Joseph Heller, whose satirical 1961 novel “Catch-22" grew from cult favorite to modern classic in less than two decades and enriched the American lexicon with its title slogan and its new definition of absurdity, died Sunday of a heart attack at his Long Island home. He was 76.
Heller was the author of six novels, including “Something Happened” in 1974 and “Closing Time” in 1994, as well as three plays and two nonfiction works.
But in popularity and critical acclaim, none of his other works surpassed his first novel, “Catch-22,” whose themes of the insanity of war and the bizarre state of the human condition resonated with the emerging counterculture of the 1960s, made it a staple of high school and college English classes, and led to sales that now exceed 10 million copies.
“There was only one catch . . . and that was Catch-22,” the fictional Air Force physician Doc Daneeka tells Yossarian, the lead bombardier desperate for a way out of World War II, in the Heller novel.
Catch-22, Yossarian learns, is the rule that stipulates that anyone rational enough to want to be grounded could not possibly be insane and therefore should be returned to duty and possible death in another mission. Yossarian, who vows to “live forever or die in the attempt,” became a symbol to a generation alienated by another war, Vietnam.
His creator was ranked with Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer as one of the literary lions of the World War II generation. Many were shocked at the news of the death of the celebrated author.
“He was a wonderful writer,” Mailer said. “And there are so few of them.”
“Joe Heller . . . wrote the novel which, in its fantasy about wars and bureaucratic foolishness, summed up the experience of a generation of draftees,” novelist and friend Herbert Gold said of Heller’s achievement in “Catch-22.”
Although Heller subsequently had trouble finding a subject equal to that of his impressive first work, “one great subject,” Gold said, “is enough.”
Often asked why his later efforts could not match the level of the darkly comic masterpiece, the author, known for his gruffness, would reply, “Who has?” It did not seem to bother Heller, who took his time producing his fiction; “Catch-22" was eight years in the writing.
His pen was stilled for three years in the mid-1980s when he was afflicted with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disease that strikes without notice and left Heller in near-total paralysis within days.
He gradually recovered, divorced his wife of nearly 40 years, married his nurse and produced several other books, including “No Laughing Matter,” a chronicle of his illness co-written with a boyhood friend who helped him overcome the disease, Speed Vogel.
Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. After attending public schools in New York and working in the Norfolk Navy Yard as a blacksmith’s assistant, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in October 1942. He graduated from cadet school and was sent into combat over Italy. When he went to war, he recalled in a New York Post interview, he was awash in Hollywood images of battlefield heroism and was “disappointed when nobody shot back at us.”
He flew 37 missions as a bombardier before he became disenchanted with the glory of war and decided that he wanted out. “I was so terrified on my last few missions, I made a vow that if I got out of the war alive, I would never go up in an airplane again,” a pledge he managed to keep for a couple of decades. He finally was discharged at the end of the war after 60 missions, leaving with a lieutenant’s rank.
Back in the States, he went to USC on the GI Bill. He eventually obtained his bachelor’s degree from New York University, where he began to write short stories. Several were published in Esquire and Atlantic magazines, but he thought that they were unoriginal and started casting about for a good subject for a novel.
To pay the rent, he worked in advertising, writing promotional copy for Time and Look magazines. One day in 1953 he was lying in bed pondering the writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine and his book “Journey to the End of the Night” when the opening lines of “Catch-22" came to him: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.” By the next morning, he had written the first chapter and sent it to an agent.
Although set in World War II, Heller actually was anticipating a future war when he conceived “Catch-22.”
Speaking of Vietnam, he said, “This is the war I had in mind--a war fought without military provocation, a war in which the real enemy is no longer the other side but someone allegedly on your side. The ridiculous war I felt lurking in the future when I wrote the book.”
It captured the imagination of a dispirited generation, veering from hilarity to horror on each page so that one didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the absurdities he conjured, such as when military police arrest Yossarian for going AWOL but ignore a murdered girl on the street.
Heller created a host of other memorable characters, such as the elusive Milo Minderbinder, creator of the chocolate-coated cotton ball whose M&M; Enterprises cheerfully profited from war, and Major Major, who allowed visitors into his office only when he wasn’t there.
There also was the young gunner, Snowden, whose horrific death was recounted in memory loops that enlarged as the novel advanced, the full, gory picture--and Yossarian’s epiphany--emerging as Yossarian decides to flee to Sweden.
