Joseph Heller, Author of "Catch-22," Dies at 76
By Richard Severo and Herbert Mitgang,, December 14, 1999
Joseph Heller, the author of "Catch-22," the darkly comic 1961 novel that became a universal metaphor not only for the insanity of war, but also for the madness of life itself, died Sunday night at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 76.
The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Valerie, said.
"Catch-22" was based on Heller's experiences as a bombardier with the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean in World War II. The novel is about a bombardier named John Yossarian, a mock-Assyrian who believes his ambitious, mean-spirited commanding officers are more dangerous than the Germans. To avoid flying more missions, Yossarian concocts a mysterious liver ailment, sabotages his plane and tries to get himself declared insane.
Yossarian discovers that, in the military rule book, anyone who is declared insane must be excused from flying death-defying missions. The catch is that one must ask to be excused. But anyone who is smart enough to show "rational fear in the face of clear and present danger" obviously is sane and must continue to fly.
In his novel, Heller went beyond a simple anti-military stance. Some critics found a condemnation of capitalistic practices in the character of Milo Minderbinder, a money-grubbing former mess-hall officer whose pursuit of profits caused suffering and deaths.
Interpreting the meaning of "Catch-22" in his book, "Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers From Hemingway to Mailer," the critic Alfred Kazin said that Heller's novel "is really about the Next War, and thus about a war which will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end when no one is alive to fight it. The theme of 'Catch-22' is the total craziness of war, the craziness of all those who submit to it, and the struggle of one man, Yossarian, who knows the difference between his sanity and the insanity of the system."
"Catch 22" would become an American classic, selling more than 10 million copies in the United States, read in many of the world's languages and becoming a 1970 film by Mike Nichols. But its arrival was not that auspicious, although the novelist Nelson Algren, writing about it in The Nation, called it "the best American novel to come out of World War II" and "the best American novel to come out of anywhere in years."
Many other reviewers felt like Richard G. Stern, the author of "Golk," who wrote a short review that was published on page 48 of The New York Times Book Review under the headline, "Bombers Away." Stern said the book had "much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility." John Pine of the Library Journal agreed with him, calling the book "tedious" and recommending it only for libraries with large collections of fiction.
With poor reviews from some of the most influential publications, "Catch 22" got off to such a slow start that it might have faded away completely were it not for strong recommendations by people who had read it and passed it along to friends. One such reader was S.J. Perelman.
Originally, the book and the rule were both to be called "Catch-18" but that came close to the title of a book written by Leon Uris.
So Heller changed both to "Catch-22" and it is by that tag that it has entered the dictionaries and the language. In time Yossarian became everybody's favorite survivor; by the mid-1960s, Newsweek was referring to the "Heller cult," most of them young people addicted to the book. A number of college students who did not want to be conscripted to fight in the war in Vietnam started wearing Army field jackets around campus with Yossarian nametags. John Chancellor, then an NBC anchorman, recalled having bumper stickers printed with the legend "Yossarian Lives," which he gave to anyone who would take them. Heller himself spent the decade of the 60's touring college campuses, speaking out against the war in Vietnam.
Heller reintroduced John Yossarian in "Closing Time," a 1994 novel that Simon & Schuster called "the sequel to 'Catch-22' " although Heller preferred to call it a complement to the original. Along with Yossarian were many of the old favorites from the original work, most especially Milo Minderbinder, the ultimate manipulator of people and institutions, now a billionaire arms merchant; Milo's foulmouthed sidekick, ex-Pfc. Wintergreen; and the meek chaplain, renamed Tappman (" 'Chaplain, Tappman, Chaplain Tappman, Albert Tappman, Chaplain?' chattered Chaplain Albert Tappman garrulously.") who becomes a sequestered secret weapon when he is discovered by his physicians to be urinating heavy water.
Heller wrote other novels, two memoirs of sorts, and a few plays.
Some were praised and others were not but none ever came close to achieving the stature and popularity of "Catch-22," his first novel.
