Joseph Heller is a famous American post-war writer, author of the successful novel Catch-22.
He was born on the 1st May 1923 in Brooklyn. He comes from a Jewish- American family but, as he often proclaims, he is not a practising Jew. During the Second World War, he served as a pilot in the Air Force.
In the years 1948 – 1949 he studied at the Colombian University in New York and then at Oxford in Britain. Until 1975 he worked as professor of literature at the City College in New York. Since 1975 he has devoted his work only to literature and writing.
In 1953 he started writing his first novel inspired by his war experience. Published eight years later, his Catch-22 (1961) became a literary sensation. It is still considered the best anti-war novel dealing with the Second World War. It is written in a burlesque style of comic strips, the so-called mosaic or film technique. The central anti-hero is Yossarian, an American pilot in a bombing unit in the Second World War. He tries obsessively all possible ways to avoid action and to save his life, but in vain. At the end of the novel he deserts the army. The novel shows, with “black humour” and irony, the absurdity of war. It is represented by an Air Force rule, called Catch 22, saying that: ”a concern for one’s own safety face to face with real and immediate danger is the process of a rational mind”. In other words, anyone who wants to avoid combat missions (air attacks) is not really crazy and thus cannot leave the army service. The only characters who escape destruction in Catch-22 are those who mastered the laws of absurdity e.g. Milo, the boss of the catering service, who constantly tries to profit from the war regardless of the consequences. Heller’s novel is aimed against both civilian bureaucracies and inhuman military organisations. The novel was successfully filmed in 1970.
Heller’s only play, We Bombed in New Haven (1967), is also a reminiscence of World War II. Thirteen years after Catch-22, Heller published his next novel, Something Happened (1974), dealing with the crisis in an American middle-class family in the 1960s. The central character is Bob Slocum, an ordinary corporation clerk, insensitive to all people around him, who is suffering from an uncertain feeling that something in his life and in society is not right. Good as Gold (1979) is a funny satire on American politics. The main character is a Jewish intellectual trying to hide his Jewish background, hired to work for the U.S. government (it is about Henry Kissinger). In the next novel, God Knows (1984), Heller rewrote the story of the Biblical king David (from the Old Testament). He demythologised the well-known legend using grotesque details. His king David is an old bitter man who remembers his past deeds without respect or admiration. This story also shows the vanity of secular power and glory. Picture This (1988) is an experimental historical novel.
In the 1980s, Heller suffered from a serious illness, Guillain and Barré syndrome, and became paralysed.
After partially recovering he wrote, together with his friend Speed Vogel, an autobiographical prose No Laughing Matter (1989) describing his experience with the illness. In the 1990s, Heller wrote a sequel to Catch-22, called Closing Time (1994). It tells the story of Yossarian and other characters of his first novel fifty years after the end of the war.