07/25/2011 04:37 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

What's the Catch?

Just read the excerpt in Vanity Fair of the new Joseph Heller biography, which includes this graf:

Candida (pronounced Can-dih-duh) Donadio, who would become Heller's new agent, was about 24 years old, Brooklyn-born, from a family of Italian immigrants. ... In time, her client roster came to include some of the most prominent names in American letters: John Cheever, Jessica Mitford, Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Robert Stone, Michael Herr, and Peter Matthiessen. "She really was the agent of her generation," a young co-worker, Neil Olson, recalled. And Catch-18 started it all.

There's no mention of Nelson Algren despite the fact that Donadio herself regarded him as the cream of her crop.

More to the point, it was Algren's review of Catch-22 (as the novel was retitled when it was published 50 years ago) that gave Heller the biggest boost he ever got. It's often quoted by scholars. Here, for example, is John Aldridge in the Michigan Quarterly Review, in 1987, pointing out that Algren:

...made what became perhaps the most famous pronouncement on a literary subject to be uttered since John O'Hara announced, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review back in 1950, that Hemingway was "the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare." Algren, with far greater precision, called Catch-22 "not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel to come out of anywhere in years." [Emphasis added.]

That was just part of Algren's claim, which appeared in the Nov. 4, 1961, edition of The Nation, in a review titled 'The Catch." Here, in context, is what he wrote:

To preserve his sanity against the formalized lunacy of the military mind in action, [the novel's protagonist] Yossarian had to turn madman. Yet even Yossarian is more the patriot than Sgt. Minderbinder, the business mind in action. Even Yossarian has to protest when Minderbinder arranges with the Germans to let them knock American planes down at a thousand dollars per plane. Minderbinder is horrified--"Have you no respect for the sanctity of a business contract?" he demands of Yossarian, and Yossarian feels ashamed of himself.

Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II. The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity are lost within it. That the horror and the hypocrisy, the greed and the complacency, the endless cunning and the endless stupidity which now go to constitute what we term Christianity are dealt with here in absolutes, does not lessen the truth of its repudiation. Those happy few who hit upon Terry Southern's The Magic Christian will find that, what Southern said with some self-doubt, Heller says with no doubt whatsoever. To compare Catch-22 favorably with The Good Soldier Schweik would be an injustice, because this novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years.

Business contracts and Christianity still trump all else in today's America. What a suprise. Oh yeah. Coincidentally, the review helps explain why Mailer and others among the literati thumbed a nose at Algren.

It's possible that Vanity Fair edited Algren out of the excerpt, though I doubt that. More likely the author of The Neon Wilderness, The Man With the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, Never Come Morning, Chicago: City on the Make, and a half dozen other memorable books, simply didn't rise to a sufficient level of "prominence" in the biographer's mind.