When an interviewer told him he had never written anything as good as "Catch-22," Heller, a man who knew his worth, replied, "Who has?"
The novelist E.L. Doctorow told the Associated Press on Monday, "When 'Catch-22' came out, people were saying, 'Well, World War II wasn't like this.' But when we got tangled up in Vietnam, it became a sort of text for the consciousness of that time. They say fiction can't change anything, but it can certainly organize a generation's consciousness."
Joseph Heller was born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn on May 1, 1923, the son of Isaac Donald Heller, who drove a delivery truck for a wholesale baker, and Lena Heller. It was Isaac Heller's second marriage and young Joseph had a half-brother, Lee, 14 years his senior, and a half-sister Sylvia, seven years older, from the first marriage. After the elder Heller died, Lee became a surrogate father to Joey, as he was called, and Sylvia.
Mrs. Heller raised her family as best she could, taking in boarders. Joey gained a reputation as a smart-aleck fluent in Brooklynese, adept at delivering acerbic one-liners, a great believer in playing practical jokes on his friends. His mother used to tell him, "Joey, you got a twisted brain."
He also read and enjoyed "Tom Swift" and "The Rover Boys." But when he was about 10 years old, an older cousin got him to read a child's version of Homer's "Illiad." Later in life he said that after he read it, he decided that if he ever grew up, he would become a writer.
"A fan of Heller's fiction will see how the sense of loss animating novels like 'Something Happened' and 'Closing Time' grew out of his own nostalgia for the vanished world of his youth, and understand how his heroes' preoccupation with mortality had roots in his father's premature death and his own close encounters with death during World War II," Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review of "Now and Then" for The New York Times. "We see how Heller drew upon his own Coney Island childhood for sections of 'Good as Gold' and 'Closing Time' and how he used his own experiences as a bombardier for memorable scenes in 'Catch 22.'"
In June of 1941, Heller graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School. He had worked a bit during his school years, delivering telegrams. But he continued to want to be a writer. He wrote some short stories that were published and well-received but soon he was caught up in the war.
He first got a job as a blacksmith's helper at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia. After the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He did this with some of his friends from Brooklyn, who made a grand gesture of taking the oath of enlistment in Grand Central Terminal.
He was sent to armorer's school and would have been very happy to remain there; People who made armor and affixed it to war machines did not usually go into combat. But he heard a rumor that armorers were being turned into gunners and gunners' lives were "worth no more than three days." So he went to cadet school and became a bombardier.
He was commissioned a second lieutenant and, like Yossarian in "Catch-22," was sent on bombing runs over France and Italy. Yossarian was stationed on Pianosa, an imaginary island off the Italian coast in the Tyrrhenian sea.
Heller was stationed on Corsica, which happened to be in just about the same place.
Heller knew no fear until he flew his 37th mission. "Until then, it was all play," he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in May of 1995.
"I was so brainwashed by Hollywood's image of heroism that I was disappointed when nobody shot back at us," he recalled.
But it wasn't any fun at all when he saw planes flown by his friends destroyed in combat.
And then his own B-25 was hit by flak, wounding the top turret gunner. After that, he said, "I wanted out."
In June of 1945, he was discharged after having flown 60 missions. Using the benefits of the G.I. Bill of Rights, he studied first at the University of California, then transferred to New York University, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and graduated in 1948 with a major in English. He then earned a master's in literature from Columbia, won a Fulbright scholarship and studied at Oxford University in England in 1950.
Returning to the United States, he got a job teaching freshman writing at Penn State University.
He then got into advertising and worked for Time magazine's advertising department from 1952 to 1956 and did the same thing for Look magazine from 1956 to 1958. He served as a promotion man for McCall's magazine from 1958 to 1961 and also worked briefly for Remington Rand, the typewriter manufacturer, in the advertising department.
Through these years he kept writing, and his stories were published from time to time in Esquire, the Atlantic Monthly and Cosmopolitan. During the 1950's, he had written a short story that was evocative of his experiences in the Air Force and in his spare time he expanded it, slowly building it into the novel that was called "Catch-22."
