On the Gold Standard

Good As Gold

by Joseph Heller
Simon and Schuster, 447 pp., $12.95

Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller; drawing by David Levine

History outpaces the writer who works slowly, and the anachronistic quality in Joseph Heller’s novels is understandable; but it does create some curious effects. Catch-22 became one of the sacred texts of the 1960s, when thousands of real American soldiers reenacted Yossarian’s flight to Sweden and many more of their contemporaries and elders followed them in spirit. But the book is less a prediction of the 1960s and 1970s than a bleak summing up of the 1940s and 1950s. It took us a while to catch on after its publication in 1961, as if we were waiting for the Cuban missile crisis, the first Kennedy assassination, and the full horror of Southeast Asia to persuade us of its aptness as contemporary myth.

That aptness, I think, depended upon a misreading of the novel. Its mood is surely that of the servicemen who, after learning to hate the army in World War II, came home and went to work for civilian versions of it. Though it had much to teach their children twenty years later, it can scarcely have meant to encourage their hopeful trust in moral principles and political causes. (To judge by the acidulous portrayals of adolescent malcontents in Something Happened and Good As Gold, Heller feels no great fondness for the young.) In fact Catch-22 is an end-of-ideology book, which sees any commitment as fruitless and mad except the commitment to one’s own survival. Yossarian’s problem is not political but existential; he knows that the enemy is not the Germans or even his own demented officers but death itself, especially his own death. The young readers who thought of him while they opted out were wrong about the book, though not about their world.

Bob Slocum, the central character in Something Happened (1974), also seems behind the times. Despite being given some contemporaneous problems to worry about, like drugs, crime, and racial violence, Slocum comes straight out of the Eisenhower years—an organization man being destroyed by his struggle for authority at the office and in his affluent suburban household. If the subject seems a little passé, still there are Slocums all around us, and many of them indeed were damaged by trying to live by the assumptions of that strange time.

Something Happened goes wrong, I think, by supposing that the origins of Slocum’s moral deformation are internal and psychological, not historical at all. Over and over we hear about his early sexual frustrations, his textbook memories of primal scenes and parental rejections, his compulsion to associate sex, work, and death in a way that disables him for serious experience of any of them. Nothing suggests that his cultural origins (vaguely lower middle-class and white Protestant) or his responses to the social and political conditions of the time he’s said to be living in have helped make him what he is. Nor, though the book has been praised as…

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