Catch as Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings of Joseph Heller


Years before the publication of Catch-22 ("A monumental artifact of contemporary literature" — The New York Times; "An apocalyptic masterpiece" — Chicago Sun-Times; "One of the most bitterly funny works in the language" — The New Republic), Joseph Heller began sharpening his skills as a writer, searching for the voice that would best express his own peculiarly wry view of the world.
In Catch As Catch Can, editors Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker have for the first time ...

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Catch as Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings of Joseph Heller

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Years before the publication of Catch-22 ("A monumental artifact of contemporary literature" — The New York Times; "An apocalyptic masterpiece" — Chicago Sun-Times; "One of the most bitterly funny works in the language" — The New Republic), Joseph Heller began sharpening his skills as a writer, searching for the voice that would best express his own peculiarly wry view of the world.
In Catch As Catch Can, editors Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker have for the first time collected the short stories Heller published prior to that first novel, along with all the other short pieces of fiction and nonfiction that were published during his lifetime. Also included are five previously unpublished short stories, most reflecting the influence on Heller of urban naturalist writers such as Irwin Shaw and Nelson Algren.
The result is an important and significant addition to our understanding and appreciation of Joseph Heller, showing his evolution as a writer and artist. For those unfamiliar with his work, it will serve as an excellent introduction; for everyone else, Catch As Catch Can is a chance to explore a new aspect of Heller's remarkable career.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The San Diego Union-Tribune Read this collection chronologically to appreciate Heller's growing command of tone and plot. Or dip in and out to sample his variety, which encompassed theater..., stories of romance, violence and heroin, travel writing and the memoir. He was so versatile that he could have concentrated on any one of these genres.
The New York Times
Heller's signature absurdism surfaces only in the later work, notably in a handful of stories and a one-act play spun from his masterpiece. The author's comments on Catch-22 and an affecting essay about growing up in Coney Island make up the rest of this scattered but occasionally fascinating book. — Catherine Wolff
The Los Angeles Times
At moments like this, we come face to face with the authority of Heller's vision, a vision defined in equal parts by humor and rage. The ridiculousness of the situation is only heightened by the drollery of the author's telling, which, in turn, allows us to recognize the folly of all military training, during which human beings are, essentially, taught how to die. — David L. Ulin
Sean McCann
This posthumous volume of Joseph Heller's essays and stories, five of which have never before been published, goes a long way toward confirming what readers have often suspected about Catch-22. To put it in the paradoxical language Heller favored, Catch As Catch Can suggests that Heller's celebrated World War II novel is not about World War II. As Heller himself acknowledges in an essay included here, the subject of Catch-22 was America in the '50s and the bureaucratic society that had sprung up alongside the Cold War. World War II played almost no role in its creation.

Heller implied as much when, not long before his death in 1999, he told Stephen Ambrose that during wartime service he never encountered a single venal or incompetent officer of the type that Catch-22 satirized. The stories of this collection, many of which were written after the war, when Heller was completing his master's in fine arts, emphasize the point, since the young man who composed them does not come off as the irreverent and subversive Joseph Heller whom Catch-22 made famous.

Though Catch As Catch Can includes a few nonfiction pieces—some slight critical essays, a touching account of growing up in Coney Island—and a few excisions from the manuscript of Catch-22 and its 1994 sequel, Closing Time, the bulk of the collection is given over to the aforementioned twelve stories, written between 1946 and 1949, when Heller was still in his twenties. Indeed, apart from a general air of profoundly earnest ennui, the main impression this collection imposes is that its author left the war with a clear understanding that the way to get ahead in theliterary world was to imitate the prevailing models. For the most part competent but lifeless, the stories echo the literary big shots of the '40s—Irwin Shaw, John O'Hara, Nelson Algren. They are piecework from the machinery of literary bureaucracy.

In that respect, Catch As Catch Can is a wonderful testament to the mystery of literary creativity, and to how much it often owes to a combination of dogged effort and serendipity. It was not until the mid-'50s, after years of working first as a college writing instructor and then as an advertising copywriter, that Heller discovered his great theme: the absurdity of organization life. He happened to finish Catch-22 in 1961, at just the moment when Americans were ready to begin laughing, and worrying, about the irrationality of that supposedly rationalized world.

With Catch-22, Heller discovered a seemingly jumbled narrative structure that was ideally suited to conveying the aimlessness of organized society. The book hit on the perfect combination of mockery and pathos, of angry irony for bureaucratic institutions and enlightened pity for their victims. "A general disintegration of belief took place" during the '50s, Heller remembers in Catch As Catch Can, and "the form of the novel became almost disintegrated" in turn. Like the pop art whose spirit it echoes, Catch-22 offered its readers "a collage" of absurdities.

Unfortunately, Catch As Catch Can illuminates that achievement mainly by contrast. Apprentice work, these pieces bear much the same relation to Heller's mature writing that early Saul Bellow stories do to his breakthrough novel The Adventures of Augie March. It is not merely that the stories are imitative and not especially vivid or skillful. It's that, as Heller emphasized in his 1998 memoir Now and Then, they belong to a whole other world than the one he was soon to discover. Depictions of failing marriages in the old neighborhood, of struggling Depression-era families, of poolroom gamblers and aimless drug addicts, they are sober, realist portraits of the immigrant city of the '30s and '40s. It was a world that was about to disappear beneath postwar mass society and that Heller himself, who seems to have had no great gift or love for the material, was in the midst of energetically leaving behind.