Heller said that it took him eight years to write "Catch-22." He acknowledged the influence of Céline, Nathaniel West, Nabokov, Faulkner and in particular Kafka.
But even after the book was published , he still could not sustain himself with what he earned as a writer. He lectured at colleges and was a professor of English at the City College of New York. In the 1960's, he taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale. He also wrote a few television plays and, later in the 60s and early 1970's, worked on movie scripts. Among those in which he had a hand were "Casino Royale" (Columbia, 1967) and "Dirty Dingus Magee," (MGM, 1970), both of them spoofs.
Heller used dialogue from his novel in several adaptations for the theater. A two-act play, "We Bombed in New Haven," was produced at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1967 and reached Broadway the following year for a brief run. "Catch-22," a one-act play, was produced at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton in 1971. "Clevinger's Trial," based on Chapter 8 of "Catch-22," was produced in London in 1974.
Not until 1974 -- 13 years after publication of "Catch-22" -- did he produce another novel: "Something Happened." It was a novel about alienation in the American business community and it focused on Bob Slocum, a sad, lackluster careerist with no true friends, dogged by a feeling of always being trapped.
John W. Aldredge , writing in The Saturday Review, said Slocum "is haunted by the sense that at some time in the past something happened to him, something that he cannot remember but that changed him from a person who had aspirations for the future, who believed in himself and his work, who trusted others and was able to love, into the person he has since unaccountably become, a man who aspires to nothing, believes in nothing and no one, least of all himself, who no longer knows if he loves or is loved."
Five years after "Something Happened," Heller's third novel, "Good as Gold," was published. It was a cynical look at the workings of the Federal Government in which the President himself spends most of his first year in office writing "My Year in the White House."
Into the maw of public service comes Bruce Gold, an English professor who wants to become the first "real" Jewish Secretary of State. The fact that Henry A. Kissinger has already served in that capacity does not deter him because he feels that Kissinger could not possibly be Jewish, since he was a party to the war in Vietnam.
R.Z. Sheppard, writing in Time magazine, called the book "a savage, intemperately funny satire on the assimilation of the Jewish tradition of liberalism" into the American mainstream. "It is a delicate subject," Sheppard wrote, "off-limits to non-Jews fearful of being thought anti-Semitic and unsettling to successful Jewish intellectuals whose views may have drifted to the right in middle age."
"God Knows," published in 1984, made some of the best seller lists for a time. It was basically the story of King David told in the voice of Mel Brooks. Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post, said the book was " more of a nightclub shtick than a novel. "
"I tend to see my people as living in a vacuum, not anarchy, but living in a void of meaning -- even my King David, who despairs because God doesn't talk to anyone," Heller said.
In 1986, while trying to cope with the dissolution of his 1945 marriage to the former Shirley Held, Heller noticed he had trouble swallowing, then found he could not pull a sweater over his head. The mysterious malady turned out to be Guillain-Barré syndrome, a life-threatening neurological disease involving partial paralysis.
Certain he was near death, he spent two months in Mount Sinai Hospital and four months of rehabilitation at the Rusk Institute at the New York University Medical Center.
The next year, he married Valerie Humphries, the nurse who had helped restore him to health at Mount Sinai. He also got through his illness with the help of his friends, especially Speed Vogel, a retired textiles executive and former herring taster at Zabars, and Mario Puzo, the novelist, who lent him money after it became known that Heller had let his health insurance lapse.
In the aftermath of his illness, Heller wrote "No Laughing Matter," with Vogel. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in The Times, said he thought the Heller-Vogel collaboration was "not only richly amusing, it is positively cheering."
In 1988, Heller published "Picture This," in which he reflected on such historical figures as Rembrandt, Socrates, Plato and the American Presidents of the 20th Century.
Heller, a handsome man with a great shock of curly white hair, enjoyed sampling Chinese food around Manhattan with friends like Mel Brooks and Puzo, who were used to his barbed wit and crotchety ways.
