“Something” Heller and the Pseudo-Assyrian Armenian
In 1961, Joseph Heller launched into fame with his anti-war novel Catch-22, a title that has since entered the English lexicon, synonymous with absurd paradox. Heller was born in Coney Island, Brooklyn in 1923 and served as a B-25 bombardier in World War II where he flew 60 missions on the Italian Front. His book establishes a fictional regulation called Catch-22, in which those seeking to avoid combat due to insanity cannot be insane (because it’s perfectly normal to want to avoid warfare) and must remain in the Service. Those not seeking to avoid combat must be insane, but they continue to serve because they are not avoiding it. This would have resonated with William Saroyan, who himself was given a Section 8 psychiatric evaluation in 1943 and deemed mentally fit to continue serving. In Lee Lawrence’s Saroyan: A Biography, Saroyan’s ex-wife, Carol Marcus Matthau, explains:
When Aram was born, Bill was in a Section 8 ward. Halloran Hospital in New York. But then the board met and decided he was just pretending to be crazy. I mean, he was there –but no crazier than I’d seen him all the time. They said he was pretending to be crazy, and he said, "Can you be any crazier than someone who’s pretending to be crazy?"
The Army famously destroyed Saroyan’s spirit and contributed to his psychological struggles in the coming decades. When Saroyan released his anti-war novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson in 1946, the Army was furious
and critics were unimpressed. World War II was considered an "honorable war" by most Americans, so the anti-war sentiment in 1946 didn’t sit well with them. On the other hand, Catch-22, one of the most popular anti-war novels, was carried around by teenagers in the 1960s as a generation jaded by the seemingly less honorable Korean and Vietnam Wars, moving the book into the American canon. Though initial reviews of Heller’s book were mixed, being anti-war in the 1960s and beyond had become vital and hip, and Catch-22 has thrived ever since.
Like Jack Kerouac (who we discussed in another article), Heller was influenced by Saroyan as a young man. In fact, Kerouac and Heller were born only a year apart, and reflect the literary generation that was most heavily influenced by Saroyan and his contemporaries. They came of age as Saroyan was in full swing and winning awards for his writing. And like Kerouac, it does not seem that Heller had any direct contact with Saroyan. By the time both younger men were becoming famous in the 1960s, Saroyan was already on his career downswing.
Heller began by writing short stories, influenced by Saroyan and other 1930s writers. His early work was also published in the magazine Story, like Saroyan. His collection of short stories and miscellaneous writings, Catch As Catch Can, was released posthumously in 2003, but includes some of his early writings and a preface in which Heller is described as being influenced by Faulkner, Hemingway, Kafka, Irwin Shaw (Saroyan’s one-time army buddy), and the concise descriptions and hard-boiled style of Saroyan. In Now and Then, a memoir published in 1998, Heller wrote,
In the immense replacement depot in Constantine, Algeria…my primary inspiration as a neophyte writer was Saroyan. He appealed to my taste and seemed easy to emulate and well worth copying. (The stories that seemed easiest to emulate and most worth copying were short ones with few descriptive passages written in literary vocabulary and with a large proportion of vernacular dialogue.)
Heller also wrote in Now and Then,
I borrowed the action and the settings from the works of other writers, who may—I didn’t consider the possibility then—in turn have been borrowing from the works of still others. These experiences, which I as author dealt with knowledgeably, were vicarious and entirely literary, gleaned from wanderings as a reader, and they ranged from the picturesque whimsies of William Saroyan to the hard-nosed, sexist attitudes, particularly toward women and marriage, of Hemingway and Irwin Shaw...
Saroyan seemed to be forever in the same orbit of influence as Hemingway, and their complicated history together is a fascinating one. Yet there are several more references to Saroyan in Heller’s Now and Again, describing Heller’s amusement with Saroyan’s surrealism and dark humor, which no doubt helped Heller hone a similar thematic style.
In Closing Time, a sequel to Catch-22 written in 1994, Heller makes even more references to Saroyan with the main character of both books, John Yossarian. Many readers have made a connection between the name Yossarian and Saroyan, though it was never explicit. Yossarian was also notably anti-war, as we know Saroyan was. In Closing Time, Yossarian explains,
"What about me, with this name Yossarian? It wasn’t always that easy, with rednecked Southerners and bigots from Chicago who hated Roosevelt, Jews, blacks, and everyone else except bigots from Chicago. You’d think with the war over, everything ugly would change for the better. Not much did. In the army everyone asked me, sooner or later, about the name Yossarian, and everyone was satisfied when I told them I was Assyrian. Sam Singer knew I was extinct. He’d read a short story by a writer named Saroyan that’s probably no longer in print anywhere. That’s extinct too, like Saroyan. And me."
