At 38, Joseph Heller was a doddering ancient by today’s standards when Catch-22 appeared, but the truth was, he’d been publishing short fiction for 16 years. In fact, Heller debuted in Story alongside that other late-’40s wunderkind, Norman Mailer. But while the pugilist began pounding out a book a year, Heller dawdled; when he died in 1999, he left behind some 20 unpublished stories, most dating from the palm-sweaty decade of his twenties, when he was trying very hard to appear stoic.
Catch as Catch Can collects five of these tales along with Heller’s previously published short fiction, two Catch-22 outtakes, a play, some riffs on writing, and one memoir. “This volume is not Joseph Heller’s wastebasket,” assert the editors, but it’s certainly a grab bag.
Reading these stories, one senses two Joseph Hellers at work: the earnest youth pounding away on his typewriter, his vision clouded by ambition, and the more accomplished stylist of the later novels. Curiously, there is no evolution from one Heller to the next. Were it not for the byline, the early stories, which make up the bulk of the book, could be written by anyone publishing in the 1940s. Short, declarative sentences push plot along, while pithy descriptions of weather cue the mood. Their characters are usually WW II veterans who hang out at luncheonettes and pool halls, nursing their angst one Pall Mall drag at a time. Dames say things like “What a rotten, stinking world,” and Heller’s heroes respond in kind.
Of these efforts, two unpublished stories about a junk-addicted vet, “A Day in the Country” and “To Laugh in the Morning,” stand out for their seemingly autobiographical roots. Though filled with melodramatic phrasing, they pick at their own bitterness with fetid fascination; it’s as if Heller is working up the courage to write about something truly unpleasant. In the end, it would be some time before that something happened. One character’s inner monologue might explain why Heller spun his wheels so long: “You saw how immense the world was, and you realized that you were so limited it was all going to waste around you, and you felt that you had to do something quick.” As Heller’s no longer around, only God knows whether he would have preferred such apprentice works not to see the light of day.