Authors: Joseph Heller

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Catch-22, 1961

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

Drama:

We Bombed in New Haven, pr. 1967

Catch-22: A Dramatization, pr. 1971

Clevinger’s Trial, pb. 1973

Nonfiction:

No Laughing Matter, 1986 (with Speed Vogel)

Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, 1998

Screenplays:

Sex and the Single Girl, 1964 (with David R. Schwartz)

Casino Royale, 1967 (with others)

Dirty Dingus Magee, 1970 (with others)

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810001137}{$I[A]Heller, Joseph}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Heller, Joseph}{$I[tim]1923;Heller, Joseph}

Joseph Heller

(Mariana Cook)

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.

BibliographyAldridge, John W. The American Novel and the Way We Live Now. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Aldridge’s overview of American fiction after World War II gives Heller’s work high marks, praising his skeptical view of modern society and the imaginative qualities of his novels.Bloom, Harold, ed. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” New York: Chelsea House, 2001. A collection of critical assessments.Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Park Buker. Joseph Heller. Pittburgh: Oak Knoll Books, 2002. A bibliography of Heller’s works and criticism.Craig, David M. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller’s Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. An examination of the ethical dimensions of Heller’s work, linking his distinctive stylistic features to his preoccupation with questions of death, meaning, and identity.Dougherty, D. C. “Nemeses and McGuffins: Paranoia as Focal Metaphor in Stanley Elkin, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15, no. 2 (1995): 70-79. Reflects on the methods and motives of using paranoia as a governing metaphor in modern fiction.Friedman, John, and Judith Ruderman. “Joseph Heller and the ‘Real’ King David.” Judaism 36, no. 3 (1987): 296-302. Explores Heller’s relationship to his Jewishness and its representation in God Knows.Klinkowitz, Jerome. The American 1960’s: Imaginative Acts in a Decade of Change. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990. This analysis of American fiction in political terms suggests that Heller’s Catch-22 introduces a distinctively new kind of politics, that of withdrawal from impossible situations, and that in this sense the novel is one of the truly original works of its time.LeClair, Thomas. “Joseph Heller, Something Happened, and the Art of Excess.” Studies in American Fiction 9 (Autumn, 1981): 245-260. This essay focuses on Heller’s second novel, defending its repetitive quality as a stylistic device, necessary to the portrayal of the dullness and mediocrity of the life of its protagonist and the other characters.Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. 2d ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: The Borgo Press, 1995. This insightful and accessible overview of Heller’s novels and plays emphasizes the continuities throughout Heller’s writings, despite the various genres within which he has worked. As a moralist and political cynic, Heller creates characters whose personal crises drive them either to confront or to conform to governing orthodoxy.Saurian, Adam J. Conversations with Joseph Heller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.Seed, David. The Fiction of Joseph Heller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.Woodson, Jon. A Study of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”: Going Around Twice. New York: P. Lang, 2001. Uses the New Criticism and mythological criticism that Heller was familiar with to argue that Catch-22 is in essence a retelling of the epic of Gilgamesh in much the same way that James Joyce’s Ulysses was a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey.
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