3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2005
Joseph Heller is famous for bringing the phrase catch-22 into the popular lexicon with his best-selling first novel, "Catch-22." However, Heller did write short stories before his novel days began. Well-crafted short stories - five never before published - a play and non-fiction writings by Heller comprise this posthumously published book thanks to the editing of Matthew J. Bruccoli of the University of South Carolina and Park Brucker.
"Catch as Catch Can" is a delicious treat for "Catch-22" fans who desire more of Heller's black comedy since a third of the book concerns itself with the novel, "Catch-22." "Yossarian Survives," a small chapter originally deleted from "Catch-22," contains the irresistibly funny lines, "Don't just lie there while you're waiting for the ambulance. Do push ups."
But what really makes this collection interesting, especially for aspiring writers, is "observing Joseph Heller's apprenticeship." Heller's first published short story, "I Don't Love You Any More," dates from 1945 and is about a military man returning from WWII who decides he is not in love with his wife anymore. This short story and many other early ones lack Heller's satirical voice perfected in his novels. There are hints of the biting humor, but the reader can clearly sense Heller is struggling for his own voice. Heller in fact writes, "there wasn't much distinctive about all but two or three of the stories I was writing at this time. I now wanted to be new . . . Original." Bruccoli and Brucker write, "Not until `MacAdam's Log' (`Gentlemen's Quarterly', 1959) did Heller break through the conventional magazine formula." "Catch as Catch Can" allows us to catch Heller's progression from stock short-story writer to literary genius.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
If for no other reason, fans of Joseph Heller will enjoy this book because it supplements his great work "Catch-22". While some of the short stories are amusing, they are largely unspectacular in showing a young writer developing his craft.
The short story "Yossarian Survives" is a humorous chapter that was deleted from "Catch-22". Some might suggest it is the centerpiece of this collection. "Catch-23: Yossarian Lives" and "The Day Bush Left Office" are previews to the sequel to "Catch-22" called "Closing Time". Restated in the form of a play is an omitted chapter titled "Clevinger's Trial". "Love, Dad" further develops the Nately character from "Catch-22". This is a virtual goldmine for lovers of "Catch-22".
The non-fictional "I am a Bombardier" and "Coney Island: The Fun is Over" are vivid recollections of Heller's pre-war and post-war observations respectively. The loss of childhood innocence in "Coney Island" is heartbreaking.
These short stories are only a demonstration of a writer learning his craft. Though these stories are unspectacular, a few are noteworthy. "Girl for Greenwich" shows parallels to the plot of Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Substance abuse is a common theme in the other stories. "I Don't Love You Anymore" and "A Man Named Flute" stand out in this theme.
With respect to this collection of stories, fans of "Catch-22" and Joseph Heller will be delighted in the stories. It is a misfortune that it is so difficult to find in print in America.
Few novels impart the sense of the 1960s as did Heller's "Catch-22". It might be considered the guidebook for the movement to end the fallacy of the United States' involvement in Viet Nam. So abrupt was Heller's rise to prominence with that novel that his previous work was nearly lost to view. This collection restores somewhat our sense of how Heller developed as a writer. From the time of his discharge from the Air Force to "Catch-22" eight short stories were published. That they faded from perception can best be attributed to the blazing popularity of the novel and the social upheaval occuring during the ensuing years.
The editors have gleaned this collection from among Heller's published and unpublished works ranging from 1945 to 1990. This anthology is a mix of fiction and social essays, giving us a good insight into Heller's experiences, thinking and writing skills. The latter are particularly demonstrated in their growth from his early stories through his descriptions of "Catch-22" in its writing and filming. The stories and essays are grouped into those published and those left unseen. There is also the one-act play derived from a character in "Catch-22", "Clevinger's Trial". The play is highly derivative of Heller's view of military procedures and "justice" in assessing its own. Given that, however, little of the novel's spirited style is exhibited here. Excellent narrative style, but little of the incisive wit is displayed. Those who have read "Catch-22" might be led to believe this is not the same writer.
The editors open with excerpts from "Now and Then" in which Heller credits writings of the "urban school" of William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw and Studs Lonigan. There is little doubt, however, that Heller was his "own man" when he wrote, as this collection verifies. From the opening story of a returning soldier's homecoming, through a sequence of tales about New York characters, Heller transmits his ability to record human foibles. The stories are intense and compelling, not the least of which is the life of an addict. In "A Man Named Flute", Heller acknowledges the concern of parents during the post-war years when the drug trade entered an expansionary phase. Among my favourite pieces is the imaginary resignation of George Bush from the Presidency - and that's the first one!
