Heller, Joseph 1923–1999
Heller, Joseph 1923–1999
PERSONAL: Born May 1, 1923, in Brooklyn, NY; died of a heart attack, December 12, 1999, in East Hampton, CT; son of Isaac (a truck driver) and Lena Heller; married Shirley Held, September 3, 1945 (divorced); married Valerie Humphries, 1987; children: (first marriage) Erica Jill, Theodore Michael. Education: Attended University of Southern California; New York University, B.A., 1948; Columbia University, M.A., 1949; graduate study, Oxford University, 1949–50.
CAREER: Novelist. Pennsylvania State University, University Park, instructor in English, 1950–52; Time, New York, NY, advertising writer, 1952–56; Look, New York, NY, advertising writer, 1956–58; McCall's, New York, NY, promotion manager, 1958–61; former teacher of fiction and dramatic writing at Yale University and University of Pennsylvania; City College of the City University of New York, Distinguished Professor of English, until 1975; full-time writer, 1975–. Worked in the theater, movies, and television. Military service: U.S. Army Air Forces, World War II; served as B-25 wing bombardier; flew sixty missions; became first lieutenant.
MEMBER: Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright scholar, 1949–50; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature, 1963; Prix Interallie (France) and Prix Medicis Étranger (France), both 1985, both for God Knows; Thomas Cooper Medal, University of South Carolina, 1996.
Catch-22 (novel; also see below; portions originally published in New World Writing, 1955), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1961.
Something Happened (novel; portions originally published in Esquire, September, 1966), Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
Good as Gold (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1979.
God Knows (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
(With Speed Vogal) No Laughing Matter (autobiography), Putnam (New York, NY), 1986.
Picture This, Putnam (New York, NY), 1988.
Closing Time, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, Franklin Library, 1998.
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Catch as Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to books, including Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters, Lancer, 1960; contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan; contributor of reviews to periodicals, including New Republic.
We Bombed in New Haven (two-act; first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1967, produced on Broadway, 1968), Knopf (New York, NY), 1968.
Catch-22: A Dramatization (one-act play; based on novel of same title; first produced in East Hampton, NY, 1971), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1971.
Clevinger's Trial (based on portion of Catch-22; produced in London, England, 1974), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1973.
(With David R. Schwartz) Sex and the Single Girl (based on the book by Helen Gurley Brown), Warner Bros., 1964.
(Uncredited) Casino Royale (based on the novel by Ian Fleming), Columbia Pictures, 1967.
(With Tom Waldman and Frank Waldman) Dirty Dingus Magee (based on the novel The Ballad of Dingus Magee by David Markson), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1970.
Also author, under pseudonym, of other television screenplays, c. l960s. Contributor to Of Men and Women (television drama), American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., 1972.
SIDELIGHTS: "There was only one catch … and that was Catch-22," Doc Daneeka informs Yossarian. As Yossarian, the lead bombardier of Joseph Heller's phenomenal first novel, soon learns, this one catch is enough to keep him at war indefinitely. After pleading with Doc Daneeka that he is too crazy to fly any more missions, Yossarian is introduced to Catch-22, a rule which stipulates that anyone rational enough to want to be grounded could not possibly be insane and therefore must return to his perilous duties. The novel Catch-22 is built around the multifarious attempts of Captain John Yossarian to survive World War II, to escape the omnipresent logic of a regulation which somehow stays one step ahead of him.
At the time of its publication in 1961, Heller's antiwar novel met with modest sales and lukewarm reviews. But by the middle of its first decade, it became a favored text of the counterculture. Catch-22 "came when we still cherished nice notions about WW II," Eliot Fremont-Smith recalled in the Village Voice. "Demolishing these, it released an irreverence that had, until then, dared not speak its name." With more than ten million copies in print by the end of the twentieth century, Catch-22 became generally regarded as one of the most important novels of the postwar era. The title itself has become part of the language, and its "hero" Yossarian, according to Jack Schnedler of the Newark Star-Ledger, "has become the fictional talisman to an entire generation."