It is not clear whether Catch As Catch Can will add much to our understanding or appreciation of Heller's gifts. (Nor is it obvious, despite the half-hearted case made by the volume's editors, that Heller would have wanted every one of these pieces published.) What the book does do, however, is force us to appreciate the originality of Catch-22, what a literally singular achievement it was, and how much it owed to Heller's ability to tap into the public imagination at just that moment when memories of prewar America were fading beneath postwar bureaucratic life. Nothing Heller wrote before it remotely approached Catch-22 for novelty or sheer power, and nothing he wrote afterward came close to matching the novel's bite and energy. As the clever title of this collection indicates, with its suggestion that even Heller's most ephemeral works float in the orbit of his masterpiece, he belongs to that special fellowship in American literary history, the one-great-novel author. Though perhaps inadvertently, the stories in Catch As Catch Can make us see the distinctiveness of Heller's achievement.
Publishers Weekly
This posthumous collection of Heller's writings combines his published stories with five previously unpublished ones, along with several essays about the writing of-and fallout from-Catch-22 and a play based on that novel. The collection, which covers 50 years of Heller's work, is striking for its range of tone. Readers familiar only with the acid humor of Catch-22 will be surprised by the melancholy of his early naturalistic stories about poverty, forgotten war heroes and recovering drug addicts. WWII vet Nathan Scholl returns from a heroin treatment program in Kentucky to his native Washington, D.C., where he drifts through his old haunts dejected and uncured, in "To Laugh in the Morning." In "Lot's Wife," Sydney Cooper watches as his wife, Louise, nonchalantly smokes a cigarette in the car, unaffected by the presence, outside the vehicle, of the injured man she's just run down. The couple reappear in "The Death of the Dying Swan," she as a party hostess with a plastic smile, he as the dutiful but resentful husband who escapes the party by volunteering to buy a jar of mustard. The collection shows the gradual evolution of an author who began his career writing polished but predictable stories and ended up inventing a voice and idiom that came to define the postwar era. The volume will be much appreciated by Heller's fans and students. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Heller's formidable literary reputation is based almost entirely on one book, Catch-22. He can't escape its shadow, even posthumously. At least half of this new collection consists of material directly related to that iconic novel: "lost" episodes, dramatizations, and reminiscences. The best of the lot is a short essay on the Mike Nichols film adaptation, first published in Audience magazine in 1972. The rest of the book is devoted to short fiction from the late 1940s. Surprisingly, these are not early attempts at the black comedy that became Heller's trademark but rather lurid pulp tales featuring prostitutes, potheads, and heroin addicts. Two previously unpublished stories, strikingly similar in tone to Nelson Algren's 1949 novel The Man with the Golden Arm, follow a young addict named Carl, who returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood after a failed attempt at rehab. Who would have guessed that Heller was a pioneer in the burgeoning genre of drug fiction? Recommended for most collections of postwar fiction. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/02.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of Helleriana that goes far toward showing that the author was a one-trick pony. Likely to do little to raise the late Heller's reputation, this is a compilation of his early short fiction (some not seen before) and a few slivers of nonfiction. Most of the 13 stories that have been previously published came out between 1945 and 1948, and they mine a predictable milieu of postwar ennui and repressed instincts. "Girl From Greenwich" is an especially snide little piece about a cynical writer meeting a gregarious, wide-eyed young woman who's just written a fluffy first novel that's on track to bestsellerdom. He's smart, she's dumb, his writing is quality, hers is for the masses, he drinks copiously, she's never had a martini before, and so on. A couple of pieces of deleted Catch-22 material offer some moments of glee: "Love, Dad" explores Nately's blue-blood background with hilarious results, and "Yossarian Survives" details the bombardier's quizzical reaction to the cult of physical exercise. Unfortunately, what follows are a couple of selections from the deplorable Catch-22 sequel, Closing Time, about which the less said the better (ditto for the previously unpublished fiction). The volume closes with four mostly unenlightening articles about the creation of Catch-22. The exception is a 1972 article in which Heller talks about his absolute lack of interest in the years-long tribulations that went into Mike Nichols's film adaptation of the book (Heller ultimately approved of the film but was never able to convince anyone that he really didn't care either way). Still, the world is grateful that Heller's trick, if indeed only one, was Catch-22. Agent: Deborah Karl
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743257930
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/2/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,441,410
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.43 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn in 1923. In 1961, he published Catch-22, which became a bestseller and, in 1970, a film. He went on to write such novels as Good as Gold, God Knows, Picture This, Closing Time (the sequel to Catch-22), and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. Heller died in December 1999.


Sometimes life traps you in an unfortunate situation that is impossible to escape from because of a set of inherently absurd rules. Take Joseph Heller, for example. The very first novel he published was among the most biting, powerful, hilarious examples of contemporary literature, a genuine classic of 1960s anti-war literature. Yet, Heller was forever trapped by that novel, unable to achieve similar success with his subsequent works no matter how fine they may have been. Both that painful predicament and that auspicious debut novel are known as Catch-22, and one hopes that an absurdist such as Joseph Heller had to at least appreciate that irony a little.

