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Despite, or perhaps because of, his considerable reputation as a spokesman for the counterculture generation of the 1960s, Joseph Heller has always been more fortunate in his scholarly critics than in more accessible reviews. Sanford Pinsker's lively and wide-ranging study shows one need not come at the expense of the other. Nicely balancing description with discovery, Pinsker not only examines the themes and rhetorical strategies through which Heller projects his satiric vision but also locates them within the cultural context that both shapes our literature and determines, in part, what it is capable of.
Pinsker forgoes commentary on Heller's formulaic and often derivative stories, written mainly in the 40s, to concentrate on the full-length fictions. In Catch-22, which came to stand for the disaffection of a generation, Pinsker traces Yossarian's progress from self-absorption to a position of moral responsibility. Pinsker astutely shows how Heller's absurdist comedy of contradictions broadens to include both social protest and the tall tale, one rooted in sociopolitical reality, the other in the timelessness of folk motif. Leaving open the question of how Heller can endorse Yossarian's separate peace, the question, in short, of how convincing the ending of the novel really is, Pinsker shows its defining moment hinges on the personalizing of life's indiscriminate injuries. "They're trying to kill me," Yossarian cries out, and it is no solace that the violence is impersonal. Indeed, that impersonality is what Heller finds both funny and devastating and resistance to it, finally, the basis of sanity.
The anxiety Yossarian objectifies in the war becomes for increasingly fallible heroes Bob Slocum (Something Happened ) and Bruce Gold (Good as Gold) an increasingly pervasive if unspecified dread that inversely affects the ratio of humor to rage and, finally, is transformed into reality when Heller is suddenly and surprisingly struck by Guillain-Barre syndrome. In writing about that grim experience with his friend Speed Vogel (No Laughing Matter ), Heller demonstrates a concern for language through which he arrives at a triumphant if dark humor. Conversely, when in Picture This, his most recent and perhaps least successful book, Heller adopts an almost deconstructive approach to language itself, the result, Pinsker finds, is an overburdened didacticism.
Pinsker lets us come to an understanding of Heller's fiction not through a series of one-liners but as a coherent narrative in which the comic sensibility emerges out of contradiction and social concern, perhaps, above all, out of a sense of human vulnerability. The same coherence informs the eleven essays of Bearing the Bad News, which serve at once as a defence of the intellectual tradition and an attack on the present state to which it has been reduced, a state marked by the increasing specialization Pinsker finds in academic conferences that begin in increasingly arcane specialties and wind up as bad theatre.
The bad news is that this has become an age more excited by critical theory than by literature and even worse this seems true of our literature no less than our criticism. The modernist injunction to "make it new," Pinsker points out, has become the postmodern determination to "make it trendy." He situates himself [End Page 489] squarely in the New York Intellectual tradition, whose combative style, developed in the alcoves around the lunchroom at City College, was at least as much a means of self-definition as of discovery. Against the smug "Yes in Thunder" of neoconservatives Midge Decter (annoyingly misspelled Dector), Norman Podhoretz, or Joseph Epstein writing in narrowly ideological journals such as New Criterion or Commentary, Pinsker holds out the examples of Philip Rahv, who resisted the acquiescence of the intellectuals to corporate America and of Irving Howe, who maintained a lifelong commitment to the interaction of literature and politics (and, in particular, a socialist tradition), a struggle that increasingly involved the acknowledgement of loss, even, as it turned out, the occasional loss (Pinsker...