Heller impressed with TV's 'Catch-22' Festival: Television demonstrates that it knows how to open a book.

September 14, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- Deep in the darkest dark-wood bowels of the Jockey Club in the Ritz Carlton Hotel just off Embassy Row, a woman and a man were talking government business one rainy morning this week.

"So, he said to me, 'Of course, I can get you the $500,000 grant, but I am going to have to get something back. With another one off to college, we're feeling just a little strained in the financial department,' " the woman said, leaning across the table.

"A kickback, hmmmm," the man replied, casually stirring a packet of Equal sweetener into his coffee as he leaned in toward her. "I have to admit, I'm surprised -- at his leveling with you like that. I mean, you have to kind of admire his honesty, don't you."

I relate this snatch of dialogue not to add another brush stroke to the portrait of Washington as the capital of all perniciousness (which everyone in Baltimore already knows it to be), but rather to set the stage for the arrival of novelist Joseph Heller and to showcase what seems more important than ever about the man and his work: an unblinking honesty.

Heller, the celebrated author of "Catch-22," was in Washington last week to do a reading at the Library of Congress in connection with the "Great Books Festival" airing today and tomorrow on cable television's The Learning Channel. One of the highlights of the festival, which is emceed by Andre Braugher, is a presentation on "Catch-22," Heller's black comedy about World War II that has sold 10 million copies since its debut in 1961.

It is a splendid program, which proves television need not be the enemy of literature -- a cultural dichotomy still encouraged by some who think of themselves as highbrow. In fact, the production of "Catch-22," which airs tomorrow night at 9, is so good it ought to be used as a blueprint for how television can successfully open great books to large audiences without compromising them in the least.

"Serious writers are not supposed to have anything good to say about television, but I absolutely love this presentation of my novel," Heller said after ordering a scrambled egg sandwich for breakfast -- an item not on the menu of the clubby Jockey Club.

"In fact, you get two things from me that you don't get from most American authors: I liked the [1970] movie of 'Catch-22' -- I think it had very high intentions -- and I love this TV show," Heller said.

Film clips

Clips from the film are used throughout the TLC program, as well as interviews with director Mike Nichols and Alan Arkin, who played Yossarian, the Air Force bombardier at the center of the book. One of the best moments of the television program comes with Arkin reading Heller's description of the father of one of the officers in "Catch-22," a conservative farmer from the Midwest who got rich by not growing alfalfa, thanks to the very government subsidies that he philosophically opposes.

One of Heller's best moments during the interview came when he was asked about the passage, and then started reciting a bit of it in the Jockey Club where government workers within earshot were talking about kickbacks.

"That's a passage I like to do at readings in Washington," he said.

"My focus was on the institutions which surround us. And, one way or another, they continue to fail, they continue to fail our expectations," Heller said, leading into the passage from the book that begins, "Major Major's father was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding, rugged individualist, who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow."

Actually, Heller seemed to have nothing but good moments during the breakfast interview.

The 73-year-old Heller still looks every inch the archetype of the great, post-war American author. He's wearing khaki slacks, a blue button-down-collar shirt and fawn-colored linen sport coat; his glasses hang at his chest, suspended by a blue cord. His tanned face sits beneath a fine mane of white hair and holds a look of friendly bemusement that seems just about right for a satirist.

Heller spoke casually about his own tastes as a television viewer and as a reader.

"I love the British mystery imports. The one I never miss is called 'Cracker,' " he said, referring to the series featuring Robbie Coltrane, which airs on the Arts & Entertainment cable channel.

When asked about his favorite authors: "I love John Barth's new book, 'On With the Story.' My favorite writers: John Barth and Maureen Dowd."

He elaborated on Dowd, a New York Times columnist, saying, "She's very incisive, she's literate and she's devastating to both parties and both candidates. She has a moral sense. She exposes frauds and does it with an energy other columnists don't have."

When Heller asked if I, being from Baltimore, would say hello to Barth, I had to confess we were not moving in the same literary circles these days.

Confessions

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