Joe the Plumber vs. Joe Heller, the Writer

It's official. The world has gone mad. Again.

Sarah Palin will get $7 million+ to write a book? To tell us more than we ever, ever wanted to know about herself (hasn't she already?), bore us to tears with how tedious, inarticulate and stupendously clueless she is, and waste many trees?

Joe the Plumber will now be Joe the Writer, also for some shocking and obscene amount of money?

Aah but the literary world was not always so whorish, swinish and unrepentant.

In 1961, many lifetimes ago, just imagine.

John F. Kennedy was our 35th President.

The Defenders
was #1 on television.

Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to take the home run record.

Valium and non-dairy creamers were all the rage.

Bye Bye Birdie was on Broadway and West Side Story won the Oscar for best picture.

If you've seen Mad Men (and if you haven't, why haven't you?), you know what the fashions were like.

And as for the economy, buying a new car cost $2,275.

Gasoline was 33 cents a gallon.

A postage stamp was 4 cents.

Minimum wage was $1.15 an hour and an average annual salary was $6,471.

Pretty cool, eh daddy-o?

The cost of a hardcover book was roughly $5 and a paperback 50 cents.

Against this backdrop, my father's first novel, Catch-22, was published. He'd worked on it for 8 years, only evenings and weekends, since he had a full-time job, a wife and small kids to support. It was a labor of love and although his belief in it was absolute, there was no guarantee of a publisher, an audience, an advance.

He'd grown up in Coney Island, in Brooklyn, in a family without money. His father died when he was small and his mother, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, barely spoke English.

After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, he immediately got a job as a file clerk for an insurance agency. Later that year, when the United States entered World War II, he took a job as a blacksmith's assistant in the Norfolk Navy Yard.

In 1942, as the war progressed, he joined the Army and worked as a file clerk. In October, he switched to the Army Air Forces. As he told it, and he told it well, he initially intended to be a gunner on a bomber but when he was told, in error, that the average life span of a gunner in combat was three days, he quickly enrolled in cadet school to become an officer and bombardier.

I'm awfully glad he did.

Catch-22 was based on his experiences as a bombardier with the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean in World War II and after eight long years of very hard work, with poor reviews from some of the most influential publications, Catch 22 got off to such a slow start, it's truly a miracle that it didn't just fade away completely. It surely would have if not for the strong recommendations of people who had read it and passed it along to friends. One such reader was S.J. Perelman.

Eventually, it sold millions of copies in the paperback version. Schools still have it on their reading lists today and it can be found in almost 100 languages. It was tough getting published in those days and for his grand achievement, my father received an advance of $1500, the equivalent today of a few decent meals of sushi, a couple of iPhone payments and an occasional Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino Blended Creme, but not Venti, merely Grande.

Today, of all the things I am most proud of about my father's writing, it is his scathing indictment of the madness and stupidity of war, government and big business, all recounted in such passionate and pitiless detail, that still resonate resoundingly.

And now, onto that illustrious stage of authors, along with Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones and the rest of the best of the best, strut authoress and author, Palin and Mr. Plumber, with their books certain to be ghosted by some unsung schnooks, manuscripts that will be comprised mostly, I'm betting, of little more than bragging, lying and recycling some very stale air. For their efforts, they will be awarded gargantuan advances, piles of money that could feed several Third World nations for some time. Or OUR nation, since there are still so many hungry, weary, homeless and wanting. Not all of us are plucked from obscurity and wrapped in Valentino or held up as a poster-child for the working man. Some people have to actually work at it and at times, there is even talent, skill, and a magical, indefinable creative spark magnificently ignited in the process.

Madness and stupidity are, alas, not limited to the arena of war. The publishing world seems to also have stepped in it, as it does from time to time, and will now leave us its grimy footprints to follow, the real Bridge to Nowhere.