Heller's legacy will be 'Catch-22' ideas
Web posted on: Monday, December 13, 1999 2:53:05 PM
(CNN) -- "Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy," novelist Joseph Heller once said. "Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts -- and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?"
It was a question that Heller pondered for most of his life, as well as the theme of that one particular book -- the darkly comic, enduring classic, "Catch-22." The novel, along with providing a phrase to American lexicon, turned on its ear the collective patriotic thought of fighting the heroic war. And for this, more than anything else, Heller will be remembered.
Heller died of a heart attack Sunday night at his home in East Hampton, New York, according to his wife, Valerie. He was 76.
Born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, Heller was a World War II bombardier who later parlayed that experience into his first novel. "Catch-22" took eight years to write, and was published in 1961.
The book was ahead of its time, seemingly written for the generations that followed in the turbulent 1960s and '70s. "Catch-22" depicts World War II Capt. John Yossarian, who wants to quit flying potentially deadly combat missions, but is caught in his predicament due an unusual Air Force regulation regarding insanity.
"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind," Heller wrote in the book.
"Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them."
Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of "The New York Times" and a longtime friend and New York City neighbor of Heller's, described a dinner party in East Hampton last month.
"He had this never-flagging satirical wit that was always entertaining -- except when you were in the path of one of his acerbic bullets. But that evening, he was sweet-tempered and somewhat subdued," Gelb said. "I asked him if he was feeling well. He said he regretted to report that age appeared to be mellowing him and that people would have to stop referring to him as a curmudgeon."
When contacted about Heller's death, author and friend Kurt Vonnegut, who last spoke to Heller a week ago, said, "Oh, God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American letters."
"Catch-22" became a buzz-phrase for anyone caught in a dilemma, and it was soon the cult favorite for the anti-Vietnam, baby-boom generation that was coming of age in the mid- and late-'60s.
Mark Bowden is author of "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War," which was a 1999 National Book Award finalist in nonfiction. It recounts the 1993 U.S. mission in Somalia that ended in tragedy for elite Delta Force troops. Bowden says Heller's work informed his writing; in fact, he recalls the moment in 1967 when he opened the pages of Heller's masterpiece.
"I remember sitting on my back porch, starting to read it, and thinking, 'I wonder what this is about?'" Bowden recalled on Monday. "And I was just blown away both with the humor and the style. He had this really rich prose style that I just thought was fantastic.
"'Catch-22' undermines the whole heroic logic of World War II," says Bowden, who notes that Heller influenced the work of many writers that followed. "It was really refreshing and interesting for me, as a young man learning about modern history and literature, to see how powerful a single writer could be in undermining the whole social mind-set."
The son of a delivery man, Heller was born in 1923 in Coney Island. He loved writing as a child and was in grade school when he tried, unsuccessfully, to get a story published by the "New York Daily News." He first enjoyed reading Tom Swift, but later moved on to Ernest Hemingway, John O'Hara, Irwin Shaw and others.
After working as a blacksmith's helper, Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. Two years later, he was sent into combat over Italy, where he flew 60 missions and discovered war was nothing like what had been sold to him and his generation in the movies.
Heller began "Catch-22" in 1953 while working as a copywriter for a small New York advertising agency. It was an era, many will remember, when the idea of questioning the system seemed as remote as a little Southeast Asian country called Vietnam.
When it was first published, the book received mixed reviews from critics. "Catch-22" wasn't on any major bestseller list during its original hardcover release. But the book gained a following as the '60s became ... the '60s.
"I was just blown away both with the humor and the style. He had this really rich prose style that I just thought was fantastic."
Articles began to appear referring to the underground following of Heller's novel. The author remembered meeting John Chancellor and being shown "YOSSARIAN LIVES" stickers the NBC newsman said he was putting up around the network's offices.
"A large part of the public sentiment was my own," Heller told The Associated Press in 1994. "They saw an absurd quality, a mendacious quality in many of our political leaders and business leaders."
Today, the book is considered a classic: It was listed at No. 7 on the Modern Library's list of the top 100 novels of the century.
Heller wrote five more novels after "Catch-22," including "Closing Time," which brought back Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman and a handful of others from "Catch-22."
Heller also co-authored the nonfiction "No Laughing Matter," which told of his bout in the early 1980s with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing nerve disorder from which he fully recovered.
But the ideas he raised in "Catch-22" will be his legacy.
"The question posed by Yossarian in 'Catch-22,'" says Bowden, "is one of the great questions of modern times: Is this huge industrial military that we've constructed, has it become more deadly and powerful than the cause for which is was constructed?"
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