Obviously, the main selling point for Catch as Catch Can is the fact that it contains some material that was cut from Catch-22, including what the blurb-writers call a ‘lost chapter.’ However, in their own right, Joseph Heller’s collected short stories are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories were written when the author was in his early twenties, and seem to have been included to justify the label ‘collected stories’ rather than because of their sparkling brilliance.
It’s not that the early stories are bad, it’s just that they are unremarkable. What they do provide is an interesting sense of progression, and the stories do get better and more sophisticated as the collection moves into Heller’s mature period. They change from straightforward dissections of troubled relationships into much deeper and more harrowing territory: extreme urban poverty, wasted youth, drug addiction.
You get to see the roots of Catch-22 developing, as many of these stories feature young men in bleak situations which they are powerless to change. This is done without the black humour that characterises the later novel, with the result that some of the stories are very powerful but also pretty grim. There is a chilling inevitability about these tales, particularly the ones that deal with addiction.
Fortunately, the cuttings from Catch-22 are there to lighten the mood. The scene where Yossarian (for whose name my spellchecker helpfully suggests the declension ‘Rosaria, Ocarina, Ocarinas’) lies in hospital, convinced of his impending illness, is particularly good. He is a medical marvel, tested and retested by countless specialists because of a remarkable condition which they have never before encountered in their work: there is absolutely nothing wrong with him.
Here is Heller’s characteristic wit, ever-ready to point out life’s absurdities. It’s been a while since I read Catch-22, and I’d forgotten just how much Heller’s sense of humour appeals to me. This is of course entirely personal, and I’m sure it doesn’t appeal to everyone, but when he is funny, he is very funny.
Nonetheless, Catch as Catch Can does run the risk of being a one-trick pony; a few fragments of Catch-22 tossed to the enthusiasts. There is no doubt that these fragments will please the die-hard fans, but my problem with the collection is that the early stories aren’t outstanding and neither are the autobiographical pieces which end the book.
Heller’s genius shines through in the Catch-22 material, and is dimly visible beneath the surface in his early work. If you want powerful writing without the glossy wit, then there is some middle ground in two or three of the stories which probably merit more attention than they have received here. Why haven’t I given them more attention? Well, it’s because they are overshadowed by the other items in the collection, both the good and the not-so-good, and the way it all fits together. You’d think that assembling a volume of collected stories would be easy, but it seems like it doesn’t always work out.