J o s e p h H e l l e r ( 1 9 2 3 - 1 9 9 9 )
Joe Heller was born May 1, 1923 in Brooklyn, NY. Growing up
in New York, he attended Abraham Lincoln High School. In 1941,
he graduated and joined the Air Force. Like his most popular
protagonist, Yossarian, Heller served as a bombadier during
the Second World War. He flew 60 combat missions.
In the years after the war, Heller worked as a teacher at
Penn State, a copywriter for
both Time Magazine and Look, a promotion manager
for McCalls, and later a teacher of writing at both Yale
and the University of Pennsylvania. During this time, (between 1953
and its publication in 1961) Heller was working on his first novel,
Catch-22. The working title had been "Catch-18", but
Heller's editor, Robert Gottlieb, suggested the change to avoid
confusion between this book and Leon Uris's Mila 18.
Catch-22 recounted the World War II experiences of
Captain Joseph Yossarian. It established Heller as a master of the absurd, of dark humor, of the deflating hypocricy. It has deeply influenced many later works, such as M*A*S*H and basically any other modern military farce.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a
concern for ones own safety in the face of dangers that were real and
immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could
be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he
would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr
would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he
was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't
have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to.
The phrase "Catch-22" almost immediately became synonymous with the
paradoxical logic involved in govenmental and military language, and
soon became an accepted part of the english lexicon. Although
Catch-22 was set during World War II, Heller's criticism (shown in
loyalty oaths and court-marshalls, and in "catch-22" itself) was aimed
squarely at the cold war, red scare fiasco of the fifties.
Catch-22 was met with critical acclaim, and sold well immediately (it
went through 11 paperback printings in 1962 and '63). Heller, in a
way, spent the rest of his career trying to achieve the same level of
In 1968 (seven years after the publication of Catch-22) Heller's "We
Bombed in New Haven" appeared on Broadway. Running for 86 performances,
"New Haven" was Heller's protest against the Vietnam war. It was not
considered a successful play.
Mr. Heller's ideas seem to be morally and politically quite unimpeachable, and happily for Broadway quite fashionable. He is against killing people, he is against bombing, he is against the war in Vietnam and, I suspect, against the moral blindness that permits millions of people to treat such a war as a kind of spectator sport to be watched on TV. . . .
Clive Barnes in "Theater: Heller's 'We Bombed in New Haven' Opens"
Heller's second novel, Something Happened, was published in 1974, thirteen years after
his first. He considered this novel more significant, more timeless, than
his first, as it dealt with real life (the book centered around a fearful corporate executive).
Readers, to a large degree, disagreed.
In 1979, Heller published Good as Gold, a critique of the U.S. government revolving
around an English Professor's absurd experiences in the State Department. It has been
critically suggested that this novel is Heller's attempt to return to the style of writing that
had served him so well in Catch-22, and which he'd abandoned in writing the darker
Something Happened. His success in regaining Catch-22's absurd fury is very much
1984's God Knows is Heller's return to the top of his form: a novel, in the first
person, about King David. Heller plays with anachronisms (Shakespeare,
Einstein, Nietzche), Jewish life in the past and
present, God, the Bible, and on and on.
In 1986, Heller published No Laughing Matter, an account of his struggle with
Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disease that practically paralyzed the author
for a period in 1981. This book, written by Heller and Speed Vogel, is both tragic
and amusing, as Heller recounts the reactions of friends and the realities of being
so suddenly stricken by such a disease.
Picture This, another work of non-fiction, was published in 1988. It is a
scatterbrained meditation on a painting by Rembrandt of Aristotle contemplating
a bust of Homer, discussing the history and context of all three figures, relating
them to modern life. An amazing book, but not really catagorizable—it is, however,
incredibly interesting and informative. How history should be taught, in my opinion.
Heller returns to the subject of his first novel, Joseph Yossarian, in Closing Time
(1994). Yossarian has grown old, been twice divorced, and become a rather dirty
old man. An amusing read, this novel resurrects a number of the characters from Catch-22.
Insofar as any sequel to a classic can, this novel succeeds.
In 1999, Heller published his autobiography, Now and Then : From Coney Island to Here. Just months later, on December 12 of that year, Heller died of a heart attack. He was 76. Heller
had been married twice, and had two children with his first wife.
Posthumously, Heller's final novel,
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man was published in 2000. The novel
recounts an aged author's attempts to write what he realizes is his final book—an author who's recent work has been very much overshadowed by his early success,
and who wishes to, as they say, go out with a bang. Clearly at least to some
degree autobiographical, this novel is at times both tragic and hilarious, but
has been considered sub-par, critically and popularly. It passed, sadly, mostly unnoticed and unread.
B i b l i o g r a p h y
- Heller, Joseph. "Preface to the special edition of Catch-22." 1994.