The inquiry to the London Sunday Times was politely phrased. "Can anyone out there account for the amazing similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents in Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) and a novel by Louis Falstein, The Sky Is a Lonely Place, published in 1951?"
The letter to the editor, published two weeks ago, caused ripples throughout literary London and led to an extensive report in Sunday's London Times. Could one of the 20th century's bestselling novels _ a book whose title became a synonym for paradox, the very hallmark of absurdity and a masterpiece of contemporary black humor _ not have been as "wildly original" and "fantastically unique" as critics hailed it?
A reading of Louis Falstein's novel suggests that somebody from the same background as Heller (the son of a Russian Jewish family), from the same borough of New York City (Brooklyn), from the same branch of the service (an airman on an American bomber squadron) and from the same combat theater (Italy, 1943-45) did write a book tantalizingly like the one Heller published more than a decade later.
Reached at his home on Long Island on Sunday, Heller denied he ever read The Sky Is a Lonely Place, or heard of Louis Falstein, or of Lewis Pollock, the amateur bibliophile who queried the Times of London. "The similarities come from a common wartime experience," he said.
"My book came out in 1961," he added. "I find it funny that nobody else has noticed any similarities, including Falstein himself, who died just last year."
Although he conceded some surprise at the bits and pieces the novels share, Heller said much war fiction depends on the same elementary variations on themes and characters.
Toward the end of his novel, Falstein dramatized a grotesque Christmas Eve party that dissolves into a bacchanal of singing, screaming, sobbing and lamenting and ends with an outbreak of gunfire that the soldiers mistake for an enemy attack.
Late in Catch-22, Heller wrote of a Thanksgiving celebration marked by "wild, exultant shouts and by cries of people who were merry or sick." It, too, ends with gunfire.
Catch-22 and The Sky Is a Lonely Place share another vaguely similar scene in which an Italian woman, who doesn't understand English and has kept herself apart from the soldiers, is raped.
Asked about those and other similarities, Heller cited personal experience: "That Thanksgiving scene actually happened _ guys got drunk and started shooting."
Just as Heller's celebrated novel contains a jamboree of characters _ Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Major Major Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, Captain Aarfy Aardvark and Yossarian _ so does Falstein's, with Mel Ginn, Cosmo Fidanza, Chester Kowalski, Charles Couch, Billy Poat and Jack Doolie Dula.
While Catch-22 is much longer, more ambitious and more relentlessly comic, Heller is correct that much of what they share comes out of the war context.
But several similarities seem to transcend any question of shared experience or literary archetypes. Catch-22 opens with a chapter titled "The Texan." In the first chapter of The Sky Is a Lonely Place, the narrator introduces a character referred to as "the stringy young Texan."
Still, Heller closed by stressing, "Given the amount of invention in Catch-22, it would be an amazing coincidence if there were fundamental similarities with Falstein's novel."