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Joseph Heller (1923-1999)


American writer, who gained world fame with his satirical, anti-war novel Catch-22 (1961), set in the World War II Italy. 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.

"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." (in Catch-22)

Joseph Heller war born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor Jewish parents. His Russian-born father, Isaac Daniel Heller, was a bakery truck driver. He died in 1927 from a botched ulcer operation. The family – Heller's mother, Lena, who worked as a seamstress, his half-sister Sylvia, and his half-brother, Lee – lived in a small four-room apartment looking out on West 31st Street near Surf Avenue in Coney Island. Lena could barely speak English. She liked to read and Heller brough her from the Coney Island public library Yiddish translations of novels. Her favorite book was Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which she read over and over.

"Joe was a pain in the neck," one of Heller's schoolmates recalled. "He was brighter than all of us. He was a needler, a big mouth." 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. After his discharge from the army, he married Shirley Held; they had met in New York's Catskill Mountains via a dance contest at Grossinger’s Resort.

In 1949 Heller received his M.A. from Columbia University. He was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford in 1949-50, and then worked as a teacher at Pennsylvania State University (1950-52), copywriter for the magazines Time (1952-56), Look (1956-58), and promotion manager for McCall´s. Heller left McCall's in 1961 to teach fiction and dramatic writing at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania.

His first stories Heller sold already during his student times. They were published in such magazines as Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. The idea for Catch-22 came to Heller in the early 1950s. At that time he was employed as a copywriter at a small advertising agency and in the evenings he worked with his book 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.)" (in Now and Then, 1998)

Because Leon Uris was preparing to release a war novel entitled Mila 18 (1961) Heller changed his number from 18 to 14 and then to 22 from the suggestion of his editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb – because "it’s funnier than eighteen." Heller's work 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."

The protagonist is Captain John Yossarian, lead bombardier of the 256th squadron, who is stationed at an airstrip on the fictitious island off the coast of Italy during WW II. Other characters include the conman Milo Minderbinder, company mess officer, who creates a successful black-market business, Major Major, Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who wants to turn his men into perfect parade ground robots, Chief White Halfoat, whose family is constantly chased and evicted by oil companies, and mail clerk Wintergreen, who is really running the war. Jossarian, struggles to retain his sanity and hopes to get a medical discharge by pretending to be insane. The story centers on the USAF regulation which suggests that willingness to fly dangerous combat missions must be considered insane, but if the airmen seek to be relieved on grounds of mental reasons, the request proves their sanity. According to an anecdote, Heller's Finnish translator wrote the author a letter asking, "Would you please explain me one thing: what means Catch-22?"

Heller's absurd world follows the rules of Samuel Beckett and Lewis Carroll's Wonderland: "'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.' 'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice. 'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'" And as Alice, Yossarian eventually rejects the irrational logic of his rabbit hole after his friends are killed or missing. But instead of waking up, Yossarian decides to desert to Sweden. The non-chronological, fragmented narrative underlines the surreal experience of the characters and the contrast between real life and illogicalities of war. It has been noted, that Heller's characters have similarities with Louis Falstein's novel The Sky is a Lonely Place, which was published earlier. Falstein depicts combat missions above Mediterranean during WW II. However, Heller's tone is comic. The publication of Catch-22 signaled a more experimental approach to the war novel, anticipating such works as Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963) and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Heller also expressed the emerging rebelliousness of the Vietnam generation and criticism of mass society. Members of the rock band Jefferson Airplane offered him LSD in San Francisco; Heller replied with a refusal.

Catch-22 has enjoyed a steady sale since its publication. 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.

Heller waited 13 years before publishing his next novel, 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 says in his monologue. Instead of making him a lovable character, like the rebelliousYossarian, he is portayed as a heartless, unhappy pessimist, who acts cynically as a "wolf among a pack of wolves". Vonnegut, Heller's friend, reviewed the novel for The New York Times. Heller knew that Vonnegut would not undertake the task unless he would write favorably about it. Some reviewers were disappointed but Vonnegut praised the novel as "clear and hard-edged as a cut diamond." (New York Times, October 6, 1974)

We Bombed in New Haven  (1968), Heller's play-within-a-play, 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. Before it was staged at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, New York, July 13, 1971, a group of young actors, who had gone to high school together at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas, put on a production in 1964.

