A New Story from 'Catch-22' Author Joseph Heller

Eric Levenson
The Atlantic Wire
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A New Story from 'Catch-22' Author Joseph Heller

Update: Andrew Sulli, the managing editor of the Strand Magazine, wrote to correct a price discrepancy of the magazine: "Our newsstand price is $6.95—and the price to purchase the issue from us directly is $10.00."

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Original: Almost 14 years after his death, Joseph Heller is getting a new byline for one of his oldest works of fiction. The famed Brooklyn-born writer of Catch-22 wrote many short fiction stories through his career, and the mystery connoisseurs at the Strand Magazine recently discovered one of those unpublished tales while doing library research at Brandeis University.

The story, titled "Almost Like Christmas" and written sometime in the late 40s and early 50s (before Catch-22), centers on racial tensions in an American Southern community. After a black boy stabs a white one during a street fight, the town becomes thirsty for a lynching, as The Guardian previewed in one section of the story:

"There's going to be trouble, Mr. Carter. It's like a holiday, a real holiday, and they're going to have it, no matter who pays for it. It's almost like Christmas the way everybody's walking around in a fever of excitement. Don't let their anger fool you. It's a chance to feel important, and they're going to use it."

"Why, Freddie? Why?"

"That's hard to say, Mr. Carter. Maybe they just want to be respectable. Everybody wants to be respectable, and joining a mob is the easiest way."

The story conspicuously lacks Heller's famous sense of humor and absurdity that defined Catch-22 and his later works. "There’s an attitude of despair in 'Almost Like Christmas,'" Strand’s managing editor Andrew Gulli tells NPR. Whereas it wasn't until Yossarian's adventures in Catch-22 that the despair would be replaced by "a sardonic laughter at the ridiculousness of the human condition."

Still, though, "It shares some parallels with Catch-22," Gulli tells The Guardian. "The story speaks about the heartlessness of a mob, and with Catch-22, Heller shows us how a bureaucracy can be heartless and unyielding. Heller might be called a cynical chronicler of the folly, vanity and brutality of mankind."

To read the new issue, which hits shelves today, you'll have to shell out either $6.95 on newsstands or a $10 fee to buy directly from Strand. But don't be misled; "Almost Like Christmas" to be on par with the brilliance of Catch-22. Heller knew none of his other stories or books were as good as his debut, and accepted it, as The New York Times explained in his obituary. "When an interviewer told Mr. Heller that he had never written anything as good as 'Catch-22,' the author shot back, 'Who has?'"