heller.gif Joseph Heller (1923- )

"Do you know how long a year takes when it's going away?" Dunbar repeated to Clevinger. "This long." He snapped his fingers. "A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you're an old man."

"Old?" asked Clevinger with surprise. "What are you talking about?"


"I'm not old."

"You're inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age? A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They go rocketing by so fast. How the hell else are you ever going to slow down?" Dunbar was almost angry when he finished.

"Well, maybe it is true," Clevinger conceded unwillingly in a subdued tone. "Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it's to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?"

"I do," Dunbar told him.

"Why?" Clevinger asked.

"What else is there?"

--from Catch-22

The American novelist and dramatist Joseph Heller, b. Brooklyn, N.Y., May 1, 1923, began his writing career as the author of short stories but won immediate acclaim with Catch-22 (1961; film, 1970). A protest novel underscored with dark humor, Catch-22 satirizes the horrors of war and the power of modern society, especially bureaucratic institutions, to destroy the human spirit.

Heller's second novel, Something Happened (1974), an expose of the capacity of the business world to crush the individual, is a pessimistic statement about the effects of prosperity on the human condition. We Bombed in New Haven, a play produced on Broadway in 1967, is a tragicomedy similar in theme and mood to Catch-22. Good as Gold (1979) involves a humorous portrayal of Jewish family life and a satire of national politics, including attacks on real people such as Henry Kissinger. God Knows (1984) is a humorous retelling and analysis of the biblical account of King David.

Heller's works are characterized by a satirical sense of the absurd, speaking out against the military-industrial complex and those organized institutions which seem to manipulate people's lives in the name of reason or morality. Among his later works are the novels Poetics (1987) and Picture This (1988). No Laughing Matter (1966, with Speed Vogel) is a chronicle of Heller's recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Bibliography: Merrill, Robert, Joseph Heller (1987); Nagel, James, Critical Essays on Joseph Heller (1984).

Text Copyright © 1993 Grolier Incorporated

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