In the New York Times Book Review, Heller once cited three reasons for the success of Catch-22: "First, it's a great book. I've come to accept the verdict of the majority. Second, a whole new generation of readers is being introduced to it…. Third, and most important: Vietnam. Because this is the war I had in mind; 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." "There seems no denying that though Heller's macabre farce was written about a rarefied part of the raging war of the forties during the silent fifties," Josh Greenfeld wrote in a New York Times Book Review article, "it has all but become the chapbook of the sixties." Joseph Epstein likewise summarized in Book World: Catch-22 "was a well-aimed bomb."
In The Bright Book of Life, Alfred Kazin found that "the theme of Catch-22 … is the total craziness of war … and the struggle to survive of one man, Yossarian, who knows the difference between his sanity and the insanity of the system." After his commanding officer repeatedly raises the number of bombing missions required for discharge, Yossarian decides to "live forever or die in the attempt." "Yossarian's logic becomes so pure that everyone thinks him mad," Robert Brustein wrote in the New Republic, "for it is the logic of sheer survival, dedicated to keeping him alive in a world noisily clamoring for his annihilation." Brustein continued: "According to this logic, Yossarian is surrounded on all sides by hostile forces…. [He] feels a blind, electric rage against the Germans whenever they hurl flak at his easily penetrated plane; but he feels an equally profound hatred for those of his own countrymen who exercise an arbitrary power over his life."
"The urgent emotion in Heller's book is … every individual's sense of being directly in the line of fire," Kazin believed. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Inge Kutt viewed Pianosa, the fictional island in the Mediterranean Sea on which the novel is set, as a microcosm of "the postwar world which not only includes the Korean and Vietnam wars but also the modern mass society." "Heller's horrifying vision of service life in World War II is merely an illustration of the human condition itself," Jean E. Kennard asserted in Mosaic. "The world has no meaning but is simply there," and "man is a creature who seeks meaning," Kennard elaborated. "Reason and language, man's tools for discovering the meaning of his existence and describing his world, are useless."
Language, as presented in Catch-22, is more than useless; it is dangerous, a weapon employed by the authorities to enslave individuals in a world of institutionalized absurdity, a world where pilots lose their lives because their commanding officer wants to see prettier bombing patterns or his name in the Saturday Evening Post. Language, in the form of Catch-22, is the mechanism which transforms military doublethink into concrete reality, into commands which profoundly affect human life and death. Catch-22, as the novel states, is the rule "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. Or 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." As Jerry H. Bryant noted in his book The Open Decision: "Only the insane voluntarily continue to fly. This is an almost perfect catch because the law is in the definition of insanity…. The system is closed."
The acquiescence of men to language in Catch-22, Carol Pearson observed, is rooted in their failure to find any "transcendental comfort to explain suffering and to make life meaningful…. People react to meaning-lessness by renouncing their humanity, becoming cogs in the machine. With no logical explanation to make suffering and death meaningful and acceptable, people renounce their power to think and retreat to a simple-minded respect for law and accepted 'truth.'" Writing in the CEA Critic, Pearson cited one of the book's many illustrations of this moral retreat: "The M.P.'s exemplify the overly law-abiding person who obeys law with no regard for humanity. They arrest Yossarian who is AWOL, but ignore the murdered girl on the street. By acting with pure rationality, like computers programmed only to enforce army regulations, they have become mechanical men." This incident, this "moment of epiphany," as Raymond M. Olderman described it in Beyond the Waste Land, symbolizes "much of the entire novel's warning—that in place of the humane,… we find the thunder of the marching boot, the destruction of the human, arrested by the growth of the military-economic institution."
