The Sporadic Beaver

Yossarian Taught Here

August 18, 2011

Tags: Joseph Heller, City College of New York, Yossarian Slept Here, Erica Heller, Catch-22, Something Happened

Two biographies of Joseph Heller, my creative writing professor at the City College of New York, have recently been published. I've read excerpts of one, Just One Catch, by Tracy Daugherty, a straightforward chronicle of Heller's life. I've read extensive commentary on the other, Yossarian Slept Here, a memoir by Heller's daughter, Erica Heller.

Memories have been aroused.

Heller, who died in 1999, is best known as the author of the satirical, semi-autobiographical World War II novel, Catch-22, whose iconic protagonist, Air Force Captain John Yossarian, thinks people are trying to kill him, and does not want to fly any more bombing missions. I’ve read the book about 25 times.

When I was Heller’s student, he was finishing his second novel, the semi-autobiographical Something Happened. Thirteen years had passed since Catch-22 was published. Expectations were high, and Heller, to say the least, was stressed out.

City College, in the 1970s, was an extraordinary place to be—because the school was tuition free, and the English department had assembled an all-star collection of professors that, in addition to Heller, included Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Francine du Plessix Gray (At Home with the Marquis de Sade), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), who taught a course in Ulysses.

I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to take a fiction-writing course with one of my literary heroes. And I was so encouraged by the results my first semester with Heller (B+), that I signed on for a more advanced course the following semester.

This is what I remember about Joe Heller:

He dressed casually, usually in jeans and a canvas shirt, except for the time he had a meeting with his agent. That day he wore a gray flannel suit.

He always had a wooden gum-stimulator sticking out of his mouth.

“All agents are pricks,” he said.

“You can’t live on royalties,” he said.

He considered Catch-22 to be one of the ten greatest books of the 20th century.

He considered James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific) and Leon Uris (Mila 18) to be hacks.

He forbade us to write detective stories or stories about the supernatural.

His conception of how to structure a short story was inflexible: Beginning. Middle. Climax. End.

He also taught me two valuable lessons about writing: Condense! Condense! Condense! And have a thick skin.

It’s this last lesson—an unintentional one, I suspect—that brings me to the scene in Erica Heller’s memoir, where she discovers that she’s been portrayed in Something Happened as a person “so barren of hope that I find myself grieving silently alongside her, as though at an empty coffin or grave in which her future is lying dead already.”

She asked her father how he could have written such a thing about her.

“What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” Heller replied.

That is also an apt description of the “heartless” (as she calls him) Joe Heller I remember from City College. Because in that second semester, he critiqued my stories so brutally, I still find it too painful to read all his comments.

“This story goes bad on page one and gets progressively worse,” one critique began. He then proceeded to detail the story’s disintegration, line by line, in red pencil, in scathingly accurate detail.

In a meeting, I asked him what I was doing wrong, and why he liked my stories the previous semester.

“You were just lucky last semester,” he said.

I was 20 years old. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer. And I was devastated. But I did, indeed, recover and learn to develop a thick skin. Professionally, it’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned.

I wonder what Heller would have had to say about Nowhere Man and Beaver Street. Barring communication by séance, I guess I’ll never find out.