Bookmarks Issue: 

A Biography of Joseph Heller

A-Just One CatchTracy Daugherty is the author of Hiding Man (4 of 5 Stars May/June 2009), a biography of the writer Donald Barthelme, who was also his teacher. He has also written several novels and short stories.

The Topic: There was only one book, and that was Catch-22. That's how most Americans know Joseph Heller, despite a career that produced a number of novels besides his beloved satire on war and bureaucracy. Like that novel's sort-of protagonist, Capt. John Joseph Yossarian, Heller flew dozens of bombing runs in World War II--statistically, enough to guarantee his death. Other aspects of his darkly comic life and persona could be picked up from novels like Something Happened and his memoir Now and Then. But Daugherty's is the first biography of a writer--eccentric, brilliant, mischievous--who penned many people's favorite novel but who is few people's favorite novelist.
St. Martin's Press. 560 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780312596859

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Daugherty, the author of eight books of fiction as well as Hiding Man, a biography of the writer Donald Barthelme, combines a novelist's flair for character and narrative with astute critical analysis of Heller's work. He's especially strong on context, providing the political, literary, personal and broader cultural milieu in which each of Heller's books was produced." Heller McAlpin

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Daugherty's Just One Catch sets out the markers of Heller's life clearly enough, putting the biographical facts in order in one simple volume. It may lack for artistry and insight, but it's the first biography of Heller and a decent starting point." Carolyn Kellogg

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] thorough if slightly overstuffed biography that treats its not wholly likable subject with genial admiration. ... Dougherty is restrained in his criticism, not only with Heller's personality flaws but the quality of his work, which diminished with each subsequent novel." Ariel Gonzalez

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The curious saga of Catch-22's creation, from this moment of germination to its publication seven years later to its enduring status as a best-seller and countercultural icon, provides a needed jolt of energy to Just One Catch. The narrative of Heller's early years in Just One Catch sticks pretty close to the account in Heller's memoir, Now and Then. But the chronology is tricked up in a vaguely Hellerian fashion, padded with flashbacks and foreshadowing, a cumbersome approach in a biography." John Strawn

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"But the main problem here is not one of repetition so much as emphasis: I sometimes got the impression Daugherty had been writing a book on the postwar cultural ethos when he accepted the Heller assignment, whereupon he decided to merge the two, and not always in favor of his nominal subject. ... Daugherty is often perceptive about Heller's place in the larger culture, even if the novelist himself rarely comes into focus." Blake Bailey

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Daugherty [trawls] through seas of journalism and academic criticism in an attempt to cast the bellicose, gluttonous, philandering, putatively magnetic Heller in a positive light. With an unerring instinct for the untelling detail, Mr. Daugherty leaves nothing out: He presents us with lists of Heller's favorite foods, his childhood friends' nicknames, nearly every review of his books (characterizing each negative notice as ‘embittered' or the result of professional jealousy) and every joke told by Heller's buddies Ngoot Lee, Mel Brooks and Mario Puzo." Alec Solomita

Critical Summary

When asked why he had never written anything better than Catch-22, his first novel, Joseph Heller famously replied, "Who has?" Tracy Daugherty also faces the problem of being first. Many critics praised his book primarily because they felt a biography of Heller was overdue, rather than for Daugherty's authorial prowess. No reviewer used the adjectives writers generally like to see applied to their research--"exhaustive" or "extensive"--while several suggested the work may have been rushed to coincide with Catch-22's 50th anniversary. Reviewers were more impressed by Daugherty's analysis of the meaning and context of each of Heller's novels, though some also found these sections bloated and deferential. All in all, critics agreed that the best section of the book is the description of how Catch-22 was written and published.

Supplemental Reading

Yossarian Slept Here When Joseph Heller Was Dad, The Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22 | Erica Heller (2011): Critics mentioned Joseph Heller's daughter's memoir for further insight into the writer's life and the Hellers' dysfunctional, turbulent family life.