In the novel, the character Milo Minderbinder is the personification of this military-economic system. An enterprising mess officer, Minderbinder creates a one-man international syndicate whose slogan, "What's good for MM Enterprises is good for the country," is used to justify a series of war-profiteering schemes. Minderbinder forms a private army of mercenaries available to the highest bidder, corners the market on food and makes enormous profits selling it back to army mess halls, and convinces the U.S. government that it must buy up his overstock of chocolate-coated cotton balls in the interest of national security. Milo's empire soon stretches across Europe and North Africa, and his ambitions culminate in one final economic boom. As Olderman observed: "The ultimate inversion comes when Milo bombs and strafes his own camp for the Germans, who pay their bills more promptly than some, and kills many Americans at an enormous profit. In the face of criticism, he reveals the overwhelming virtue of his profit." In the Canadian Review of American Studies Mike Franks concluded that "for Milo, contract, and the entire economic structure and ethical system it embodies and represents, is more sacred than human life."
"The military-economic institution rules, and the result is profit for some, but meaningless, inhuman parades for everyone else," Olderman wrote. Confronted with this "totally irrelevant and bureaucratic power that either tosses man to his death or stamps out his spirit," Yossarian must make a moral decision. Olderman surveyed Yossarian's alternatives: "He can be food for the cannon; he can make a deal with the system; or he can depart, deserting not the war with its implications of preserving political freedom, but abandoning a waste land, a dehumanized inverted, military-economic machine." As Bryant noted, "The only way that the circular justification of Catch-22 can be dealt with is by breaking out of the circle."
In the Partisan Review, Morris Dickstein commented: "The insanity of the system … breeds a defensive counter-insanity." Yossarian is "a protagonist caught up in the madness, who eventually steps outside it in a slightly mad way." Heller remarked in Pages that much of the humor in his novel arises out of his characters' attempts to escape, manipulate, and circumvent the logic of Catch-22. Before deserting, Yossarian tries to outwit Catch-22 in order to survive; he employs "caution, cowardice, defiance, subterfuge, stratagem, and subversion, through feigning illness, goofing off, and poisoning the company's food with laundry soap," Brustein wrote.
"Heller's comedy is his artistic response to his vision of transcendent evil, as if the escape route of laughter were the only recourse from a malignant world," Brustein stated. The novelist "is concerned with that thin boundary of the surreal, the borderline between hilarity and horror…. Heller often manages to heighten the macabre obscenity of war much more effectively through its gruesome comic aspects than if he had written realistic descriptions. And thus, the most delicate pressure is enough to send us over the line from farce to phantasmagoria." "Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II," Nelson Algren stated in the Nation.
Heller's subsequent novels continued this "war," extending the field of battle to governmental and corporate life. Good as Gold, Fremont-Smith noted in the Village Voice, is "touted … as doing for the White House what Catch-22 did for the military," while the absurdity and alienation of the American business community is the focus of Something Happened, the story of Bob Slocum, a middle-level manager who describes himself as "one of those many people … who are without ambition already and have no hope."
In the New Republic, William Kennedy analyzed Something Happened's restless protagonist: "Slocum is no true friend of anybody's. He is a woefully lost figure with a profound emptiness, a sad, absurd, vicious, grasping, climbing, womanizing, cowardly, sadistic, groveling, loving, yearning, anxious, fearful victim of the indecipherable, indescribable malady of being born human." John W. Aldridge described Slocum as "a man raging in a vacuum." Writing in the Saturday Review/World, Aldridge examined Slocum's plight: "He is haunted by the sense that at some time in the past something happened to him, something that he cannot remember but that changed him from a person who had aspirations for the future, who believed in himself and his work, who trusted others and was able to love, into the person he has since unaccountably become, a man who aspires to nothing, believes in nothing and no one, least of all himself, who no longer knows if he loves or is loved."
Slocum's loss of meaning is symbolized by the lost dreams of his youth. "As Yossarian kept flashing back to that primal, piteous scene in the B-25 where his mortally wounded comrade, Snowden, whimpered in his arms, so Slocum keeps thinking back, with impacted self-pity and regret, to the sweetly hot, teasing, slightly older girl in the insurance office where he worked after graduating from high school, whom he could never bring himself to 'go all the way' with," Edward Grossman wrote in Commentary. "He blew it," D. Keith Mano remarked in the National Review, "and this piddling missed opportunity comes to stand for loss in general. He makes you accompany him again and again, and again and again to the back staircase for a quiet feel that never matures." As Mano noted, "Slocum becomes semi-obsessed: telephones the insurance company to ascertain if his … girlfriend is still employed there, if he is still employed there. And he isn't." Instead, Slocum finds that this haunting figure of a girl, like his own spirit, has committed suicide.
