Joseph Heller 1923-1999
American novelist, playwright, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism of Heller's works from 1990 through 2000.
Heller is remembered as a popular and respected writer whose first and best-known novel, Catch-22 (1961), is considered a classic of the post-World War II era. Heller's tragicomic vision of modern life, found in all of his novels, focused on the erosion of humanistic values and the ways in which language obscures and confuses reality. In addition, Heller's use of anachronism reflected the disordered nature of contemporary existence. His protagonists are antiheroes who search for meaning in their lives and struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by such institutions as the military, big business, government, and religion.
Heller was born May 1, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York, to first-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, a bakery truck driver, died after a bungled operation when Heller was only five years old. Many critics believe that Heller developed the sardonic, wisecracking humor that marked his writing style while growing up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. After graduating from high school in 1941, he worked briefly in an insurance office, an experience he later drew upon for the novel Something Happened (1974). In 1942 Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Corsica, where he flew sixty combat missions as a wing bombardier, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. Discharged from the military in 1945, Heller married Shirley Held and began his college education. He obtained a B.A. in English from New York University and an M.A. from Columbia University. He then attended Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar for a year before becoming an English instructor at Pennsylvania State University. Two years later Heller began working as an advertising copywriter, securing positions at such magazines as Time, Look, and McCall's from 1952 to 1961. The office settings of these companies also yielded material for Something Happened. During this time Heller was writing short stories and scripts for film and television as well as working on Catch-22. Although his stories easily found publication, Heller considered them insubstantial and derivative of Ernest Hemingway's works. After the phenomenal success of Catch-22, Heller quit his job at McCall's and concentrated exclusively on writing fiction and plays. In December of 1981 he contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare type of polyneuritis that afflicts the peripheral nervous system. Heller chronicled his medical problems and difficult recovery in No Laughing Matter (1986) with Speed Vogel, a friend who helped him during his illness. He died of a heart attack in 1999.
Catch-22 concerns a World War II bombardier named Yossarian who believes his foolish, ambitious, mean-spirited commanding officers are more dangerous than the enemy. In order to avoid flying more missions, Yossarian retreats to a hospital with a mysterious liver complaint, sabotages his plane, and tries to get himself declared insane. Variously defined throughout the novel, the term “Catch-22” refers to the ways in which bureaucracies control the people who work for them. Many critics contend that while Catch-22 is ostensibly a war novel, World War II and the Air Force base where most of the novel's action takes place function primarily as a microcosm that demonstrates the disintegration of language and human value in a bureaucratic state. Catch-22 enjoyed enormous success during the Vietnam War, when many soldiers strongly identified with Yossarian's plight. Heller's second novel, Something Happened, centers on Bob Slocum, a middle-aged businessman who has a large, successful company but who feels emotionally empty. Narrating in a drab, spiritless tone, Slocum attempts to find the source of his malaise and his belief that modern American bourgeois life has lost meaning, by probing into his past and exploring his relationships with his wife, children, and coworkers. Although critics consider Slocum a generally unlikable character, he ultimately achieves sympathy because he has so thoroughly assimilated the values of his business that he has lost his own identity. Good as Gold (1979) marks Heller's first fictional use of his Jewish heritage and childhood experiences in Coney Island. The protagonist of this novel, Bruce Gold, is an unfulfilled college professor who is writing a book about “the Jewish experience,” but he also harbors political ambitions. Offered a high government position after giving a positive review of a book written by the president, Gold accepts, leaves his wife and children, and finds himself immersed in a farcical bureaucracy in which officials speak in a confusing, contradictory language. In this novel Heller harshly satirized former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a Jew who has essentially forsaken his Jewishness. In so doing, the author draws an analogy between the themes of political lust for power and Jewish identity. Similarly, Gold's motives for entering politics are strictly self-aggrandizing, as he seeks financial, sexual, and social rewards. Throughout the novel, Heller alternates the narrative between scenes of Gold's large, garrulous Jewish family and the mostly gentile milieu of Washington, employing realism to depict the former and parody to portray the latter. Heller's next novel, God Knows (1984), is a retelling of the biblical story of King David, the psalmist of the Old Testament. A memoir in the form of a monologue by David, the text abounds with anachronistic speech, combining the Bible's lyricism with a Jewish-American dialect reminiscent of the comic routines of such humorists as Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In an attempt to determine the origin of his despondency near the end of his life, David ruminates on the widespread loss of faith and sense of community, the uses of art, and the seeming absence of God. In Picture This (1988) Heller used Rembrandt's painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer to draw parallels between ancient Greece, seventeenth-century Holland, and contemporary America. Moving backward and forward among these eras, this novel meditates on art, money, injustice, the folly of war, and the failures of democracy. Many critics questioned whether Picture This should be considered a novel, a work of history, or a political tract. No Laughing Matter, written with his friend Speed Vogel, is a work that can be loosely termed nonfiction concerning Heller's experiences suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome. With Heller's chapters interspersed between Vogel's, the book resembles an often humorous and deadpan dialogue between friends who experience Heller's illness in very different ways. Closing Time (1994), considered a sequel to Catch-22, revisits characters from that novel, including some who appeared only peripherally or in discussion; the tone of Closing Time, however, unlike that of Catch-22, is uniformly absurdist rather than a mix of absurdism and realism. Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998) is an autobiographical account of Heller's childhood and young adulthood in and around Coney Island. A more extended self-examination than any of the autobiographical passages in his novels, Now and Then serves to fill in the gaps and explain Heller's lifelong sardonic world view. At his death Heller left a finished novel, Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man (2000), about a writer attempting to maintain his talents and abilities in the face of rapidly encroaching age and death.
While Heller's place in twentieth-century letters is assured with Catch-22, he is also highly regarded for his other works, which present a comic vision of modern society with serious moral implications. A major theme throughout his writing is the conflict that occurs when individuals interact with such powerful institutions as corporations, the military, and the federal government. Over the course of his career, Heller's novels displayed increasing pessimism over the inability of individuals to reverse society's slide toward corruption and degeneration. Heller repeatedly rendered the chaos and absurdity of contemporary existence through disjointed chronology, anachronistic and oxymoronic language, and repetition of events while emphasizing the necessity of identifying and accepting responsibility social and personal evils and, as individuals, adopting beneficial behavioral changes. Some critics claim that Heller's later work pales in comparison with Catch-22 and Something Happened, but others maintain that his canon viewed as a whole displays his continued evolution as a writer.