Yossarian, that incomparable survivor from "Catch-22" returns to these pages still struggling to stave off the inevitable. Also inevitable is to compare Yossarian with Heller. Heller's penetrating eye and scathing pen are vividly present in "Yossarian Survives" as well as in the play. He also turns his gaze on the site of his former Corsican airfield in "Catch-22 Revisited" and in depicting the making of the film. He also recapitulates his career as a bombardier in the Mediterranean.
This is a fine collection from a leading American author. Those enamoured of the short story format will be amply rewarded by adding this anthology to their collection. Heller is lamentably gone, and his replacement has yet to appear. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on March 19, 2004
As a fan or Mr. Heller's books (especially Catch-22) I found his early writing very interesting. The short stories in this book vary from excellant to very under developed. Important to note that when he was an undergraduate, some of these stories where accepted by The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. Today, if a student reached those lofty heights they would be in very very rare company.
Early in the book the short stories are more serious less humorous than you would expect from Heller. They are more along the line of what you would find when reading Dubus or Carver. As you progress there are stories written involving Catch-22 characters (Nately, Yossarian) that take place after the war, after Catch-22.
The book then moves to pieces written during the early 1990's at he time of George H. Bush's administration. These pieces are biting satires in regards to our former president and his political stands.
One will also find within the pages, a re-printed lecture Heller gave regarding Catch-22.
As you can see, the book was constructive post-mortem and has the feel of work randomly inserted. It's difficult to get into the flow for a long literary sitting. For example, once I became involved and settled in his short work, the book took me to other well-written places, but places I was not ready for.
1 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2008
If there's ever been a greater example of a single author milking a single bit of work more than Joseph Heller I don't want to read him. It's been years since I read his classic Catch-22 satire of the Army during World War Two- although I aim to read it again within the year- and it was a good book, to my best recollection. But, my word, give it a rest. The whole of Catch As Catch Can: The Collected Stories And Other Writings is a virtual homage to Heller's most well-known book. Not even J.D. Salinger has sucked the life out of his The Catcher In The Rye like Heller has Catch-22. This book is divided into five parts- thirteen previously published stories, five previously unpublished stories, a play- Clevinger's Trial- based upon Catch-22, a four piece non-fiction section called On Catch-22, and a single Recollection called Coney Island: The Fun Is Over. The recollection has moments, the only worthwhile thing in the On Catch-22 section is Joseph Heller Talks About Catch-22, in which the process of bringing book to film screen is engaged, and the two fiction sections amply demonstrate Heller's limited range as a fictionist. It's almost as if his obsession with his one hit is because he knows this mostly banal and dull collection is the best of the rest of what he had to offer. Of the tales, there are no real standouts, no stories that are unforgettable, and most read like third rate John O'Hara. They are also very dated, and at best they reach mere competence.... The question I have is why such a piss-poor collection of B Side rot was ever released? Editors Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker state that the texts of the works in this book are unaltered because writers who have died cannot approve changes. I would submit that Heller probably knew the little literary quality these works had, so therefore never wanted to see them hit print, and would probably have been angered that four years after his death in 1999 this tripe was published. Fortunately, I paid under $5 for this new hardback version at Half Price Books. Don't you pay a dime, unless you are just so devoted to every little fart and idea Heller had about his most famous work. Give the man his due- Catch-22, the phrase and novel, will be around as long as military and bureaucratic stupidity is, but this collection should never have seen print, for its existence only reinforces that claim with dramatically depressing conviction. Lesson learned: let the dead rest, in their graves and on their laurels.
3 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2003
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
That arch British Imperialist pioneer-buccaneer-millionaire Cecil Rhodes famously observed - wrongly as it turned out - that he had achieved true immortality because the central African nation of Rhodesia had taken its name from his. "They can't change a country's name, can they?" he boastfully but plaintively observed, never dreaming that within 100 years "his" country would dissolve into "Zimbabwe" and " "Zambia."
A truly apt expression, however, is likely to endure, for who is going to change a catchphrase which shines a spotlight on a circumstance which formerly took a mess of words to describe? Which brings us to Joseph Heller, who does seem to have achieved immortality for as long as spoken English contains the phrase Catch-22.
The New Oxford American Dictionary gives it a remarkably concise definition, "catch-22: a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent circumstances," but even so, it takes 18 words to describe what Heller achieved in one and a half. And certainly this dictionary gives him his due, going on to say: "ORIGIN 1970s: title of a novel by Joseph Heller (1961), in which the main character feigns madness in order to avoid dangerous combat missions, but his desire to avoid them is taken to prove his sanity." So Heller has made a contribution to the language, has perhaps identified as well as named a troublesome conundrum, but what of his contribution to literature?