In the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin DeMott attributed Slocum's pain to the fact that "caring at levels deeper than these is beyond him." Melvin Maddocks pointed out that "it is not what has happened, but what has not happened to Slocum that constitutes his main problem." In a Time review, Maddocks described Slocum as "a weightless figure with no pull of gravity morally or emotionally" who can love only his nine-year-old son, and then only for "brief, affecting moments."
However much the circumstances of his life may conspire against Slocum, the real pressure is exerted from within. As Heller once commented in the Newark Star-Ledger: "All the threats to Bob Slocum are internal. His enemy is his own fear, his own anxiety." According to an America reviewer, "Heller has replaced the buzzing, booming world of an army at war with the claustrophobic universe of Bob Slocum's psyche, where all the complications, contradictions and absurdities are generated from within…. Like Yossarian, Slocum always feels trapped—by his wife, by his children, but mostly by himself." Slocum, who giggles inwardly at the thought of rape and glances over his shoulder for sodomists, confesses, "Things are going on inside me I cannot control and do not admire." "Within and without, his world is an unregenerate swamp of rack and ruin," Pearl K. Bell asserted in a New Leader review. "Pathologically disassociated from himself, Slocum is a chameleon, taking on the gestures and vocabularies of whichever colleague he is with; even his handwriting is a forgery, borrowed from a boyhood friend." This disassociation is more than a middle-age malaise; it is symptomatic of a deeper affliction, a crippling of the spirit that leaves Slocum barely enough strength to lament, "I wish I knew what to wish."
According to a Playboy critic, Something Happened "unleashed a fusillade of violently mixed reviews…. Nearly three quarters of the critics viewed Heller's looping, memory-tape narrative as a dazzling, if depressing, literary tour de force." Fremont-Smith, for instance, called Something Happened a "very fine, wrenchingly depressing" novel. "It gnaws at one, slowly and almost nuzzlingly at first, mercilessly toward the end. It hurts. It gives the willies." In his New York Times Book Review article, Kurt Vonnegut described the novel as "splendidly put together and hypnotic to read. It is as clear and hard-edged as a cut diamond." Melvin Maddocks, however, labeled Heller's second novel "a terrific letdown," while Grossman dubbed Something Happened "a painful mistake." He cited as a frequent criticism of the novel that Heller "indulges in overkill. When we have seen Bob Slocum suffer a failure of nerve (or a failure of common humanity) in a dozen different situations, we do not need to see him fail a dozen times more." Mano asserted that "you can start Something Happened on page 359, read through to the end, and still pass a multiple choice test in plot, character, style."
Heller's third novel "indicts a class of clerks," John Leonard wrote in the New York Times. Good as Gold is a fictional exposé of the absurd workings of the machinery of government, of a politics reduced to public relations, of a president who spends most of his first year in office penning My Year in the White House, of an administrative aide who mouths such wisdom as "Just tell the truth … even if you have to lie" and "This President doesn't want yes-men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them." Into this world stumbles Bruce Gold, a professor of English who is called to public service after writing a favorable review of the Presidential book. Gold is rewarded for his kind words with a "spokesman" position but yearns for higher duty; specifically, he wants to be secretary of state, more specifically, he wants to be the first real Jewish secretary of state (Gold is convinced that Henry Kissinger, who prayed with Richard Nixon and "made war gladly," cannot possibly be Jewish). For his part, Gold chips in by coining such expressions as "You're boggling my mind" and "I don't know," phrases that enter the lexicon of the press conference and earn Gold the admiration of his superiors. As Time's R.Z. Sheppard observed, Gold "is no stranger to double-think. A literary hustler whose interest in government is a sham, he does not even vote, a fact 'he could not publicly disclose without bringing blemish to the image he had constructed for himself as a radical moderate.'"