Barbara Gelb once described her friend for The New York Times Book Review::
"For 20 years now, I have managed to overlook his frequent sulkiness, his gluttonous table manners and his tendency to growl 'No' before he even knows what the question is. I have stayed on good terms with him largely because I relish his aberrant sense of humor and his skewed way of looking at life -- an outlook he insists has changed little since he wrote "Catch-22."
"In all my novels, there's concern with the way people use and misuse language to obscure and confuse and build barriers," he said. "The way that words are corrupted or the way words contradict themselves."
In addition to his wife Valerie, he is survived by a daughter, Erica Heller of Manhattan, a son Theodore M. of Manhattan, a novelist; and his sister Sylvia Heller of Florida.
Heller's agent, Deborah Karl, said he had completed a novel called "Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man," to be published next fall by Simon & Schuster.
Asked once what his biggest fears were, Joseph Heller replied, "I fear death, nursing homes and vaccinations." But he came to grips with death, he said, explaining, "Everyone else seems to get through it all right so it couldn't be too difficult for me."
Joseph Heller's Friends Recall His Talent and Gruff Humor
By Jesse McKinley,, June 14, 2000
As was fitting for a writer whose defining work dealt with a paradox, the friends of Joseph Heller who paid tribute to him on Monday night repeatedly recalled a man whose gruff, comic charm belied a deep, sophisticated intellect.
"It always surprised me that this book of incredible complexity had been created by a guy who hung out at the local deli," said Mike Nichols, who directed the film version of Mr. Heller's classic 1961 novel, "Catch-22." "There were a lot of people who thought he found the manuscript on a dead soldier." The crowd laughed.
Mr. Heller died in December at 76, but his loss was still being keenly felt by many of the literary lights who gathered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on West 64th Street.
"The first time I saw Joseph Heller, I fell in love with him," said Art Cooper, the editor of GQ, echoing the famous first line of "Catch 22": ("It was love at first sight.")
Mr. Cooper added: "I wanted to be a writer like Joe Heller. One might just as well want to pitch like Sandy Koufax."
More often than not, friends spoke of Mr. Heller's remarkable talents -- and his capacity to amuse. "He approached writing with the dignity of a workman," said the novelist and editor Christopher Buckley. "I admired that courage to write."
Mr. Buckley, who has edited Esquire and Forbes FYI, also recalled how he had once assigned Mr. Heller to write an article for him, despite Mr. Heller's protests that he was not made for that line of work.
"It turned out he had the soul of a magazine writer," Mr. Buckley said. "A true ability to eat at fine restaurants and stay in fine hotels on someone's dime. In this case, mine."
Other friends recalled Mr. Heller's cantankerous -- and cutting -- side.
"His ability to penetrate phoniness made him seem curmudgeonly, and he was curmudgeonly," said Frederick R. Karl, the biographer. "But he insisted on honesty."
Bruce Jay Friedman, the novelist, said Mr. Heller's particular brand of candor was memorable.
"It's one thing to not like Shakespeare," Mr. Friedman said. "But to say it in public?"
The tribute ended with remarks by Erica Heller-van den Boogaard, Mr. Heller's daughter, who showed a videotape assembled from home movies, intercut with some less famous quotations ("You call this a report card?") from her father. The final image of the video, however, brought the largest applause.
In it, Mr. Heller, young and smiling, thumbed his nose at the camera and laughed.
Following are excerpts from Joseph Heller's "Catch-22":
"You mean there's a catch?"
"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
"I'm nuts. Cuckoo. Don't you understand? I'm off my rocker. They sent someone else home in my place by mistake. They've got a licensed psychiatrist up at the hospital who examined me, and that was his verdict. I'm really insane."
"So?" Yossarian was puzzled by Doc Daneeka's inability to comprehend. "Don't you see what that means? Now you can take me off combat duty and send me home. They're not going to send a crazy man out to be killed, are they?"
"Who else will go?"
GO HERE : From a lecture at the New York City 92nd Street Y, December 7, 1970.
GO HERE : From a reading at the New York City 92nd Street Y, January 30, 1975.
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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov