NEW YORK — Before Joseph Heller satirized the madness of war in "Catch-22," he told a serious tale about the tragedy of racism.
"Almost Like Christmas," to appear next week in Strand Magazine, is a grim short story about the stabbing of a Southern white, the town's thirst for revenge and the black man who has resigned himself to blame. Written in the late 1940s or early '50s, after Heller had returned from World War II, the story has rarely been seen and offers a peek at the early fiction of one of the 20th century's most famous writers.
"Heller was to a large extent a guy who saw through hypocrisy, greed, and the backward nature of a mob better than most writers — so it's no wonder that he turned his pen to a racist mob in a small southern town," said Andrew Gulli, managing editor of the Strand, a publication based in Birmingham, Mich., that has unearthed little known works by Mark Twain, Graham Greene and others.
From the start, "Almost Like Christmas" is a portrait of a worn out community. One character has the "hopeless, stupid, waxen look of a drunkard." A window's "coarse patterns of grime" reminds another character of "diseased tissue," while the voice of a third man has a "shrill, whinnying, malicious hysteria."
In this unnamed place, a terrible fight ("the primordial brutality of an alley fracas") has left a white man in a coma, local residents seething and a young black man, Jess Calgary, as the prime suspect. A white school teacher, identified as "Carter," has the awful task of convincing Calgary that he should come into town for questioning.
"Almost Like Christmas" is as bleak as any of Heller's novels, but without the dark humor he would become famous for. Heller biographer Tracy Daugherty said that at the time Heller had yet to develop his own literary voice and was instead mimicking the style of magazine stories.
"William Saroyan was a huge influence on Heller at the time — stories of Depression-era hardships, written in a hard-boiled style," said Daugherty, whose "Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller," came out in 2011. "The story's lack of humor is very uncharacteristic of the Heller readers would come to know."
Heller, who died at age 76 in 1999, spent much of his life in or near his native New York City. Daugherty said that Heller trained for the military in South Carolina, but otherwise had little first-hand knowledge of the South and almost surely did not base "Almost Like Christmas" on any direct experience.
Daugherty does find some personal elements in the story, noting that Carter is a "flawed mentor," perhaps inspired by Heller's brother and father, "who never really helped him in the ways he needed, with his education and his ambitions."
Heller started writing "Catch-22" in 1953 and the novel came out eight years later, not long before the Vietnam War would make the novel required reading in the 1960s and '70s. Daugherty says she found evidence that Heller was working on a story based on his war service around the time he wrote "Just Like Christmas." But editors advised him that the market for war fiction was already well served by such novels as Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" and James Jones' "From Here to Eternity."
"So Heller set his war story aside and continued to imitate magazine writers for a while, doing things such as 'Almost Like Christmas,' while feeling that he had not broken through to his best material," Daugherty said. "Many years would pass before he'd return to his true calling, the war story — and in doing so he would change our culture's idea of what a war story could be."