One of the great literary authors of the 20th century, Joseph Heller became a bestseller with his first novel, Catch-22 (1961), and with it coined an English language phrase to describe the inability to escape an impossible situation. An hilarious anti-war satire about the futility of war and the inefficiency of human bureaucracy, Catch-22 sold over 10 million copies and was adapted by director Mike Nichols into a 1970 film starring Alan Arkin as the book's central anti-hero, Yossarian, one of the most memorable literary characters of all time. After the giant success of the novel, Heller took his time to write a number of well-reviewed, but lesser-selling books like Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984) and the sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time (1994). Early in his career, Heller also broke into Hollywood by writing the scripts for "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964) starring Natalie Wood, and "Dirty Dingus Magee" (1970) with Frank Sinatra in the lead, but chose to focus his on literature. In the 1980s, he suffered a debilitating bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which led to his memoir No Laughing Matter (1986), and finished his last novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (2000) shortly before his death in late 1999. Though he never sold as many copies of his later books as he did with Catch-22, Heller remained a literary giant, highly revered by critics, fans and fellow writers.
Born on May 1, 1923 in the Coney Island community of Brooklyn, NY, Heller was raised in a poor household by his Jewish parents Isaac and Lena Heller. From an early age, Heller knew he wanted to be a writer and as a teenager sent a story to the New York Daily News, which was summarily rejected. After graduating Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, he spent a year working odd jobs as a messenger boy and blacksmith's apprentice, before being called to duty during World War II. In 1942, Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as a member of the 488th Bombardment Squadron in the 12th Air Force and flew over 60 missions as a bombardier on a B-25, though most of the bombing runs were met with little or no resistance. Upon his return to the states, Heller used the G.I. Bill to study English at the University of Southern California and New York University, and later earned his master's in English from Columbia University. Continuing his education, he was a Fulbright Scholar for a year at Oxford University and returned to teach composition at Penn State.
All the while, Heller was writing stories even as he briefly worked for TIME magazine and as a copywriter alongside future mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark at a small advertising agency. In 1948, he published his first short story in The Atlantic, and five years later wrote the first lines of what would become his most famous novel, Catch-22. Originally intending it to be nothing longer than a novelette, Heller wrote the first chapter and had it published as the story "Catch-18" in New World Writing, but Simon & Schuster eventually gave him an advance to finish the novel, which he eventually did five years later. Published in 1961, Catch-22 was a satirical look at World War II as seen through the eyes of Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier who devises one plan after another to avoid combat missions, only to confront a military bureaucracy that manages to find ways to keep him in engaged. Yossarian is surrounded by an odd assortment of characters, including the perpetually worried Chaplain Tappman, the financially-obsessed mess officer Mile Minderbender, the oblivious navigator Captain Aardvark, and the disdainful Doctor Daneeka. Ruminating on the themes of a sane man living in an insane world, the inefficiency of bureaucracy, and the senselessness of war itself, Catch-22 became a major bestseller in paperback, selling over 10 million copies while being hailed as one of the most significant works of literature in the 20th century. Even the book's title entered the cultural lexicon as a way of expressing a paradoxical situation where an individual is trapped or unable to resolve the problem due to some contradictory and inherent circumstance.
After the success of Catch-22, Heller began plotting his second novel while simultaneously breaking into Hollywood by adapting Helen Gurley Brown's novel into the film "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964), starring Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall. After uncredited writing on the James Bond spoof "Casino Royale" (1967), Heller staged the anti-war play "We Bombed in New Haven" (1967) and wrote the comic Western "Dirty Dingus Magee" (1970), starring Frank Sinatra as an outlaw on the run and George Kennedy as a sheriff in pursuit. The film proved to be Heller's last. Meanwhile, his first novel was adapted by Mike Nichols into the satirical comedy "Catch-22" (1970), featuring Alan Arkin as Yossarian and co-starring Buck Henry, Orson Welles, Art Garfunkel, Martin Sheen and Jon Voight. Heller finally completed his second novel, Something Happened (1974), a stream-of-conscious narrative about a businessman slowly slipping into insanity as he navigates life, career, family and numerous sexual escapades. Following a round of high critical praise, both the hardcover and paperback editions topped the bestseller lists.
As was typical throughout his career, Heller took his time writing his next novel, Good as Gold (1979), a witty satire about a middle-aged college professor who suddenly has the opportunity to become Secretary of State. Once again, the novel was well-received by fans and critics. In December 1981, he suffered a serious health setback when he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a debilitating disorder that affects the nervous system, which left him temporarily paralyzed. Heller spent over a month in the hospital, where he received support from a number of famous friends. He eventually made a near-full recovery and recounted his ordeal in his autobiography No Laughing Matter (1986), which he wrote with the assistance of artist Speed Vogel. Meanwhile, he wrote his fourth fiction novel, God Knows (1984), a hilariously disjointed examination of the life of the bible's King David as told in deathbed memoir fashion. Later in the decade, he published Picture This (1988), a satirical journey through three distinct periods of time - Ancient Greece, 17th century Holland and 20th century America - connected by a Rembrandt painting.
In 1991, Heller returned to Oxford as a visiting Fellow while continuing to slowly churn out novels like Closing Time (1994), a long-awaited sequel to Catch-22 that featured characters like Yossarian, Minderbender and Tappman still trying to adjust to postwar life 50 years after the fact. Following a second memoir, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998), which recounted his life without going in depth about his work, Heller produced what ultimately became his last novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (2000), which depicted an elderly author trying to write a novel as successful as his earlier work. Though he brought the novel to a finish, Heller never saw it published. He died of a heart attack on Dec. 12, 1999 in his home in East Hampton, Long Island, NY. Naturally, the world of literature was shaken, as it had lost one of its great contributors; friend and fellow literary giant Kurt Vonnegut called Heller's death a "calamity for American literature."
By Shawn Dwyer