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. Closing Time (1994) is 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 30's. "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." (in Now and Then)

Heller had two children by his first marriage, Erica and Ted. His divorce was recounted in No Laughing Matter. Erica's own book  about her father, Yossarian Sleph Here, came out in 2011. The family lived in an apartment at the Apthorp on the Upper West Side. 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 an Artist, as an Old Man (2000), 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." (in Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man)

For further reading: Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty (2011); Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller (2011); Joseph Heller: A Descriptive Bibliography by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, Park Bucker (2002); A Study of Joseph Heller's Catch-22: Going Around Twice by Jon Woodson (2001); Tilting at Morality by David M. Craig (1997); From Here to Absurdity by Stephen W. Potts (1995); Conversations with Joseph Heller, ed. Adam J. Sorkin (1993); Understanding Joseph Heller by Sanford Pinsker (1991); Joseph Heller by Judit Ruderman (1991); The Fiction of Joseph Heller by David Sed (1989); Joseph Heller by Robert Merrill (1987); Joseph Heller's Catch-22 by Rose Kam, Joseph L. Heller (1985, paperback); Crititical Essays on Joseph Heller, ed. James Nagel (1984) - See also other WW II pilots and writers: James Dickey, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - M*A*S*H - USA television series (1872-83, 250 x 30 m/1 x 150 m), starring Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, Loretta Swift, Jamie Farr, McLean Stevenson, Larry Linville, Mike Farrell, Gary Burghoff, David Ogden Stiers, Harry Morgan, George Morgan, William Christopher. Developed from Robert Altman's hit movie about the misadventures of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  The scriptwriter Larry Gelbart left in 1976, and Alan Alda took over as one of principal writers and directors of the show. The two-and-a-half-hour special 'Good-bye, Farewell and Amen' ended the series in 1983. A sequel, After Mash, presented several of the unit adjusting to civilian life. Richard Hornberger, under the pseudonym Richard Hooker, wrote the original M*A*S*H novel. He did not watch the TV version because of its liberal sensibilities.

Selected works:

  • Catch-22, 1961
    - Me sotasankarit (suom. Markku Lahtela, 1962) / Catch-22: me sotasankarit (5. p., 1985)
    - Films: Catch-22, 1970, prod. Paramount Pictures, Filmways Productions, dir. Mike Nichols,  screenplay by Buck Henry, starring Alan Arkin (as Capt. John Yossarian), Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Arthur (Art) Garfunkel; Me pommitamme Pasilasta, 1970, TV film, prod. Oy Manos-TV-Reklam AB, dir. by Veikko Kerttula, adaptation by Matti-Juhani Karila and Veikko Kerttunen; Catch-22, TV film 1973, prod. Paramount Television, dir. Richard Quine, screenplay Hal Dresner, starring Richard Dreyfuss (as Capt. John Jossarian),  Dana Elcar, Stewart Moss, Andy Jarrell
  • Sex and the Single Girl, 1964 (screenplay, adapted from the work by David R. Schwartz, dir. by Richard Quine, starring Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer)
  • Casino Royale, 1967 (uncredited, filmscript from Ian Fleming's novel)
  • We Bombed in New Haven, 1968 (play)
    - Me pommittajat: näytelmä (suom. Markku Lahtela, 1969)
    - Film: Bombardovanje Nju Hejvna, 1973, prod. Radiotelevizija Beograd (Yugoslavia), dir. Bora Grigorovic, starring Milutin Butkovic, Bogdan Jakus, Tasko Nacic, Branco Plesa, Ruzica Sokic 
  • Dirty Dingus Magee, 1970 (screenplay, with F. and T. Waldman, from D. Markson's novel, dir. by Burt Kennedy, starring Frank Sinatra, George Kennedy, Anne Jackson)
  • Catch-22, 1973 (play)
  • Clevinger's Trial, 1974 (adaptation of chapter 8 of his novel Catch-22)
  • Something Happened, 1974
    - Jotakin on tapahtunut (suom. Erkki Vainikkala, 1975)
  • Good as Gold, 1979
    - Mikä mies (suom. Paavo Lehtonen)
  • God Knows, 1984
    - Herra tietää (suom. Arto Häilä)
  • Picture This, 1988
    - Katso kuvaa (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1989)
  • No Laughing Matter, 1988
    - Ei mikään naurun asia (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1989)
  • Conversations with Joseph Heller, 1993 (edited by Adam J. Sorkin)
  • Closing Time: A Novel, 1994
    - Lopun ajat (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1995)
  • Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, 1998
  • The Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, 2000
  • Catch as Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings, 2003 (edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker)

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