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Susan Braudy

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I Remember Joe Heller -- Part 2

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 1:53 pm

Continued from Part 1

When I knew him at Yale, Joseph Heller was 44 and a bit too fleshy. His graying curly hair was
tamped down, and he had long sideburns. He looked like he'd just indulged his appetite for food at the expense of other physical activities.

Years later he slimmed down, styled his curling white hair and became, I've read, something of a ladies' man. A friend told me recently that his late wife had asked her if I was having an affair with him. The idea had never entered my mind. It would be like lusting after the haughty stone lions guarding the entrance of the New York Public Library. I told his daughter Erica as much, after she confided that when he died, women called her from all over the country to remember inappropriately romantic nights with Joe.

Joseph Heller demonstrated an aggressive, sometimes cruel humor. "Who the hell are you?" he asked me one day in his classroom.

The playwriting students twisted their necks to stare.

"... auditing," I squeaked.

"What gives you the right to take my class for free?"

My throat closed.

Sometimes I think somatizing should be my middle name. I feel everything too strongly, and this frequently becomes a physical problem. But luckily I have little visceral memory for pain.

First-year acting student Henry Winkler piped up, "Susan's a faculty wife."

Henry was so unpretentious and he made me laugh.

"Hmmm," Heller said, staring at me. Then he said, "Just kidding, you're welcome here, I guess." He added his insincere, "hah-hah-hah."

Joseph Heller was such a proud New Yorker! He mostly called it 'the city' as New Yorkers do no matter where they are. He bragged that everyone in the city is kind of Jewish, kind of Irish, kind of Italian and more than a little black. He told us a psychoanalyst helps him dig down to find his deepest pain. He joked that he was only in therapy to gather ammunition for fights with his wife. This way he could always lie to her and say, "My therapist thinks it's all your fault."

I never heard anybody talk like Joe Heller about subjects that were taboo in my hometown, genteel Quaker Philadelphia, where seeing a psychiatrist is sickening humiliation, almost as awful as going to jail. Despite his exotic attitude, Heller felt inordinately familiar. His sighs and grunts, conveyed strong mixed emotions; such as misery/hostility/irony/sadism/humor.

His sounds reminded me of my mother (no less) a provincial Jew, who muffled her ethnicity to fit the unassuming Quaker ethos of Philadelphia. (As an adolescent I died of embarrassment when she glared at large diamonds on strangers' fingers.)

Studying Heller was a revelation. He filled in many silences with which my mother greeted my questions.

The man gloried in being Jewish. (I can't believe, for instance, that nobody'd told me my father's Saturday ritual of bagels and salty lox and cream cheese was somehow a Jewish thing -- as were my maternal grandfather's clothing factories.)

I could tell by fleeting unhappy expressions on my mother's face that she believed living in Philadelphia is somehow not as good as living in Manhattan. Joe Heller made it crystal clear!

Here's an aspect of my problem: growing up in mid-20th century Philadelphia, the genteel ellipses tortured me. The most important things were simply not discussed: for example, as a pre-adolescent I assumed Tampax and Senator Joe McCarthy were part of the same problem since my mother sighed and refused to answer all questions about them. She also refused to tell me how she voted or if she believed in God.

My Jewish parents never told me about the Holocaust but during my senior year of high school a friend's rich mother, a Holocaust survivor, finally told me how she'd escaped a gas chamber at the last minute by slipping into a locker (she'd lost half her body weight). My mother pinched in her beautiful Cupid's bow lips and would only say, I'll get you some library books.

But Heller was a different story. Joe Heller told his students many of his truths and fiercely. (I later learned he had a group of male friends who called themselves the Gourmet Club including Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks who ate meals together and shouted true unspeakable things. Puzo once announced that sexual intercourse was flawed because it leads to kissing.)

He did have one taboo.

Funnily enough, he pretty much refused to talk about literature, a holy subject that didn't fit his street attitude. (He did once mumble awe for Samuel Beckett.) Oh, and he didn't teach playwriting either.

He had one subject. Himself.

Thus, as I'd hoped, he inadvertently gave me clues about how to be a writer. He said he got his best ideas waking up -- that's why he tried to take two afternoon naps. He said he spent twelve years writing Catch-22, nights on the kitchen table. By day, he wrote dog and pony shows -- millions of dollars worth of seductive presentations to lure advertisers to McCalls' magazine. He bragged that his slide show The Pages That Sell was the main attraction at his last sales convention. He added, I'm a born promotion man. Whereupon Henry Winkler stage whispered, If I wrote Catch-22, I'd bill myself as a born novelist. Heller laughed with the rest of us.

I kept re-reading Catch-22. I admired Joe Heller so much. As an artist, he dared to write the unthinkable: that it's totally insane to be 22 years old and to see another soldier's half-digested lunch spill in a bloody mess out of his flak jacket after he'd been pulverized by a bomb.

Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden's flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden's insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out... Here was God's plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared -- liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, and bits of stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch... Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot like other kinds of garbage... The spirit gone, man is garbage...


'I'm cold," Snowden said. "I'm cold.'

This passage of Catch-22 is immortal. As is the anti-war message of the book. I believe it's up there with To Kill A Mockingbird and Portnoy's Complaint as the three best American novels of the 20th century.