Something Happened, 1974
Good as Gold, 1979
God Knows, 1984
Picture This, 1988
Closing Time, 1994
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, 2000
We Bombed in New Haven, pr. 1967
Catch-22: A Dramatization, pr. 1971
Clevinger’s Trial, pb. 1973
No Laughing Matter, 1986 (with Speed Vogel)
Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, 1998
Sex and the Single Girl, 1964 (with David R. Schwartz)
Casino Royale, 1967 (with others)
Dirty Dingus Magee, 1970 (with others)
Joseph Heller is one of the most popular of those post-World War II writers whose fiction, first identified as black humor, later became known as “metafiction” (fiction that calls attention to its fictitious nature). Born and reared in Brooklyn, he attended City College of New York, where he later returned as a member of the faculty. Heller served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and used his wartime experiences as the basis for his first novel. After the war he lived in New York City and on Long Island.
Catch-22 gave a new term to the English language and new meaning to the existentialist term “absurd” as it applies to war fiction. The novel has no narrative structure. Its chapters, each taking its name from one of the characters, do not follow in any kind of logical or temporal sequence. The characters themselves are given odd or comic names (Milo Minderbinder, Chief White Half-Oat, Major Major Major) and often act on (apparently) ridiculous views of the world. The central character, Yossarian, is determined to “live forever or die in the attempt,” and his best friend, Dunbar, continually seeks boredom, on the theory that time passes more slowly when you are bored and that a bored person therefore lives longer. Yossarian is continually frustrated, as his commanding officer uses a “catch-22” to increase the number of missions his men must fly before they can be rotated home.
Much of the distinctive quality of Catch-22 comes from its innovative combination of the comic and the horrible. While earlier writers of war fiction had occasionally included humorous incidents in their novels, none had used such outrageous humor. Heller’s characters find themselves in one ridiculous situation after another. At the same time, the more ghastly aspects of war are presented in all of their horror: A young man bleeds to death in a bomber while his friends fail to realize he is seriously wounded; a plane, buzzing a group of the pilot’s friends on a beach, is caught in a downdraft, and the propeller kills one of the men in grisly fashion.
On the strength of the success of Catch-22 Heller spent considerable time during the 1960’s doing film and television script work. His efforts included the James Bond film Casino Royale, which was uncredited, Dirty Dingus Magee, and episodes of the 1960’s television series McHale’s Navy (for which he wrote under the pen name Max Orange). He also labored over dramatic adaptations of Catch-22 that never succeeded and put considerable effort into his play We Bombed in New Haven, which takes the moral dilemmas of Catch-22 several steps further but was not a critical success.
Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, was an experiment in a very different direction. It is the story of Bob Slocum, a compulsive philanderer but an ordinary man who has been traumatized after the accidental death of his son, for which he was responsible. The novel constantly repeats itself, restating the same events as Slocum tries to come to terms with his own grief and guilt and with the breakdown of his family.
In Good as Gold Heller seemed to be determined to show critics and readers that he could write a novel about the contemporary Jewish experience, and that he could do so as successfully as such contemporaries as Philip Roth and Herbert Gold. Heller’s Bruce Gold is a professor who is trying to write a book on the subject of that experience to justify a large advance he has received from a publisher. At the same time he is being tempted by the possibility of an appointment to an important post in the federal government, and he is further tempted by the beautiful non-Jewish daughter of an important anti-Semitic politician. Gold is as confused as his predecessor, Yossarian, and much of Good as Gold is presented in witty and fast-paced prose. It is, however, a much more conventional novel than the first.
With God Knows Heller draws on the Bible. His narrator, David, the king of Israel, is profane, witty, and gross. As an old man he looks back over his life and tells what purports to be the “real” story about his battle with Goliath, his affair with Bathsheba, his marriages, and his children’s troubled lives. Yet this David knows everything that has happened after his time: He criticizes Michelangelo’s statue of him, he objects to the King James version of the Bible, and he compares Jerusalem to Coney Island.
On December 12, 1981, Heller was suddenly afflicted with Guillain-Barre syndrome (from which he died in 1999), a rare inflammation of the nervous system that left him paralyzed for months; recovering his full mobility consumed much of 1982. Heller returned to revisions of God Knows, then, together with his friend Speed Vogel, wrote a darkly humorous account of his battle with Guillain-Barre, No Laughing Matter.
Heller’s next work, Picture This, is a historical meditation that rotates around Rembrandt’s painting of Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer. The novel encompasses three millennia of history, from the ancient Greece that inspired the painting to the twentieth century America, where it belongs to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Heller uses this historical sweep to criticize the rise of modern states and warfare as well as the disruptive influences of capitalism on art.
Heller’s next novel, Closing Time, the sequel to Catch-22, includes familiar characters like Milo Minderbinder (now a billionaire arms dealer) and Yossarian, but it also introduces a broad range of new personalities who share memories of a Coney Island childhood and World War II. The novel is dominated by an apocalypse Heller had only suggested in the Roman chapters of Catch-22. In a wildly complicated plot and with a black humor at times more satisfying even than that of his first novel, Heller concludes the action on a day of doom when a carnival-like Hell opens its gates to the characters beneath the streets of Manhattan.
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man was the novel Heller was putting the final touches on when he died, and it was published posthumously. It is an almost aggressively autobiographical novel of an elderly novelist searching for a plot for a new novel; much of the story involves him coming up with ideas and discussing them with friends and family before dismissing them. The most poignant parts of the novel are the reminiscences of youth from the perspective of age, assessments of what was and might have been from the position of knowledge that there will be little more to come.
Heller’s place as one of the original and most significant writers of metafiction is secure despite the uneven quality of his work. Catch-22 has remained fresh to new generations of readers, in part because Heller’s depiction of the madness of war struck a responsive chord, in part because of the freshness of his style.