Today in Literary History – December 12, 1999 – Joseph Heller dies

The novelist Joseph Heller died of a heart attack on December 12, 1999, at the age of seventy-six. He had been diagnosed in 1981 with Guillain–Barré syndrome. He made a partial recovery, described in his memoir No Laughing Matter, but remained in poor health.

Heller is best known for his wartime satire, Catch-22, his first novel, published in 1961. It is set during World War II and its main character is Captain John Yossarian, a bomber pilot with the fictional 256th Squadron. It is based in part on Heller’s own experiences as a bombardier in the war.

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The “Catch-22” of the title is a regulatory double bind where pilots who are insane don’t have to continue flying the dangerous missions, but anyone who applies to stop flying on the grounds of being insane is deemed to be showing rational concern about the possibility of dying, therefore  sane enough to keep on flying.

The term “Catch-22” has entered the English language to describe any absurd lose-lose situation. Originally the book was called Catch-18 but Heller changed it at the last minute after Leon Uris’s Mila 18 became a bestseller.

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Catch-22 didn’t sell well in hardcover, but when it was released as a paperback in 1962 it took off and sold over a million copies in its first year. Although set in the Second World War Catch-22 gained popularity in the 1960s as an anti-war novel amidst the protests against the war in Vietnam.

Heller published several more novels, such as Something Happened, Good as Gold and God Knows. Personally I enjoyed his later work on its own merits.

When an interviewer noted that Heller hadn’t written anything as good as Catch-22 Heller answered with  “Who has?”

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