"We’re not Assyrian," Michael reminded. "We’re Armenian. I’m only half Armenian."
"I said Assyrian to be funny, jerk. They took it as fact." Yossarian looked fondly at him. "Only Sam Singer caught on why. ‘I bet I could be Assyrian too,’ he said to me once, and I knew just what he meant."
Heller’s parents were Russian Jews, and his life story matches more closely with his character Sam Singer, a Jew from Coney Island. Though there was sometimes prejudice between the Jewish and Armenian communities, it was undeniable that their shared histories of genocide put them in the same historical arena, plagued by generational trauma and forced into Diaspora. In many of his short stories, Saroyan made reference to the Assyrians being even more erased than the Armenians, and they served as a symbol for Armenians in much of his work. So, Heller’s reference to Assyrians is also a nod to Saroyan’s early stories (although this comes out more in Closing Time, as Yossarian’s Armenian heritage isn’t explicit in Catch-22).
Later in Closing Time, Yossarian is in a surreal Hell filled with other writers who influenced him, notably many with mustaches. He is introduced around by a denizen:
"This is William Saroyan. I bet you never even heard of him."
"Sure I did.” Yossarian was miffed. “I saw The Time of Your Life. I read “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “Forty Thousand Assyrians.” I remember that one.
"They’re not in print anymore," mourned William Saroyan. "You can’t find them in libraries."
"I used to write like you," Yossarian confessed. "I couldn’t get far."
"You didn’t have my imagination."
These references alone may have sparked renewed interest in Saroyan’s work in the 1990s, as one reviewer of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze on Thriftbooks.com stated, “I read about Saroyan in Closing Time (Heller's disappointing sequel to Catch-22), I was inspired to pick up [The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze] and I'm so glad I did.”
What was Saroyan’s reaction to Heller? There is one reference to Heller, in the story “I Don’t Get It,” published in Playboy in 1966. It also appears in the collection of reprints, I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure. In it, Saroyan is grumping about the new writers getting more attention than him as he watches himself fade into obscurity. It’s tongue in cheek, with Saroyan insisting he is cheerful while bashing an entire generation of writers. This was likely playing off the media’s portrayal of him as washed up and no longer fun. In the 1960s, Saroyan was feeling bitter and unappreciated, but he lays the irony on especially thick here. He writes,
I preach the gospel. And yet these kids are getting all the gravy. And they keep coming—Heller, I can't even remember his first name, Catch 22. I never even read it, although there is a kid in there by the name of Yossarian, but the kid's not even an Armenian, let alone me. It just isn't possible for anybody who isn't an Armenian to have the name of Yossarian. One of the hottest writers going, and all on the strength of one novel about how a kid in the Army discovered that an Army is made up of a lot of frightened phonies, each of whom is slyly fighting off accident and death with every ounce of his animal cunning. Something Heller, a name before Heller, but not a nickname, a straight name of some kind. I was in London one time and every newspaper in town had a piece about him, and not a lousy word about me…Burns me up. What am I supposed to be, a has-been? A never-was? A second-rater? I don't get it. How can anything so plain as my incomparable superiority go so unnoticed? I have never been cheap. I have always had a cheerful word for just about anybody, children who tend to turn away in terror from most people run to me, even though I look like hell most of the time.
The piece was meant to be funny, and depending on the reader, it’s either funny or uncomfortably airing his emotional dirty laundry. Either way, it’s one of the few if not his only published reference to Heller. With such a high-profile Armenian name as Yossarian on the tongues of so many Americans, it’s hard to believe that Saroyan was completely annoyed. Whether or not he saw Heller’s homage, we as readers (with the added illumination of Heller’s 1990s books) can notice it now with satisfaction. Discovering how deeply the literary generation of the 1960s felt Saroyan’s influence, it’s once again clear that his most substantial legacy is in those he inspired.
This article was written by Dori Myer, Archivist, Forever Saroyan, LLC, San Jose, October 2021