“I never thought of ‘Catch-22' as a comic novel,” Heller once said. But “I wanted the reader to be amused, and . . . I wanted him to be ashamed that he was amused. My literary bent . . . is more toward the morbid and the tragic. Great carnage is taking place and my idea was to use humor to make ridiculous the things that are irrational and very terrible.”
When Heller was working on the novel, the title wasn’t “Catch-22,” his editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, said.
“Catch-18 had been Joe’s working title for about eight years. . . . One day, while looking through Publishers Weekly, we saw to our horror that [Leon] Uris was coming out in the same season with a new book he was calling ‘Mila-18.’ We panicked. One night in bed I suddenly thought: ‘I’ve got it. Let’s call it “Catch-22.” It’s even funnier.’ Of course, numbers can’t be funny, but still Joe and I convinced ourselves that we had solved the problem of the title.”
To Heller’s great disappointment, “Catch-22" did not make it to any bestseller lists, despite large ads that blared “WHAT’S THE CATCH?” and some of the early major reviews were lukewarm. About a year after its publication, however, Heller began to get an inkling of its growing audience. News stories began appearing that called the book an underground favorite. When he met NBC newsman John Chancellor for his first television interview in 1962, he learned that Chancellor had been secretly posting stickers that said “Yossarian Lives.”
It went back to the printer five times in the year after the first paperback version was released. And, finally, it began to appear on bestseller lists.
“Catch-22" “is probably the finest novel published since World War II,” wrote Richard Locke in the New York Times Book Review, calling it “the great representative document of our era, linking high and low culture.”
More than two decades later, Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary, writing about the novel’s profound appeal, said: “Not only did it play perfectly into the claim of the antiwar movement that this country, and especially its armed forces, was run by madmen and morons; it also identified sanity with an unwillingness to serve in the armed forces and justified draft evasion and even desertion as morally superior to military service.”
Although Heller said he endorsed Yossarian’s decision to desert the army that made no sense to him, he said he did not encourage youths facing the draft during the Vietnam era to do the same.
“If anyone accused me of being the operative force in any specific desertion, I would deny it,” he said in a 1975 Playboy magazine interview. “I don’t believe one book can shape an attitude or an action.” And he did not want to take responsibility for a decision that could result in a young man’s exile or imprisonment. Nonetheless, he later added, he would have condoned “any method of avoiding military service in Vietnam.”
Heller’s next novel did not appear until 13 years after “Catch-22.” And, as with the first novel, it began with a sentence that popped into his mind while he was daydreaming, sitting on the porch of a rented summerhouse on Fire Island. “In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid,” begins “Something Happened,” a well-received novel centered on an angst-ridden suburban father that critics said captured the spiritual emptiness of the 1970s.
It was followed in 1979 by “Good as Gold,” a fictional expose of absurdities of government, in 1984 by “God Knows,” a satiric novel narrated by David, the Old Testament killer of Goliath, and in 1989 by “Picture This,” which uses figures from ancient Greece to convey its message about the foolish whims of politicians.
Heller was “one of the most underrated novelists of his generation,” the writer Gore Vidal said Monday. “This was partly due to the huge success of ‘Catch-22,’ and also due to the fact of his being a comic novelist in the tradition of Mark Twain. . . . I can’t think of a funnier novel than ‘Good As Gold.’ ”
In 1994 his sixth novel, “Closing Time,” was published, largely to lukewarm reviews. A sequel to “Catch-22,” it followed Yossarian as a 68-year-old, twice-divorced man in a tale that reviewers agreed paled in comparison to Heller’s debut novel.
In 1970, Alan Arkin as Yossarian starred in the movie version of “Catch-22,” written by Buck Henry and directed by Mike Nichols. Heller had little to do with the film version, which critics found heavy-handed and overly long.
During the 1960s he taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. He tried writing for television, adopting the pseudonym Max Orange to write for the comedy series “McHale’s Navy.” He also worked on screenplays of the films “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1965, “Casino Royale” in 1967 and “Dirty Dingus Magee” in 1970.
While at Yale he wrote the play “We Bombed in New Haven,” a direct and anguished response to the Vietnam War and what he saw as the moral blindness of many Americans.
He had recently completed his last novel, “Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man,” which is scheduled for publication next year.
Heller married Shirley Held in 1945 and they had a daughter, Erica, and a son, Ted. They divorced in 1984 and three years later he married Valerie Humphries, a nurse he met while recovering from his paralysis.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.
Times Book Editor Steve Wasserman and deputy book editor Tom Curwen contributed to this report.
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Excerpt on the absurdity of war, from Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22":
“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?”