Catch-22 (1961) was somewhat based on Heller's own experiences as a B-25 bombadier in the Twelfth Air Force during World War II. It is the story of John Yossarian, a malingering bombardier stationed in Italy during the war. He lives in constant terror of being killed, so he flies each of his missions with the sole goal of returning alive. Unfortunately, Colonel Cathcart keeps increasing the number of missions he must undertake in order to complete his service. Yossarian's only way out is to prove that he is insane. Of course, the only way he can do that is to willingly take the most dangerous missions the air force has to offer. Yossarian's ridiculous, unwinnable situation is the Catch-22 from which the novel gets its name.

Heller uses Yossarian's situation as a means to satirize and criticize the military and dehumanizing bureaucracies in general. The novel follows a disorienting logic of its own, owing more to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland than any war-themed novel before it. Consequently, Heller's unique approach to his subject had a deep influence on writers such as Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and Tom Robbins (Villa Incognito). In 1970, Catch-22 was adapted into a star-studded feature film by director Mike Nichols (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ; The Graduate). Although many viewed the film as a disappointment, it had its fair share of highly inspired sequences, and in all fairness, the whimsical structure of the novel does not easily lend itself to the cinematic medium.

With a genuine classic on his hands, Heller then took his time producing his second novel. Something Happened did not appear until 1974, but it continued many of the themes present in Catch-22. This time around he directed his poison pen at the dehumanizing effects of the big-business world. Heller's tangy blend of pessimism and humanism would be the driving force behind the majority of his work that followed, including Good as Gold, Closing Time (a sequel to Catch-22), and the play We Bombed New Haven. However, none of his subsequent efforts came close to matching the success or influence of Catch-22, a fact that irked Heller until his death. His final novel, the posthumously published Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, explored this very theme as writer Eugene Pota struggles to decide upon a subject for his final novel.

Despite his own misgivings about his career, Joseph Heller will forever be remembered as a giant in American literature, even if it is only due to his first novel... and that's the kind of Catch-22 in which most writers would kill to be trapped.

Good To Know

Heller often supplemented his income by taking screenwriting jobs. He worked on screenplays for the films Sex and the Single Girl and Casino Royale, and even worked on the television show McHale's Navy under the pseudonym "Max Orange."

Heller's great abhorrence of war transcended his novels and plays. During the ‘60s, he was very involved in the movement against the war in Vietnam.

Although Catch-22 is regarded as an American classic, it did not truly nab public attention until receiving glowing notices in Great Britain a year after its U.S. debut.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Max Orange
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 1, 1923
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      December 12, 1999
    2. Place of Death:
      East Hampton, New York

Read an Excerpt


Joseph Heller is twenty-two years old, born and educated in Brooklyn, New York, and, after three years of service in the Air Corps, is planning to enter the University of Southern California. He says, "I was stationed on the Island of Corsica with a B-25 squadron of the Twelfth Air Force and flew sixty combat missions as a bombardier, earning the Air Medal with seven oak-leaf clusters and a Presidential Unit Citation. I was discharged from the Army in June under the point system and have been comfortably rehabilitating myself ever since. At present, I am busy trying to get a play produced."

She stood in the center of the room, her arms folded across her ample bosom and he could almost see the fires of anger flickering within her. She was doing her best to control them.

"You aren't being very considerate, you know," she said quietly.

"I know," he replied, "I'm sorry."

"I don't believe you are sorry," she said. She waited for him to answer but he remained silent. "Are you?"

"No," he said. "I'm not."

She didn't answer him immediately; she didn't know what to say. It wasn't working out right. He had been home three days now and it was getting worse. The first day they had been uncomfortable, very cautious and considerate, feeling each other out as prize fighters do, not being themselves at all, and hoping to pick up the thread of happiness from where it had been dropped almost a year ago when he left. The second day should have been better, but it hadn't been. She was still considerate, too much so, and he found that something in the routine was getting on his nerves and making him bitter. And now they were quarreling; not yet, but he could see it coming because he was deliberately bringing it on. He was being cruel purposely, not really wanting to be, but nevertheless deriving some perverse pleasure in seeing her unhappy. He had been thinking about her for ten months, thinking about how nice it was going to be when he got back to her, and now he was back and it wasn't nice at all.

He fingered the Chinese puzzle in his hands unconsciously, two metal rings, and without being aware of it, he deliberately thwarted himself each time from separating them. He caressed them with his hands, enjoying their cold firmness as he waited for her to speak.

"Harry and Edith are coming over," she said finally.

"That's nice."

"Will you put some clothes on?"


"Why won't you?"

"I don't want to."

"What do you want?" she implored.

He looked up at her while he thought it over. He was lying on the davenport completely naked except for a pair of shorts he was wearing, his thick, close-cropped hair uncombed and wisps of it standing out in all directions. He drank in the sight of her as she stood with her arms folded and he wondered why he had ever married her. It was her build, he decided. She was tall, taller than average, and everything about her was big, but she was put together in excellent proportion and was well rounded so that she possessed a strong physical attraction.

"I don't want to meet anybody," he said. He hadn't left the apartment since he had arrived. "I don't want to meet my family or your family, or any friends. I don't want to sit in a room filled with people who are all beaming at me as if I were some marvelous mechanical toy, and play the modest hero. I don't want to tell anybody what it was like and smile shyly as they tell me how wonderful I am."

She unfolded her arms and let them fall to her sides. She moved a few steps toward him. "What do you want to do?" she asked.

"Just what I am doing now," he said. "I want to lie here relaxed and comfortable and drink beer. Will you go downstairs and get me a pitcher of beer?"

"I will not," she said indignantly. "I'm your wife, not a servant. What did you marry me for? It would have been cheaper to hire a maid."

"I know," he said. "I married you because it was part of the dream."

"It hasn't been easy for me," she said, and asked, "What dream?"

"The sugar and tinsel dream of life," he said smirking. He didn't want to smirk but he left the expression unchanged. "The Reader's Digest beautiful panorama of a beautiful life. You were a pretty girl, I was a good-looking boy; we are both just a trifle oversexed, so we got married. It was the thing to do, wasn't it?"

"I'm doing my best," she said plaintively. "If you would only tell me what you do want, perhaps I could be more of a help. I know that you are disappointed but I don't know why. What did you expect to find?"

"I want to do what I want to do," he said.

She refolded her arms. "That makes sense," she said bitterly. "That makes a lot of sense."

"You don't understand," he said in a patronizing voice, still fumbling with the puzzle. "I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Is that better?"

"No," she said.

"I'll try to break it down for you. If you miss some part of it let me know and I'll repeat it. Right now I want to lie here exactly as I am doing. Two hours from now I may want to go to the Stork Club. I don't know. While I am there I may want to sing aloud at the top of my voice, but right now I want to lie here without any clothes on and drink beer."

"You know it hasn't been easy for me."

"I know it hasn't. I'm sorry."

She walked to the side of the room and sat down in an armchair, once again not knowing what to say next. She didn't want to surrender to the anger that she was trying to repress, but she could feel it swelling within her as if it were something having physical dimensions.

"You've changed," she said softly.

"I know," he said. "You've said that several times before, but it's the truth." He waited for her to reply but she made no motion to speak. "I don't like George Gershwin any more," he said, "so don't feel too badly about it."

Now he was becoming brutal, and he could feel himself filling with self-contempt for it. He knew what she would say next and he felt a glow of pride as she obliged him.

"What does George Gershwin have to do with it?" she asked.

"I used to think about his music all the time. How much I missed it and how when I got home, I would sit down and listen to him for hours. Well, I got home finally, and I listened to his music and I found that I didn't like it."

"I don't see it," she said.

He turned on his side so that he could look her fully in the face. "It's the same way with you, Anne," he said slowly. "I don't love you any more."

She sat up quickly as if the words had slapped her across the face. "That's not true," she said.

"No, it isn't," he said. "But I don't. That's the way it is and as long as it is that way, we might as well face it now. There isn't any point in dragging out something that is unpleasant. The kindest use a knife because the dead soon grow cold."

He studied her features to see if she was going to cry and he saw that she wasn't. He noticed it with disappointment. He became conscious of the rings in his hands and he grated one against the other mechanically as he waited for her to speak.

"That's nice," she said. "That's very nice."

"That's the way it is."

"Do you want a divorce?" she asked.

"No," he said, "I don't want a divorce. I have been leaning upon you for support too long a time. Psychologically, I am dependent upon you."

"Good God!" she exclaimed in desperation. "Then what do you want?"

A mischievous smile played with his mouth.

"A pitcher of beer," he said.

She rose to her feet and walked from the room. He turned over on his back and stared at the ceiling, feeling unhappy, wanting something and not knowing just what it was. He heard her come back into the room, but he continued to lie there without moving.

"Will you please get dressed?" she said. "We'll talk about it some other time."

"No," he said.

"Harry and Edith will be here soon. I can't very well entertain them in the hallway."

"Send them in." He turned to his side and looked at her. "I'll see them."

"Put some clothes on, then. You're naked."

"Harry and Edith have been married for five years. If she isn't familiar with the anatomy of the male by this time, then she has been missing a hell of a lot and it is my duty as a friend to enlighten her."

"Will you at least put a robe on?" she asked. Her voice was low and her words were carefully pronounced, and he could tell that the break was soon coming.

"No," he said. He turned over on his back again and looked down at the puzzle in his hands, watching her carefully through the corner of his eye. She stood motionless for a few seconds, looking at him. Then she let a long, loud breath escape her and her mouth formed a resolute line. She turned and walked to the clothes closet.

"Where are you going?" he asked. His tone wasn't smug any more. It quivered with alarm. She didn't answer. She removed her coat from the closet and put it on. She opened her purse, fumbled inside it, and withdrew a bankbook.

"Here is your money," she said.

"Where are you going?"

She set the bankbook down on a table and left the apartment.

"Damn!" he said explosively. He heard a slight click and he looked down at his hands. The rings of the puzzle had come apart. He sat up. "Oh, hell, what's the matter with me!"

He rose from the davenport and walked into the bedroom quickly. He sat on the edge of the bed and put his socks and shoes on. He went into the bathroom and washed his face and combed his hair. He didn't need a shave. He returned to the bedroom and finished dressing, fastening the buckle on his blouse with a strong tug. Then he went to the phone and called her mother.

"I think Anne is on her way over," he said. "Will you tell her to call me as soon as she arrives?"

"Is anything the matter?"

"No, nothing is the matter. I have to speak to her. Tell her to call me as soon as she gets there."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong. I just want to talk to her as soon as she gets there. Before she does anything else. Will you tell her? It's very important."

"All right."

"You won't forget, now. As soon as she gets there."

"All right, I'll tell her."

"Thank you."

The doorbell rang a moment after he hung up. It was Harry and Edith and they flurried about him as soon as he opened the door, Harry shaking his hand and pounding his back, and Edith coming to his arms and kissing him, both of them gushing with questions which they gave him no time to answer, and he knew that he was glad to see them. They moved into the living room and even before they were seated they were asking the questions he knew they would ask and he found a joy in answering them. It was many minutes before either of them noticed Anne wasn't there.

"Where's Anne?" Edith asked.

He hesitated an instant. "She's over at her mother's."

"Listen," Harry said, "we canceled our bridge appointment as soon as Anne phoned us. We're going on a party and you're coming with us."

"Me?" he asked stupidly.

They looked at him strangely. "You and Anne."

He rose to his feet. "Anne isn't here," he said. "We had an argument and she left." They started to speak and he cut them off. "I don't think she'll be back."

They were silent for a few moments as the surprise seeped in.

"It isn't anything you can't patch up, is it?" Harry asked. He noticed that Edith was looking at him queerly.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't think so. I hope not. You two go out on your appointment. I'll try to straighten it out. I'll call you tomorrow, Harry."

"All right," Harry said, his exuberance gone. "Look, don't be foolish. It isn't any of my business, but use your head whatever you decide to do."

"I will, Harry," he said. "Thanks. I'm sorry I had to spoil it. I never was much as a host."

"That's okay. I wish you would patch it up. I'm rather fond of both of you."

"I'll try," he said, and they rose to leave.

They walked slowly to the door. Before they could reach it, the latch clicked and the door opened. Anne came in, backing into the room at first so that she did not see them immediately. When she turned, they saw that she wore an angry, inflammable look. For a moment she stared at Harry and Edith in surprise and then her face softened as she noticed them looking at her, and saw him standing there beside them, looking smart in his finely cut uniform with his hair combed and his face shining and wearing a sad apologetic smile. She saw him grin like an erring schoolboy when he noticed the pitcher of beer in her hands, and she smiled sheepishly.

Copyright © 2003 by Erica Heller and Theodore M. Heller

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker

Previously Published Stories

I Don't Love You Any More (1945)

Bookies, Beware! (1947)

Lot's Wife (1948)

Castle of Snow (1948)

Girl from Greenwich (1948)

A Man Named Flute (1948)

Nothing to Be Done (1948)

World Full of Great Cities (1955)

MacAdam's Log (1959)

Love, Dad (1969)

Yossarian Survives (1987)

Catch-23: Yossarian Lives (1990)

The Day Bush Left (1990)

Previously Unpublished Stories

To Laugh in the Morning

A Day in the Country

From Dawn to Dusk

The Death of the Dying Swan

The Sound of Asthma


Clevinger's Trial (1973)

On Catch-22

Catch-22 Revisited (1967)

Joseph Heller Talks About Catch-22 (1972)

Reeling In Catch-22 (1977)

"I Am the Bombardier!" (1995)


Coney Island: The Fun Is Over (1962)

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First Chapter


Two policemen, one of them a sergeant, entered the stationery store and tramped heavily to the back where Dave Murdock ran his business. Murdock was a bookmaker. He had arrived shortly before, and he and the two men he employed were still busily tabulating the previous day's results. When the two men entered, Murdock looked up at them with surprise, his dark eyes taking them in without welcome. An angry scowl appeared on his heavy face. "What do you want?" he said.

The policemen hung back several steps before him. "I've got bad news for you, Dave," the sergeant said regretfully. "We have to close you up for a while."

Murdock studied him a moment and then leaned back. He bit the tip from a fresh cigar and spat it out with savage annoyance. "Don't bother me," he said. "I'm busy."

"I'm not fooling, Dave," the sergeant said. "You have about four hours."

Murdock moved forward over the desk, his big shoulders bunching up menacingly, and glared at him with frank belligerence. "What the hell's the idea?" he demanded.

"We have to clean up for a while, Dave. You know that."

"I know that," Murdock said. "But why me?"

"It's not just you, Dave. We're closing every shop in the district. I'll make it an easy complaint and you get someone to take the pinch for you. All right?"

Murdock stopped arguing when he saw there was nothing he could do. He collected what papers he thought he would need and went out, leaving his two assistants to make the necessary arrangements, among them the usual task of locating someone to be arrested in Murdock's place. He spent the rest of the afternoon visiting as many of his customers as he was able to, giving the favored ones his home number and taking what business he could get on the way. In the late afternoon he called Nat Baker and got a ride home.