Good as Gold "is essentially about Jews, especially those like Gold, who wants to escape his identity while exploiting it, particularly by making a lot of money on a big book about Jews," Leonard Michaels commented in the New York Times Book Review. "Gold yearns to escape what he is so that he can become what he isn't, which is precisely what he hates. He nearly succeeds, nearly becomes a Washington non-Jewish Jew, a rich, powerful slave with a tall blonde wife." Gold, unlike other characters in the story, is very much aware of his moral degeneration; a passage from the book reads: "How much lower would he crawl to rise to the top? he asked himself with wretched self-reproval. Much, much lower, he answered in improving spirit, and felt purged of hypocrisy by the time he was ready for dinner."
In his New York Times article, Michaels elaborated on Gold's dilemma: "What is being proposed is that being brought up lower middle-class Jewish in this country means being humiliated by your own family; that you assimilate, by groveling, a vacuum and a lie; that you have masturbatory dreams of acquiring the power to exact revenge on the father who disdains you; that to acquire such power you will be willing to mortgage every morsel of your capacity for critical discrimination; that you lick the boots that specialize in stepping on you, and hate yourself in the morning."
Indeed, Heller's treatment of the "Jewish Experience in America"—particularly his attack on then-secretary of state Kissinger—aroused criticism, including accusations that Good as Gold was anti-Semitic. According to Sheppard, the book "is a savage, intemperately funny satire on the assimilation of the Jewish tradition of liberalism into the American main chance. It is a delicate subject, off-limits to non-Jews fearful of being thought anti-Semitic and unsettling to successful Jewish intellectuals whose views may have drifted to the right in middle age. Heller, who is neither a Gentile or a card-carrying intellectual, goes directly for the exposed nerve." In Books and Bookmen, Hayman pointed out that the Gentiles in Heller's satirical novel are "even more obnoxious" than the Jewish characters. "Both, fortunately, are extremely entertaining."
In the New York Review of Books, Thomas Edwards remarked that "Good As Gold, if hardly a perfect novel, is continuously alive, very funny, and finally coherent…. Like Heller's other novels, [it] is a book that takes large risks: it is sometimes rambling, occasionally self-indulgent, not always sure of the difference between humor and silliness. But this time the risks pay off…. Heller is among the novelists of the last two decades who matter." A Hudson Review contributor described it as a "big, ugly book," and Aram Bakshian, Jr. of the National Review called it "an embarrassing flop." Hayman found the novel flawed, but said that "nothing is unforgivable when a book makes you laugh out loud so often," and McPherson concluded: "When I didn't hate it, I loved it. Joseph Heller, of all people, would understand that." Finally, Mel Brooks in Book World rated Good as Gold "somewhere between The Brothers Karamazov and those dirty little books we used to read…. It's closer to Karamazov."
Five years after publishing Good as Gold, Heller produced God Knows, a satiric novel whose tone has been likened to that of a stand-up comedy routine. The narrator of God Knows is the Old Testament's David—the killer of Goliath, poet and singer for biblical royalty, king of Israel, and father of the wise ruler Solomon—who is portrayed in the book as an idiot. Despite some critics' objections that the book lacks a unifying point, reviewers overwhelmingly proclaimed it, as did Stuart Evans in the London Times, "a very funny, very serious, very good novel." Picture This, published in 1988, is a reflection on such figures in Western history as Dutch painter Rembrandt, Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato, and several twentieth-century U.S. presidents. Similar in tone to God Knows, Picture This revels in anachronisms, mentioning the "freedom fighters" of the war between Athens and Sparta, for example, and "police actions" in the fifth century B.C. A few of the author's main themes, according to Richard Rayner of the London Times, are that "power and intellect are incompatible, that politicians wage disastrous wars for no good reason,… and that humanity learns nothing from its mistakes." Rayner added, though, that "Heller does all this in Picture This and gets away with it most of the time, for the simple reason that he is funny…. He refuses to take institutions seriously; or rather,… he takes them so seriously they become hilarious."
