A grim tale in which a racist Southern community seeks revenge for the stabbing of a white man, written before cherished author Joseph Heller penned “Catch-22,” is set to be published by the American literary magazine The Strand this week.
“Almost Like Christmas” is a hard-boiled story in which a fight resembling “the primordial brutality of an alley fracas” leaves a white man dead and a young black man, Jess Calgary, as the prime suspect. The Guardian quotes an excerpt in which a teacher named Carter tries to persuade Calgary to come in for questioning:
“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.”
Andrew Gulli, managing editor of the Strand, who has previously unearthed little-known works by authors such as Mark Twain, Graham Greene, Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse, said: “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.”
“It shares some parallels with Catch-22,” he continued. “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—unlike contemporaries like Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer, whose works have dated, Heller’s message resonates with people of all ages and I doubt it will fade away with time.”
Heller is thought to have written the piece in the late 1940s or early 1950s after his return from the second world war. Biographer Tracy Daugherty, whose Just One Catch: The Passionate Life of Joseph Heller came out in 2011, told Associated Press that the story is as bleak as any of Heller’s novels, but that it is “uncharacteristic” in lacking his signature satirical edge.