Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999) was an American satirical novelist, short story writer, and playwright.
The title of one of his works, Catch-22, entered the English lexicon to refer to a vicious circle wherein an absurd, no-win choice, particularly in situations in which the desired outcome of the choice is an impossibility, and regardless of choice, a same negative outcome is a certainty. Although he is remembered primarily for Catch-22, his other works center on the lives of various members of the middle class and remain examples of modern satire.
Catch-22: While sitting at home one morning in 1953, Heller thought of the lines, “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him.” Within the next day, he began to envision the story that could result from this beginning, and invented the characters, the plot, and the tone that the story would eventually take. Within a week, he had finished the first chapter and sent it to his agent. He did not do any more writing for the next year, as he planned the rest of the story. The initial chapter was published in 1955 as “Catch-18”, in Issue 7 of New World Writing.
Although he originally did not intend the story to be longer than a novelette, Heller was able to add enough substance to the plot that he felt it could become his first novel. When he was one-third done with the work, his agent, Candida Donadio, sent it to publishers. Heller was not particularly attached to the work, and decided that he would not finish it if publishers were not interested. The work was soon purchased by Simon and Schuster, who gave him US $750 and promised him an additional $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his deadline by four to five years, but, after eight years of thought, delivered the novel to his publisher.
The finished novel describes the wartime experiences of Army Air Corps Captain John Yossarian. Yossarian devises multiple strategies to avoid combat missions, but the military bureaucracy is always able to find a way to make him stay. As Heller observed, “Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts – and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?” Heller has also commented that “peace on earth would mean the end of civilization as we know it.”
Just before publication, the novel’s title was changed to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’ new novel, Mila 18. The novel was published in hardback in 1961 to mixed reviews, with the Chicago Sun-Times calling it “the best American novel in years”, while other critics derided it as “disorganized, unreadable, and crass”. It sold only 30,000 copies in the United States hardback in its first year of publication. Reaction was very different in the UK, where, within one week of its publication, the novel was number one on the bestseller lists. Once it was released in paperback in October 1962, however, Catch-22 caught the imaginations of many baby boomers, who identified with the novel’s anti-war sentiments. The book went on to sell 10 million copies in the United States. The novel’s title became a buzzword for a dilemma with no easy way out. Now considered a classic, the book was listed at number 7 on Modern Library’s list of the top 100 novels of the century. The United States Air Force Academy uses the novel to “help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy.”
The movie rights to the novel were purchased in 1962, and, combined with his royalties, made Heller a millionaire. The film, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Alan Arkin, Jon Voight and Orson Welles, was not released until 1970.