While working on God Knows during the early 1980s, Heller was stricken with a nerve disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome, that left him paralyzed for several months. Though the author became too weak to move and almost too weak to breathe on his own, he eventually regained his strength and recovered from the often fatal disorder. After completing God Knows, Heller began writing his first memoir, No Laughing Matter, with Speed Vogel, a friend who helped him considerably during his illness. No Laughing Matter tells the story of Heller's convalescence and his friendship with Vogel in sections that are written alternately by the two men. Noting that Vogel's observations "provide comic relief to Mr. Heller's medical self-absorption," New York Times writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt praised the book as both serious and comic. "It was indeed no laughing matter," Lehmann-Haupt observed. "And yet we do laugh, reading this account of his ordeal. We laugh because as well as being an astute observer of his suffering … Heller can be blackly funny about it." The reviewer added that "most of all, we laugh at the way Mr. Heller and his friends relate to each other…. [Their] interaction is not only richly amusing, it is positively cheering."
In 1994, thirty-four years after the publication of Catch-22, Heller published its sequel, Closing Time. The move astonished critics who felt a sequel was a gutsy undertaking considering the legendary status of the original novel. But Closing Time is not so much a sequel as it is a novel that involves a few of the characters from Catch-22 in the 1990s. Those characters still have their quirks. John Yossarian still is in good health and still looking to be diagnosed with an ailment. Milo Minderbinder still runs MM Enterprises and has become a billionaire through questionable deals. The chaplain (renamed Albert Taylor Tapman) still is malleable. Of the characters carried over to Closing Time, Sammy Singer, a fainting unnamed gunner in Catch-22, has probably matured the most. A new protagonist is Giant Lew Rabinowitz, a childhood friend of Singer's who served in the infantry and succumbs to Hodgkin's disease during the course of the book.
About half of Closing Time is told in first-person narrative by Singer, Rabinowitz, and Rabinowitz's wife, Claire, after her husband's death. The second half of the book is told in the third person, referring to Yossarian. Employing black humor, Heller mixes sane tales with absurdities and phantasmagorias. The Port Authority Bus Terminal serves as the farcical scene for many events. When Yossarian and a policeman explore the subbasements of the building, they enter a hell inhabited by dead family members and other personages, and Yossarian sees a younger self at the Coney Island Steeplechase Park. The upper level of the Bus Terminal crawls with absurdity too, as misfits of every stripe inhabit it. Yet Minderbinder picks up on Yossarian's suggestion and holds his son's wedding and reception at the Bus Terminal, shipping the riffraff to shelters in New Jersey and hiring actors, who do a more credible job playing their parts. Meanwhile, instead of going to the wedding, the president stays home to play computer games and accidentally deploys the U.S. missile arsenal and attack bombers.
Critics gave Closing Time generally favorable reviews. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, William H. Pritchard remarked, "Although Closing Time won't astonish readers with its inventive brilliance and surprise,… it contains a richness of narrative tone and of human feeling lacking in the earlier book." According to Mark Jackson of Books, Heller confronts "mortality, monumental literature, war and the decline of civilisation before this wonderful and unforgettable novel draws to a close." In Chicago's Tribune Books, John W. Aldridge characterized Closing Time as "a different, not better book than Catch-22." While it lacks a "central dramatic element" and its black humor sometimes "seems gratuitous," "on the whole and considering the daunting precedent of Catch-22 looming behind it, this is an impressive performance."