Nat was also a bookmaker, and when they were in the neighborhood, they stopped at a small luncheonette where the counterman took bets for him. They had coffee, and Murdock decided to wait in the car when Nat and his man huddled in a corner of the room. It was already dark when he stood up and walked to the door. When he stepped outside, he was greeted with a thick, rich, weedy smell. A group of boys stood clustered together in the darkened doorway of a hardware store, all smoking with a strangely surreptitious guilt. Murdock sniffed curiously at the air, recognizing the odor with surprise. The furtive manner of the group immediately confirmed his suspicion. They were smoking marijuana. Murdock remained where he was, glancing at the doorway secretly until Nat came out. Nat caught the smell as he came briskly through the door. He looked briefly over Murdock's shoulder as he started toward the car.

"Is that what I think it is?" he asked.

"Probably," Murdock said, with a nod. "Reefers, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Nat said. "It's getting to be quite the thing around here."

Murdock entered the car slowly, glancing at the boys with an interest mingled with regret. Nat began moving the car out. Murdock turned a last commiserating glance on the group, and his eyes came to a sudden stop. His son Dick was among them, smoking, standing far back in the recess of the dark doorway where the shadows were heaviest, but unmistakably his son, Dick, sixteen years old. Murdock gasped with surprise. He reached out and held Nat's arm in a strong grip.

"Nat, who sells it to them?"

"Why?" Nat asked, slightly puzzled. He looked at the group for a moment and then seemed to understand. "I can find out," he said. "Do you want me to find out?"

"Yeah," Murdock said, grimly. "Go find out."

Nat left the car and returned to the luncheonette. Murdock sat motionless, smoldering, feeling his anger boil as he glanced at his boy from time to time. He had a murderous temper and he fought to keep it subdued, because Dick was a good boy and he knew that everything could be settled by a serious talk. As he watched, the boy raised his hand to his face and inhaled deeply. Murdock watched the glowing spark brighten and turned away. He didn't look there again until Nat had returned and pulled the car out.

"They get it from a fellow called Flute," Nat said. "You can find him in the poolroom."

Murdock nodded his thanks and remained silent. When Nat dropped him off, he stood before the house for several minutes, trying to calm himself before he went inside. Claire was surprised to see him so early.

"They closed the place up again," he explained, answering her question. He studied her intently for several moments, trying to guess what she was thinking. She stood before him in silence, watching him with a sad expression. "What's troubling you, Claire?" he asked, feeling a bit guilty.

"Nothing's troubling me," she answered slowly. "I just wish you'd get into a respectable business."

"It's only for a few days," Murdock said. "It doesn't mean anything."

"That isn't what I mean," Claire said.

Murdock well knew what she did mean. He had been a bookmaker for almost sixteen years, and in all that time Claire had never stopped disapproving. With an almost puritanical obstinacy, she still refused to regard his income as an honest living.

"Look, Claire," he said, with a slight trace of annoyance. "Stop blaming all the gambling in the world on me. The city is crawling with bookmakers, and if I didn't take the bets I handle, someone else would. Can't you see that?"

"I can see it," Claire said. "But I just wish it wasn't you." She regarded him regretfully for another moment and then turned to the stove.

Murdock left the kitchen and went to the bedroom, where he removed his clothes until he was bare to the waist. He was a big man in his early forties, and his large, heavy frame still had a definite expression of solid, masculine strength. In the bathroom he washed slowly and combed his hair. He put on a fresh shirt, leaving the collar unbuttoned, and returned to the kitchen, where Claire was peering into a simmering pot.

"Where's Dick?" he asked casually.

"He went out."


Claire turned from the stove to look at him. "I don't know," she said. "Why?"

"How is he doing in school this term?" Murdock asked.

"The new term just began. He always does well in school. What's the matter?"

"When does he do his homework?"

"You know when he does his homework. After school and at night. Will you please tell me what's wrong?"

"There's nothing wrong," Murdock said. "I just don't like the idea of my kid running all over the streets and getting into trouble."

Claire moved toward him with alarm. "What kind of trouble? What's he done?"

Murdock smiled and patted her arm with clumsy assurance. "There's nothing wrong," he said. "I guess the police put me in a bad mood." He smiled again and stood up. "I have some work to do," he said, and walked out without waiting to see if she believed him.


In the bedroom he sat down and waited. Dick was a good boy, he told himself, and everything would be all right. There had always been a cheerful friendship between them. He knew that Dick gambled occasionally and shot pool frequently, that an imbecile woman had willingly taken his virginity, and that he probably smoked cigarettes regularly even though he had promised to hold off for another year. They had discussed all that with comfortable honesty, and Murdock had always prided himself on the open relationship. This new deed incensed him, because of its evil suggestions and because it had been done secretly, and as he sat waiting he was filled with a fierce resentment.

He heard the boy come in and waited until he settled himself in the living room. Then he rose and went in to him. Dick was sitting in a chair near the window, holding a magazine he had just opened. He was a well-built boy with clear, probing eyes in a handsome face that looked a year or two older than his actual age. Claire came from the kitchen and stood in the doorway, looking on in nervous anticipation.

"Hello, Dad," Dick said, when Murdock entered.

