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Heller, Joseph (1923 - 1999)
"Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in his divine system of creation?"

-- Joseph Heller


Joseph Heller was an American satirist best remembered for writing the satiric World War II classic Catch-22. The literary devices established in this first novel continued in his other books. The book was partly based on Heller's own experiences and influenced among others Robert Altman's comedy M*A*S*H, and the subsequent long-running TV series, set in the Korean War. The phrase "Catch-22" has entered the English language to signify a no-win situation, particularly one created by a law, regulation or circumstance.

Biography

(1922-1960) Early life and pre-Catch-22 occupations
Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, as the son of poor Jewish parents. His Russian-born father, Isaac Heller, who was a bakery truck driver, died in 1927 because of a botched ulcer operation. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller joined the Twelfth Air Force. He was stationed in Corsica, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. In 1949 Heller received his M.A. from Columbia University.

He was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford University in 1949-1950. Heller taught english composition for two years at Pennsylvania State University (1950-52), before moving on to become a copywriter for the magazines Time (1952-1956) and Look (1956-1958), and promotion manager for McCall's. He left McCall's in 1961 to teach fiction and dramatic writing at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania.

(1961-1970) Catch-22
"All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. There was no end in sight." (from Catch-22)

Heller sold his first stories as a student. They were published in such magazines as Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. In the early 1950s he started working on Catch-22.

At that time Heller was employed as a copywriter at a small advertising agency. Most of the book he wrote in the foyer of a West End Avenue apartment. "As I've said and repeat, I wrote the first chapter in longhand one morning in 1953, hunched over my desk at the advertising agency (from ideas and words that had leaped into my mind only the night before); the chapter was published in the quarterly New World Writing #7 in 1955 under the title 'Catch-18'. (I received twenty-five dollars. The same issue carried a chapter from Jack Kerouac's On the Road, under a pseudonym.)" (from Now and Then, 1998)

The novel went largely unnoticed until 1962, when its English publication received critical praise. And in The New York World-Telegram Richard Starnes opened his column with the prophetic words: "Yossarian will, I think, live a very long time." An earlier reviewer called the book "repetitious and monotonous", and another "dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights."

Catch-22 was originally written (and scheduled for publication) as Catch-18, in which the bomber crews were required to fly a minimum of 18 missions, rather than 22. Just before the scheduled publication date of Heller's novel, another publisher brought out Leon Uris's novel Mila 18, unrelated to Heller's work but also with a military theme. Heller's novel was hastily retitled (or renumbered), with the characters' military requirements increased to 22 missions.

Catch-22 was not a success when first published, but a few months later S. J. Perelman praised the book in an interview; soon afterward, sales figures took off, and this novel has enjoyed steady sales ever since. Mike Nichols's movie version of the novel from 1970 is considered disappointing, although its good cast tried its best. Nichols emphasized the absurdity of war, and as Heller, he rejected American militarism.

Orson Welles, who also was interested in filming the book, was in the role of General Dreedle. After writing Catch-22, Heller worked on several Hollywood screenplays, such as Sex and the Single Girl, Casino Royale, and Dirty Dingus Magee, and contributed to the TV show "McHale's Navy" under the pseudonym Max Orange. In the 1960s Heller was involved with the anti-Vietnam war protest movement.

Catch 22 Controversy
In April 1998, Lewis Pollock wrote to The Sunday Times asking for clarification as to "the amazing simlarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents" in Catch 22 and a novel, published in England in 1951. The book that spawned the request was written by Louis Falstein titled The Sky is a Lonely Place in Britain and Face of a Hero in the United States.

Falstein's novel was available two years before Heller wrote the first chapter of Catch 22 (1953) while he was student at Oxford. The Times stated "Both have central characters who are using their wits to escape the aerial carnage; both are haunted by an omnipresent injured airman, invisible inside a white body cast", Heller in The Washington Post stated "My book came out in 1961. I find it funny that nobody else has noticed any similarities, including Falstein himself, who died just last year." (April 27, 1998)

Other works (1974-2000)
Heller waited 13 years before publishing his next novel - the darker and sombre Something Happened (1974). It portrayed a corporation man Bob Slocum, who suffers from insomnia and almost smells the disaster mounting toward him. Slocum's life is undramatic, but he feels that his happiness is threatened by unknown forces. "When an ambulance comes, I'd rather not know for whom."

He does not share Yossarian's rebelliousness, but he acts cynically as a "wolf among a pack of wolves". Heller's play-within-a-play, We Bombed in New Haven (1968), was written in part to express his protest against the Vietnam war. It was produced on Broadway and ran for 86 performances. Catch-22 has also been dramatized. It was first performed at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, New York, July 13, 1971.

Heller's later works include Good As Gold (1979), where the protagonist Bruce Gold tries to regain the Jewishness he has lost. Readers hailed the work as a return to puns and verbal games familiar from Heller's first novel. God Knows (1984) was a modern version of the story of King David and an allegory of what it is like for a Jew to survive in a hostile world. David has decided that he has been given one of the best parts of the Bible. "I have suicide, regicide, patricide, homicide, fratricide, infanticide, adultery, incest, hanging, and more decapitations than just Saul's."

No Laughing Matter (1986), written with Speed Vogel, was a surprisingly cheerful account of Heller's experience as a victim of Guillain-Barré syndrome. During his recuperation Heller was visited among others by Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman and Mel Brooks. His next book (1988) was the satirical and experimental historical fiction Picture This. In 1994, he returned with Closing Time - a sequel to Catch-22, depicting the current lives of its heroes.

Yossarian is now 40 years older and as preoccupied with death as in the earlier novel. "Thank God for the atom bomb," says Yossarian. Now And Then (1998) is Heller's autobiographical work, evocation of his boyhood home, Brooklyn's Coney Island in the 1920s and 1930s. "It has struck me since - it couldn't have done so then - that in Catch-22 and in all my subsequent novels, and also in my one play, the resolution at the end of what narrative there is evolves from the death of someone other than the main character." (from Now and Then).

Heller had two children by his first marriage. His divorce was recounted in No Laughing Matter. In 1989 Heller married Valerie Humphries, a nurse he met while ill. Heller died of a heart attack at his home on Long Island on December 13, 1999. His last novel, Portrait Of The Artist As An Old Man, (2000) published posthumously, was about a successful novelist who seeks an inspiration for his book. "A lifetime of experience had trained him never to toss away a page he had written, no matter how clumsy, until he had gone over it again for improvement, or had at least stored it in a folder for safekeeping or recorded the words on his computer." (from Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man).

Quotations

"When I read something saying I've not done anything as good as Catch-22 I'm tempted to reply, 'Who has?'"

"How much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of Creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatalogical mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements?"

 
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