Insofar as he has made one, it has to rest on "Catch-22," certainly Heller's magnum opus, and light years ahead of any of his other novels, let alone the odds and ends contained in this depressing little collection, "Catch As Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings." Even the title of this posthumous volume is a blatant effort to ride on the wings of the one thing he wrote which has any vestige of literary merit. Yet, how much does even "Catch-22" possess?
That master of satirical war fiction, Evelyn Waugh, certainly did not think much of it. In what must have been one of the most misguided literary publicity efforts of all time, Heller's publishers sought a blurb from the author of "Sword of Honour," the crowning achievement of World War II fiction. The middle-aged curmudgeon's reply was not merely a crushing blow to the publicist's enterprise, but is also a devastating judgment upon the book:
"[Catch-22] suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of 'Milo' should be eliminated or greatly reduced.
"You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches - often repetitious - totally without structure.
"Much of the dialogue is funny.
"You may quote me as saying: 'This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.'"
Waugh's critique goes to the heart of what is wrong with the novel. Heller is not alone in emerging from World War II with stories to tell about snafus and incompetence. Waugh himself did it - who can forget his indelible portrait of the unsuccessful assault upon Dakar, as well as scores of incidents large and small, rife with tragicomedy? And Heller's contemporaries, from Norman Mailer to James Jones and Leon Uris, showed the confusion of military life in that great war of liberation. But Heller lacks not only literary skills but also real passion, which even a writer like Uris was capable of harnessing in a novel like "Battle Cry."
The smallness of Heller's vision, his determination to visit his hero's (and one suspects his own) inadequacies on the whole enterprise upon which he is engaged, his lack of any gravitas - all these contribute to a profoundly dispiriting credo.
It's one thing not feel you have to trumpet the "greatest generation," but to lose sight entirely of the essence of the conflict is to miss the opportunity to put his personal kvetch into some sort of context.
People will continue to read Ivan Turgenev's great novel of the generation gap, "Fathers and Sons," for its literary qualities and for what it has to say about human nature and not merely because it is the book where the term "nihilist" was coined. In the end, all that is of value about "Catch-22" is the catchphrase: The book itself is dispensable.
But the novel was not only an instant phenomenon, it continued to burgeon, a legend in its own time. And what a time it was, that other low, dishonest decade, the Sixties. In "Reeling in Catch-22," one of the essays which the editors of "Catch as Catch Can" saw fit to add to the pieces of fiction that make up the bulk of the volume, Heller comments on the serendipitous confluence of "Catch-22" and its time:
"'Catch-22' came to the attention of college students at about the same time that the moral corruption of the Vietnam War became evident. The treatment of the military as corrupt, ridiculous and asinine could be applied literally to that war. Vietnam was a lucky coincidence - lucky for me, not for the people. Between the mid- and late-Sixties, the paperback of 'Catch-22' went from 12 printings to close to 30.
"There was change in spirit, a new spirit of healthy irreverence. There was a general feeling that the platitudes of Americanism were horse sxxt. Number one, they didn't work. Number two, they weren't true. Number three, the people giving voice to them didn't believe them either. The phrase 'Catch-22' began appearing more and more frequently in a wide range of contexts. I began hearing from people who believed I'd named the book after the phrase."
The author seems very pleased with his good fortune, but what if it wasn't entirely accidental? Art, after all, can influence life, for better or worse. It is a little scary to contemplate the role this self-indulgent, whiny novel might have played in making its era something of a mirror to its destructive, corrosive qualities.
And what of Heller's later career? There are novels such as "Good as Gold," which make me wince as I remember their crude caricature combined with an air of monumental self-satisfaction. Having sat through his play "We Bombed in New Haven" (still another version of the "Catch-22" story), when it was appropriately enough given its premiere in the eponymous city at the Yale Drama School, I can testify that his skills as a dramatist were not noticeably superior to those as a novelist.
The phrase heard most often about the play that evening in the late Sixties was that It had indeed bombed in New Haven, a quip for which this hubristic and more than usually self-deluded playwright seemed to be asking. As for the stories collected in "Catch as Catch Can," they are banal beyond belief, some of them rising almost to the level of competence but none of them having anything original to contribute to the reader's understanding of either ideas or the human condition.
Indeed, some are so generic that I felt that I had read them before even though to the best of my recollection I had not.
Given the artistic level of both the published and heretofore unpublished short stories, it is unfortunate that the editors should have chosen to make such extravagant claims for Heller: "Heller set out to become a professional writer and became a literary genius."
Not even close. Say a quiet thank you to Joseph Heller for inventing catch-22 if you are so inclined, read the novel - if you are very curious as to the phrase's etiology and if you prefer satire that employs a blunt instrument rather than a rapier -- but do not waste your time on the scraps of an undistinguished literary career contained in this overblown book.