of our time won't do either.  Is it any more surrealistic than the neutron bomb, guaranteed to damage neither brick nor metal and merely kill man?"

But then....

The New York Times Book Review assigned the novel to a writer named Richard G. Stern.  Here is his review, in full, as it appeared in the October 22, 1961 issue:
      "Catch-22" has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility. A portrait gallery, a collection of anecdotes, some of them wonderful, a parade of scenes, some of them finely assembled, a series of descriptions, yes, but the book is no novel. One can say that it is much too long because its material--the cavortings and miseries of an American bomber squadron stationed in late World War II Italy--is repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest. Its author, Joseph Heller, is like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto one canvas, relying on their charm and shock to compensate for the lack of design.
      If "Catch-22" were intended as a commentary novel, such sideswiping of character and action might be taken care of by thematic control. It fails here because half its incidents are farcical and fantastic. The book is an emotional hodgepodge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.
      As satire "Catch-22" makes too many formal concessions to the standard novels of our day. There is a certain amount of progress: the decent get killed off, the self-seekers prosper, and there is even a last minute turnabout as the war draws to an end. One feels the author should have gone all the way and burlesqued not only the passions and incidents of war, but the traditions of representing them as well. It might have saved him from some of the emotional pretzels which twist the sharpness of his talent.

Ouch.  Even fifty years later, I can feel the sting of the barb.

In his biography of Heller, Just One Catch, Tracy Daugherty writes "Joe could quote it bitterly, word for word, three decades later.  'I didn't think [my family and I] would ever smile again,' he told David Straitfeld of New York magazine."

Even so, Joseph Heller could take consolation in the fact that within only a few short years his was a household name.  As for Richard G. Stern, who remembers him today?*  The note at the bottom of that New York Times review states "Mr. Stern is the author of 'Golk' and other books."

"Golk"?  Who's ever heard of "Golk"?  It's not like it has its own entry in The American Heritage Dictionary, now does it?

Sometimes, when they're hardy and tough enough, writers don't burst from the pressure or dissolve in the hot sunshine of hard criticism.

*I realize I'm being unfairly hard on Mr. Stern and freely admit I've never read any of his books, many of which have been praised by readers and critics.  I'm merely trying to make a point here about how critics aren't always right.  Or, who knows, maybe Mr. Stern still feels the same way about Catch-22.  More's the pity if he does.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, David. Now I have to go Google "Golk." I loved Catch-22 so much when I first read it as a high school senior that I blew the money I earned as a clerk at Blockbuster Video on a pristine, blue leather-bound hardback edition, the kind with the gold embellishments. It's the only book I own in a fancy edition.