Born: 1 May 1923
Died: 12 December 1999 (heart failure)
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Best known as: The author of Catch-22
Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 (1961), the darkly comic World War II novel whose title became a common term for a no-win situation. The novel's protagonist, Yossarian, wants to stop flying combat missions. The military doctor explains that a pilot can get out of combat only if he is crazy. But there's a catch ("Catch-22") -- anyone who wants to get out of combat is clearly not crazy. Although the novel received mixed reviews and minor notice when it first appeared, by the end of the 1960s it had struck a chord with an American public vexed by the war in Vietnam. The book became a bestseller and is now considered a classic of modern American literature. Heller based the book on his own experiences as a bombardier during World War II. He left the Air Corps at the end of the war as a first lieutenant with a record of 60 combat missions and then studied at the University of Southern California, New York University (B.A. 1948), Columbia University (M.A. 1949) and Oxford (Fulbright scholarship, 1949-50). While occasionally publishing short fiction, he taught English for two years at Pennsylvania State University. He then moved to New York in 1952 and worked as a magazine ad writer while also writing Catch-22. Heller's place in literary history was secured with the book's success, but he still taught college English during the 1960s and '70s, leaving after the publication of his second novel, Something Happened (1974). Like his contemporary Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Heller is known for his dark humor and sardonic view of modern life, part Kafka and part Mel Brooks. His other books include Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Closing Time (1994, a sort-of sequel to Catch-22) and the autobiographical Now and Then (1998).
Extra credit: Heller also dabbled in writing for television and film. He is credited with the screenplays to Sex and the Single Girl (1964, starring Natalie Wood) and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970, starring Frank Sinatra).
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