Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty; St. Martin's Press, 548 pages, $35. There are two great Joseph Heller novels. One -- "Catch 22" -- is such a cornerstone masterwork of the literature of our time that people don't even feel the need to read it anymore. So widespread is the commonplace (erroneous) understanding of what the title means (politicians are still particularly fond of mangling its nuances), that the absurdist universe of Heller's novel is a climate -- full of war, bureaucratic exploitation and death -- for 21st century devotees of Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert to live in without reading a single word of Heller.
The other great Heller masterpiece -- "Something Happened" -- may be the great American Office Novel, and yet, three decades after its publication, it is virtually unknown, despite being the definitive tragicomic novel of corporate aspiration and suburban horror.
Those combined give you only the basic indication of what an uphill climb Tracy Daugherty had in his first major biography of the man who wrote "Catch 22" (whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated in October). Add the arthritic snail's pace of Heller's composition of those first two novels -- especially "Something Happened" -- and you've got even more reasons why no one who isn't a truly great literary biographer would have any business at all going near the life of Heller. It is a mark of our current wonderful literary fortune that we have at work in 21st century America, two literary biographers working different regions of the same late-20th century literary landscape with equivalent brilliance: Blake Bailey, author of biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, and Daugherty, who has now written definitive biographies of Donald Barthelme and Heller.
Daugherty, in fact, has so much room to roam while Heller's fabled editor Robert Gottlieb helps the author get started, that he can take assorted side trips into the lives of such key Heller friends as Bruce Jay Friedman, Mario Puzo and, yes, Mel Brooks. His daughter Erica's memoir "Yossarian Slept Here" will be published by Simon and Schuster Aug. 23.
-- Jeff Simon