Murdock had decided to let it ride until after dinner, but when the boy spoke, all resolve gave way to an overwhelming indignation. "Where the hell have you been?" he demanded.

The boy looked at him with surprise. "I was outside," he said. "Why?"

"I'll ask the questions," Murdock said. "You answer them."

"I was only gone a couple of hours," Dick said. "Ask Mom."

"I don't have to ask anybody," Murdock said. "I'm sending you away to school."

Dick stared at him with amazement. "What's that?" he asked.

"I said I'm sending you away to school. What's the matter? Can't you hear?"

"What are you talking about?" Claire said.

"I know what I'm doing," Murdock answered.

"It doesn't sound like it," Claire said.

"What kind of school?" Dick asked.

"Military school."

"Military school! Gee, Pop, what's got into you anyway?"

"I'll show you what's got into me," Murdock said. "Stand up." Dick looked at him incredulously and began to rise. Murdock strode up to him and pulled him to his feet. Before the boy realized it, Murdock was going through his pockets, gathering the contents in his large hands. When he had emptied them all, he pushed the boy down roughly into the chair. "Wait in here," he ordered, and walked out.

He went to the boy's room and examined the articles in his hands, doing it quickly and throwing each one on the bed after a brief inspection. He couldn't find what he wanted and turned to the jacket the boy had been wearing. In the breast pocket he found a small packet. He opened the tissue wrapping and saw two thin, wrinkled cigarettes. He split one with his fingernail and examined the seeds to his satisfaction. Now that he was sure, he felt surprisingly calm. He closed the cigarettes in his hand and returned to the living room. Neither Claire nor the boy had moved.

"Come inside, Dick," he said. "I want to talk to you."

The boy followed him back into the room. Murdock closed the door and turned the lock. He let several seconds go by before speaking.

"Dick," he said. "Are you doing anything you wouldn't want me to know about?"

The boy hesitated, watching him cautiously, and then shook his head.

"Or anything you know I'd really object to?"

The boy replied uncertainly. "I can't think of anything."

Murdock took a step forward, feeling the hot anger flame within him. "Are you sure?" The boy nodded, and Murdock came forward another step. He watched Dick's face closely as he raised his arm and held up one of the thin cigarettes. "What's this?" he asked.

A conclusive look of guilt flooded the boy's face. His frightened eyes caught Murdock's for a moment and then dropped to the floor. "A cigarette," he answered.

"What kind of cigarette?"

"A regular cigarette," the boy said. "I've been rolling my own."

Murdock hit him with his open hand. Dick fell back, stumbled to his knees, scampered up again quickly, and retreated in hurried steps. Murdock moved toward him, enraged. He had never struck him in anger before, and the great shame that swept over him he immediately blamed on the boy.

"What kind of cigarette?" Murdock demanded.

"A reefer," Dick said, in a low voice that was filled with shame.

Murdock stepped back, breathing hoarsely, feeling with relief that another point had been won. "Who sells it to you?"

The boy looked down at the floor without answering. A small trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth.

"You don't have to tell me," Murdock said. "I know."

"Who?" Dick asked.

"A fellow named Flute," Murdock said. "Is that right?" Dick nodded slowly. "Can I find him in the poolroom now?" Murdock asked. The boy nodded again. Murdock studied him silently for several seconds. "You're bleeding," he said, in a lower voice.

Dick touched his finger to his mouth and looked at it without emotion. "It isn't anything," he said.

"I'm going out," Murdock said. "You wait in here until I get back. I don't want Mother to know. If she asks you, tell her you've been cutting school. All right?"

The boy nodded and Murdock walked out. Claire blocked his way in the foyer.

"He's all right," Murdock said. "Let him stay there until I get back."

"Where are you going?"

"Out for some air," Murdock said.


It was a six-block walk to the poolroom. When he was inside, he stopped by the door and scanned the long, crowded interior. All the tables were in use, each with its small, chattering audience, and in the back a small crowd stood around the ticker that was bringing in the sporting results. Murdock was looking for Marty Bell, the owner, and he spied him coming forward with a greeting smile.

"Hello, Dave," he said. "What brings you here?"

"I want to talk to you," Murdock said. "Is there a fellow named Flute here?"

Marty looked toward the back and nodded. "That's him at the fourth table," he said, pointing. "What do you want him for?"

"I'm going to beat his brains out," Murdock said, and started away.

Marty came after him nervously and caught his arm. He had a soft, owlish face with a peculiarly mournful twist to his mouth that had earned him the nickname Tearful. He looked unusually troubled now. "Be careful, Dave," he said. "He's a strong boy."

Murdock shook him away impatiently and walked back to the fourth table, his eyes fixed on the man but not noticing that Flute was as big as he himself was, with broad, level shoulders and thick forearms. Flute was bending over to make a shot when Murdock came up to him. Murdock tapped him sharply.

"I want to talk to you," he said.

Flute straightened up slowly and studied him with a careless interest, a slight, mocking smile coming to his strong face. "What about?"

"I'll tell you outside," Murdock said.

Flute thought about it a moment and then nodded. He put his cue down and followed Murdock out through the side door. Murdock walked until they were out of the light before he turned.

"You've been selling marijuana to my kid," he said.

Flute showed no emotion. "Who's your kid?" he said calmly. "I sell tea to a lot of people."

