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Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller Hardcover – August 2, 2011
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"Tracy Daugherty's Just One Catch is a large literary biography, rich with anecdote, and full of dirt that only an aspiring author would love. The story of how the sketches of "Catch-18" became Catch-22, of how Heller's agent and publisher secured the book, of how it took him eight years to finish it, and of how it eventually made him rich and famous are so compellingly written as to be porn for the unpublished."—San Francisco Chronicle
"There's no catch. Tracy Daugherty has written a generous, smart and comprehensive biography of a 21st Century American master. "—Gary Shteyngart
"Just One Catch is a truly smart and compelling biography of a major American writer. Joseph Heller wrote our greatest war novel and made a lasting contribution to the idiom, but he was also a singular figure through decades of cultural transformation. Tracy Daughtery deftly situates Heller's role in the American saga while never losing sight of the man, his grand literary quest, his huge personality, his politics, his passions, his weaknesses and kindnesses, his appetites.”—Sam Lipsyte
“Just One Catch is not only an intricate and compassionate portrait of its subject, but also an absorbing account of the genesis of the novel that irrevocably transformed mid-20th century American discourse. And even more than that, it’s a revelatory and moving social history: a reminder of a now-vanished culture in which the literary and the political informed one another in the most crucial and formative ways.”—Jim Shepard
“In addition to chronicling the life of an iconic American novelist, it also provides a kind of literary equivalent to TV's Mad Men, pulling the reader into a world that eerily replicates our own, even as we thought we'd left that world long ago. The pleasure of reading this biography is in Daugherty's ability to both frighten and reassure us that history does indeed repeat itself. Which information is a real catch 22.”—Antonya Nelson
"Catch-22 is the great comic American novel of the 20th century. Tracy Daugherty has given us a biography worthy of its author. A major achievement, or should I say major major major?"—Christopher Buckley
“A masterful, wonderfully thought-provoking biography about one of America’s greatest contributors to 20th century literature. Both touching and illuminating, this is that rare biography worthy of its source material.”—Stan Lee
About the Author
TRACY DAUGHERTY is the author of four novels, four short story collections, and a book of personal essays. His critically acclaimed biography of Donald Barthelme, HIDING MAN was published in 2009. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently, he is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.
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Tracy Daugherty has written a scholarly and thoughtful biography of an author unfairly thought of as a one-hit wonder. Unlike many modern biographies he has not done more than hint at the darker psychology of Mr. Heller nor has he written a tell-all listing Heller's indiscretions and detailing his failures.
Mr. Daugherty makes the case for Joseph Heller as an important writer and does so by detailing his role in a remarkably literate generation of American writers. He argues that Joe Heller was ahead of his generation in that he took themes that had already been addressed and took them forward.
Catch 22, his most famous book demonstrates this hypothesis. It was written about World War II after the best World War II novels had been published. However this book is not really about World War II or even about war in general. This places this book at the front edge of those who would reject the company man image that was dominating the 50s and early 60s. The saying of the time was Catch 22 was written during the Korean War about World War II but in condemnation of what would become the war in Vietnam.
About his later works Mr. Daugherty makes a good case that his later books were increasingly personal books but also ones that spoke of trends that were not yet ripe in the American conscience.
The other strength of Daugherty's book is the time and effort taken to describe the American literary milieu during Joe Heller's generation. A remarkable number of writers came out of New York City with some combination of the Coney Island Jewish Catskills East Coast experience. Joe Heller would be a drinking and dining buddy with many of these people all of whom seem to respect his personal and literary merit.
As someone who first responded to Catch 22 in part because of the brilliant joyful play with language and only secondarily for its political and social commentary his later works take more work to appreciate. Having read Just One Catch, it is likely that I will go back and reread some of these later books now that I have a better appreciation of what Heller was attempting.
I say again: get this book now while it's still available and get a better appreciation for an author who in giving us Catch 22 gave our culture the best catch there is.
However, I found this book difficult to give a "star" rating. Some parts of the book are 5 stars. These parts focus on Heller and one aspect of his life. They are clear and well written. Daugherty likes to use quotes extensively, and some of the better parts are when the passages communicate information about the influences regarding Heller's life without reading a quote every other sentence. I also liked discovering other authors of this time, like William Saroyan, who wrote a great story called "Tracy's Tiger."
Other parts of the book are worth 2-4 stars. These are the parts (which can go on for pages) that focus more on the peripherals of Heller's life and I found many of them uninteresting. I felt as if Daugherty was required to name drop EVERY person Heller met, and she goes off on tangents in order to explain who that person was in Heller's life. Some of these people are influential to Heller, I am sure, but it slowed this biography down to a crawl. In fact, this is a long read, and I think it could have been cut down by about 100 pages and still been equally biographical.
In addition, I feel this book is more than a biography of Joseph Heller. The book should really be called Just One Catch: A Biography of America Post World War II. Again, these are the parts that were both very interesting and very boring to me. Some aspects of American culture in the 50's and 60's were enlightening. I enjoyed learning about different parts of America that are rarely discussed today, like the advertising industry and how Jews were treated in different industries. I also enjoyed learning how Heller both influenced our literary canon and how he was influenced by it. However, like I said earlier, other parts of this book seem unnecessary when the focus moves away from Heller and into some small detail of someone (or something, like a building) else's life.
This is why I was conflicted with my star ratings. I decided to go with 4 stars because by the time I got done reading, and by thinking about the book as a whole rather than parts, I did enjoy my time reading about Heller's life. I certainly enjoyed learning more about the books Heller wrote that I have not read yet. And I really enjoyed learning about the authors and contemporaries of Heller's life.
Finally, despite my lack of enjoyment for all parts of this book, I would recommend Daugherty's biography to anyone who has read Catch-22 and has any interest in Joseph Heller. If you have never heard of Heller, or you have not read Catch-22, I think this book would have a very limited appeal. But if you are fan of Heller, this book will certainly help you understand the context in which Heller lived, wrote, and enjoyed life.
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