Joseph Heller: When told he’d never match the greatness of Catch-22, he answered, “Who has?”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of novelist Joseph Heller, born in Brooklyn and best known for the novel Catch-22 about an American bombardier named John Yossarian. During World War II, Yossarian attempts to get out of the Army by faking a liver ailment, sabotaging his plane, and trying to get himself declared insane. It became a best-seller, with the title entering the lexicon to refer to an absurd, no-win situation.

Heller’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father drove a delivery truck and died when Heller was five. Heller had no memory of him until he entered therapy in his 50s. He said, “In my house, we didn’t often talk about sad things.” He remembered only a happy childhood of corned-beef sandwiches, goofing on Coney Island roller coasters with his friends, and going to the public library to pick up the Yiddish versions of books by Tolstoy for his mother, Lena. Heller loved to read too, especially the Rover Boys series. When he was 10 a cousin gave him the children’s version of Homer’s The Iliad, and right after finishing he decided he wanted to be a writer.

After high school Heller worked as file clerk, a messenger, and a blacksmith’s apprentice. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19 and found himself in Italy as a bombardier during World War II where he flew more than 60 missions. He kept a meticulous diary. Heller said war was “fun in the beginning […] you got the feeling that there was something glorious about it,” but he endured several harrowing episodes that he later used while writing Catch-22, and he became a lifelong anti-war activist.

After he was discharged he went to college on the GI Bill, graduating from Columbia and Oxford. He worked as a copywriter at Time and wrote on the side, with short stories appearing in The Atlantic, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan.

One night, or one morning, the first lines of what would become Catch-22 came to him: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him.” He finished the first chapter in a week and sent it to his agent, but he didn’t write again for a year — he spent that time planning the book in his head. Eventually, Simon & Schuster gave him $750 for the book and promised $750 more when he was done, which turned out to be eight years later. The book was originally titled Catch-18, but Heller’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, discovered that Leon Uris also had a war book coming out the same month as Heller’s, called Mila 18. Gottlieb and Heller brainstormed which numbers sounded funnier: 11 or 14. They settled on 22.

When the book came out in 1961 it received mixed reviews in America but was a best-seller overseas. Gradually, through word of mouth and the escalating situation in Vietnam, young people in the U.S. began to buy the book. It eventually sold 10 million copies. Heller spent the 1960s traveling the U.S. and speaking out against the Vietnam War at college campuses. “Yossarian Lives” bumper stickers appeared on cars and students against the draft wore Army field jackets with John Yossarian name tags.

Catch-22 was made into a 1970 film by Mike Nichols and starred Jon Voigt, Orson Welles, and Alan Arkin.

Heller took 13 years to write his second novel, Something Happened, which one critic summarized as, “Nothing happens.” His other books include Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Picture This (1988), and Closing Time (1994). None sold as well as Catch-22. When an acquaintance told him he’d never matched the greatness of Catch-22, he answered, “Who has?”

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