"That doesn't matter," Murdock said. "It takes a pretty low bastard to sell it to anyone."

"All right," Flute said. "Talk nice."

Four men came out of the darkness behind Flute, two on either side, and moved forward until they were around Murdock. As soon as Murdock saw them, he swung at Flute. Flute caught his wrist and held it, and before Murdock could move, he had his other arm, and in an instant Murdock was pinned back against the wall, unable to move. He kicked out viciously at the man's groin and struck his thigh. Then the leg moved and Murdock could no longer hit anything. The four men watched without moving. Flute held Murdock powerless with his arms and shoulder, making no attempt to hurt him. Murdock struggled feverishly to break free from the younger man, putting all his strength behind the effort. It was no use, and after a few minutes he sagged in helpless exhaustion. The anger went out of him, leaving him limp with defeat.

"All right?" Flute asked.

Murdock nodded weakly. Flute released him and stepped back. Murdock moved from the wall, his eyes on the ground.

"It's all up to your kid," Flute said. "He comes to me. Tell me who he is and I won't sell it to him."

Murdock was silent. He rubbed his arms slowly, trying to shake the soreness from them. Flute watched him steadily, waiting.

"All right," he said, with a shrug. "Don't tell me. But don't make trouble for me. All right?"

Murdock still didn't speak. His eyes flickered to Flute's square face every few seconds. He was still gasping for breath, still trembling slightly in defeat, but on his face there was a look of stubborn determination which Flute eyed apprehensively. He watched Murdock a moment longer and then stepped back reluctantly, shrugging again. Murdock moved between two of the men and walked away. He left them in a rapid stride, but as soon as he turned a corner his step slowed to a tired pace. He continued home in a weary walk. When he was before the house, he stopped to comb his hair and straighten his clothes. Claire was waiting for him by the door.

"Where have you been?" she asked anxiously.

"Out for some air," Murdock said.

Claire studied him with a puzzled expression. "Have you been fighting?"

"Do I look like I've been fighting?" Murdock said. Claire shook her head slowly and Murdock had to smile. "Get dinner ready," he said. "We'll be right out."


He hesitated outside Dick's room and then continued into his own. He closed the door and sat down on the bed, truly feeling his age for the first time. He was humbled by the shameful memory of being handled by Flute as though he possessed only the puny power of an infant. He sat motionless for a while and gazed down blankly at his hands, listening aimlessly to the noise of his breath passing through his nostrils. He didn't hear the doorbell ring and he looked up with surprise when Claire came into the room.

"Marty is here," she said. Murdock looked at her quizzically. "Marty Bell," she explained.

"What does he want?" Murdock said, without looking at her.

"He wants to see you."

"All right," Murdock said.

Claire turned from the door and returned a moment later with Marty. Marty came into the room gingerly, his sad face filled with a troubled gloom. He glanced significantly at Claire, and she left with an anxious glance at Murdock. Marty closed the door and faced Murdock. He didn't speak.

"What do you want, Marty?" Murdock said.

"I was talking to Flute," Marty said. "He asked me to come to see you." Marty stepped forward hopefully. "Do me a favor, Dave. Let him alone, will you?"

"Why?" Murdock demanded brusquely. "Why should I let him alone?"

"Because he's a good boy, Dave. You don't know him, Dave, but he's a good boy."

"Yeah," Murdock said scornfully. "Some good boy. He sells dope to my kid."

Marty shrugged with acute discomfort. "He just looks to make a buck," he explained. "You know how it is, Dave. You knocked around a lot yourself."

"I never sold dope," Murdock said.

"That doesn't mean anything," Marty said, with another deprecating shrug. He stepped close to Murdock and cocked his face forward in an intimate gesture. "He just tries to get by. You know how it is, Dave. There are a dozen guys in the neighborhood who would sell tea to your kid if he wants it. If Flute didn't do it, somebody else would. It's just like your own business."

Murdock's jaw dropped. Marty stopped speaking and looked at him with amazement. He took a cautious step back.

"Beat it, Marty," Murdock said.

"Sure, Dave," Marty said quickly. "But think it over, will you?"

"Get out, Marty," Murdock said. "I won't bother him."

Marty smiled at him gratefully and left. Murdock sat alone for a few minutes and then rose slowly, as a man exhausted, and went to Dick's room. Dick looked up at him quickly when he entered, and then dropped his eyes to the floor. Murdock stared down at his hands for several minutes, breathing slowly and heavily, feeling a strong sense of shame as he stood before his son. After a while he looked up.

"I'm sorry I hit you, Dick," he said.

Dick looked at him with surprise for a moment, and then his face broke into a wide, bashful grin. "That's all right, Pop," he said happily.

"Here," Murdock said. He picked up the small packet containing the two reefers and handed them to him. "We'll talk about it tomorrow. All right?"

"Sure, Pop," Dick said. He hesitated a moment and then replaced the packet on the table. "Anything you say."

Murdock smiled at him and the two of them went in to dinner. As he sat down it occurred to him that Claire must not know. The food was good, but he ate slowly, without appetite, and through the whole meal he never once met her eyes.

Copyright © 2003 by Erica Heller and Theodore M. Heller

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