When it’s time to compile lists of the 20th century’s greatest novels, Catch-22 is often at the forefront. The novel, published in 1961, imagines war from a satirical perspective, evoking some poignant truths about combat in the process.
It’s easily the best-known work of Joseph Heller (1923-1999), the World War II veteran who found himself defined as a truth-teller on the foibles of conflict. For more on Heller, including his time as a copywriter and his little-known work on James Bond, keep reading.
May 1, 1923, Brooklyn, New York
December 12, 1999, East Hampton, New York
‘Catch-22,’ ‘Something Happened’
1. Joseph Heller was a World War II veteran.
Born May 1, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York, Heller grappled with death at an early age. His father, Isaac, died during a routine operation when Heller was just 5 years old, leading to a macabre sense of humor that would inform both his life and his work. (“You have a twisted brain,” his mother told him.)
Heller signed up for the Army Air Corps in 1942. His combat experiences in Italy proved highly influential for his future work as an author, though at the time there was some uncertainty as to whether he’d make it. Over the course of five months in 1944, Heller flew over 60 bombing missions, each one coming with the chilling statistic of a 5 percent casualty rate. Heller was so unnerved by his experiences in the air that he swore never to get in an airplane again, a promise that the Los Angeles Times said he kept “for a couple of decades.”
2. Heller worked as a copywriter.
After returning to the U.S. in January 1945 (he took a steamship to avoid flying), Heller used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Southern California and later New York University, where he got his bachelor’s degree in English; a master’s from Columbia University followed. He then began applying his creative writing skills in different venues, writing short stories for magazines like Esquire and The Atlantic and working as a copywriter for TIME and Look. But Heller was dissatisfied with both vocations, and started thinking about turning his war experiences into a novel. In the early ’50s, he began writing Catch-22—a process that took eight years.
3. Catch-22 wasn’t really about World War II.
Catch-22, which was released to wide—though not universal—acclaim in 1961, remains Heller’s defining work, and you can find out more about it in our compilation of book facts. But one common misconception is that the book is a story of World War II.
While it’s clear Heller drew on his experiences, the themes of expendability had little to do with that conflict. Instead, Heller was really anticipating (and dreading) a war that had yet to occur—one that looked a lot like the Vietnam War. “This is the war I had in mind,” he would later say. “A war fought without military provocation, a war in which the real enemy is no longer the other side but someone allegedly on your side. The ridiculous war I felt lurking in the future when I wrote the book.”
4. It took Heller another 13 years to write his next book.
Catch-22 caught on slowly, but in time, both the book and Heller became symbols of some universal truths on the surrealism of war. It would be a while before he had something else to discuss: the 1974 publication of Something Happened, a novel about a suburban father’s existential crisis. (Echoing his own life, Heller has his hero, Slocum, coping with the fallout from the death of his father at a young age.) It took 13 years to finish Something Happened, in part because Heller was also busy with a play, We Bombed in New Haven. In a 1988 interview with The Buffalo News, Heller also explained that Catch-22 was not the financial windfall it was assumed to be, and that he was holding down teaching positions during the writing of Something Happened that delayed its completion.
Something Happened provided a measure of financial security. “Even before publication of Something Happened I knew I would earn a good chunk of money,” he said. “And it turned out I did. From that time, I’ve been able to work full time at whatever I wanted to do. And always what I wanted to do was write novels.” Heller wrote a total of seven novels and numerous short stories, though none captured the zeitgeist quite like Catch-22.
5. Heller wrote for television under a pseudonym.
In between his first and second books, Heller collected a paycheck in what was then considered the lowbrow medium of television. He used the pseudonym of Max Orange to pen one episode of the military sitcom McHale’s Navy. Heller also worked on a script for the 1967 adaptation of Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel. He didn’t, however, contribute much to the 1970 film adaptation of Catch-22, which was written by Buck Henry.
6. He was friends with Mel Brooks and Mario Puzo.
Heller kept eclectic company, befriending both comic icon Mel Brooks and Godfather author Mario Puzo. “Joe plays the best verbal ping-pong of anyone I know,” Brooks said in 1979. “The ball will be returned with a spin on it, always. He has a Talmudic tenacity in argument.”
According to Heller himself, Puzo was the closer friend—close enough for Puzo to arrive at an assessment of Heller’s personality. “I never knew anybody so determined to be unhappy, so suspicious of happiness,” Puzo said.
7. Heller kept snowballs in his freezer.
In her 2011 memoir Yossarian Slept Here, Heller’s daughter, Erica, recalled that her father was prone to stocking up on snowballs in the winter months, freezing them and waiting until summer before pelting her and her brother Ted with them.
8. Heller suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome.
In 1981, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s nerves. It causes paralysis and can sometimes prove fatal when breathing is affected. (Heller’s struggle with it was chronicled in his 1986 memoir No Laughing Matter.) Though he recovered, the illness wound up having a radical impact on his family: While convalescing, Heller fell in love with his nurse, Valerie Humphries. That affair led to the dissolution of Heller’s marriage to Shirley Held, whom he had wed after returning from the war in 1945. It also led to a memorable pun by Heller’s friend Kinky Friedman, who mused that Heller “took a turn for the nurse.”