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May 1: Joseph Heller

April 30, 2015

Joseph HellerJoseph Heller, author of Catch-22, was born to poor immigrant parents in Coney Island on this date in 1923. He fought in World War II as a B-25 bombardier on more than sixty combat missions. Studying English at the University of Southern California and NYU on the G.I. Bill, he earned an M.A. from Columbia in 1949, spent a year as Fulbright scholar at Oxford, then earned a living as teacher and advertising copywriter while writing short fiction. Heller began writing his classic satirical war novel in 1953, published a first chapter two years later, landed a contract (for $750) with Simon and Schuster, then took six more years to complete the book. It was only moderately successful in the U.S., but caught on big in the United Kingdom and then with the anti-war baby-boom generation. Ultimately the novel sold more than 10 million copies, was listed by the Modern Library as the seventh of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, and was used by the United States Air Force Academy to “help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy.” Heller was always a slow-producing, sprawling writer, but worth the wait and the wading; his other books included the notable Something Happened (1974), about corporate alienation, and Good as Gold (1979), about government corruption. He also wrote plays and screenplays, including Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Casino Royale (1967). At age 56 he was stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing disease. Heller wrote about his slow (and incomplete) recuperation — which included his marrying his nurse — in No Laughing Matter, a memoir.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.” —Joseph Heller