"Catch as Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings is a wonderful testament to the mystery of literary creativity and to how much it often owes to a combination of dogged effort and serendipity," wrote Sean McCann in a Book review of this posthumous collection of Heller's work. Many of the pieces included in this volume were written during the author's university studies. Other pieces are related to his most famous work, Catch-22. In a Los Angeles Times Book Review article, David L. Ulin noted that the title of the collection "plays on both the serendipitous nature of the contents and their connection to the author's most iconic effort." Although he felt that the pieces are "uninspired," Catch as Catch Can "does provide an interesting perspective on the author." Library Journal reviewer Edward B. St. John recommended this book as an addition to "most collections of postwar fiction." "Heller's Catch as Catch Can has some worthy entries," wrote Michael Upchurch of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, citing in particular a reminiscence of Coney Island, as seen through the eyes of both the youthful and the ageing Heller.
Jeff Guinn of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service remarked that Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here "reflects the absolute best of Heller as writer and human being." This autobiography, published a year before the author's death in 1999, focuses on Heller's childhood on Coney Island and his experiences after World War II. "This nostalgic autobiography … [is] not sentimental, but evocative," stated Library Journal reviewer Janice E. Braun. "The Coney Island scenes are the most vivid," added Jo Carr in a second Library Journal review. Daneet Steffens of Entertainment Weekly also praised the anecdotes about Coney Island. In a People article, Thomas Fields-Meyer mentioned that he appreciated the fact that Heller, unlike many writers, was able to pen a "memoir that dredges up [no] painful childhood traumas," instead focusing on "warmly recalled memories." A Forbes reviewer was delighted to encounter the actual people upon whom characters in Catch-22 were based. Charles Glass concluded in the New Statesman: "You want to listen to the old man in the rocker … recalling unrelated incidents and people from childhood, because he is Joseph Heller. And Joseph Heller, one of the great postwar novelists, deserves respect."
Heller died of a heart attack in East Hampton, Connecticut, in 1999, and his last novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, was published posthumously. Many critics viewed the book as autobiographical in nature, as it tells the story of an author who achieves literary success in his early years, and is thereafter considered a one-novel-wonder. The protagonist, Eugene Pota, is an author who experiences writer's block precisely at the point in his life when he would like to write just one more successful book before the end of his career.
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man "is a well-written, thoughtful and amusing depiction of a writer who … no longer has anything new to say yet still wants to say something," remarked World Literature Today critic Daniel Garrett. Robert L. McLaughlin, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, felt that Heller penned "a smart, funny, bittersweet, personal novel … as a farewell gift" to the world of literature. "Although Heller clearly wanted to create a study of a soul in crisis … it has only morbid interest," noted Stephen Amidon in a Sunday Times review of the novel, while Book reviewer Paul Evans praised Heller's ability to successfully describe every writer's ultimate dilemma. A Publishers Weekly writer considered the book to be "a pleasant reminder of the author's great charm and fluency." Donna Seaman of Booklist noted Heller's "impish pleasure in satirizing himself and literary ambition." "Though not a masterpiece, it has enough flashes of the old brilliance, the bawdy language and the caustic wit to enable him to end his literary career on an upbeat note," stated Hindu critic, M.S. Nagarajan.
In a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article written after Heller's death, Carolyn Alessio and Ron Grossman noted that Heller "was one of the few writers of this or any age to add a catch phrase to the English language." The writers concluded with comments that Heller made about his literary work: He "attributed his insights to lessons learned from the delicatessen philosophers of his Brooklyn youth. 'It gave me my literary voice,' he once said, 'a consistent one through my novels, that is divided, sentimental, sarcastic and critical.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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Aichinger, Peter, The American Soldier in Fiction, 1880–1963, Iowa State University Press (Des Moines, IA), 1975.
American Novels of the Second World War, Mouton, 1969.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 24, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Bergonzi, Bernard, The Situation of the Novel, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
Bier, Jesse, The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt (New York, NY), 1968.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. and C.E. Frazer Clark, Jr., editors, Pages: The World of Books, Writers, and Writing, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Bryant, Jerry H., The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background, Free Press (New York, NY), 1970.
Burgess, Anthony, The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction, Norton (New York, NY), 1967.
Colmer, John, editor, Approaches to the Novel, Rigby (Adelaide, Australia), 1967.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 36, 1986, Volume 63, 1991.
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