Heller, Joseph (1923-1999), American novelist, whose comic absurdist novel Catch-22 (1961) is a leading example of the black-humor movement in American fiction. The book served as an antiwar rallying point during the 1960s. Heller is known for showing language to be a frustrating and undependable method of communication in public discourse—military, diplomatic, philosophical, religious, and political—and for creating characters who try to escape the traps and inconsistencies of language.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Heller was educated at New York University. During World War II, he flew more than 60 missions in 1943 and 1944 as a B-25 wing bombardier for the United States Army Air Forces in Europe, earning the rank of first lieutenant. In the 1950s he worked as an advertising writer for high-circulation magazines such as Time, Look, and McCall’s while writing short fiction and Catch-22. Heller used his combat experiences as background material for Catch-22, which features the airman Yossarian as the hero and moral center of a satirical depiction of life in the army. Yossarian is portrayed as one of the last rational people in an insane war. In the novel, the absurdities of military life are represented by the regulation “Catch-22” (a phrase Heller introduced). The regulation, which prevents airmen from escaping service in bombing missions by pleading insanity, states that any airman rational enough to want to be grounded cannot possibly be insane and therefore is fit to fly. Catch-22 was dramatized as a motion picture in 1970.
The themes and style of Heller’s writing have been compared to those of Jewish American writers such as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth, as well as to those of American satirist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Heller’s grotesque renderings of moral crises are also reminiscent of the works of American author Nathanael West and European writer Franz Kafka, and of such European antiwar novels as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque and The Good Soldier Schweik (1920-1923) by Jaroslav Hasek.
Heller’s other novels include Something Happened (1974), a study of the fearfulness and anxiety of an American businessman; Good as Gold (1979); God Knows (1984); Picture This (1988); and Closing Time (1994), a sequel to Catch-22 that depicts a robust but aging Yossarian in a collapsing New York City during the early 1990s. Heller also wrote the plays We Bombed in New Haven (1967) and Catch-22: A Dramatization (1971), as well as the autobiographical works No Laughing Matter (1986) and Now and Then (1998).