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Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 00:42 GMT
Joseph Heller: Literary giant

Joseph Heller in 1961 Height of fame: Joseph Heller in 1961

Joseph Heller, who has died aged 76, left his mark not just on those who read his books.

Like George Orwell with 1984, Heller captured a key concept with the title of his novel, Catch 22 - giving the English language a popular new phrase in the process.

The grimly ironic comic novel that describes a Second World War airman's struggle to avoid the horrors of combat struck a chord not just with those who'd fought but with anyone who had ever felt helpless in the face of a capricious bureaucracy.

Published in 1961, Catch 22 was at first dismissed by critics but went on to win an enormous following among America's Vietnam war generation and to sell more than 10 million copies in the US alone.

Wartime experience

Heller was born in Coney Island, New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a bakery van driver.

Heller himself worked as a messenger boy and filing clerk before volunteering for the US Air Force at 19.

Like his heroes in Catch 22, he flew missions in a bomber crew over southern Europe. Heller survived 60 sorties.

After the war he resumed his education at American universities, and spent a year at St Catherine's College, Oxford as a Fulbright Scholar.

Extravagantly praised

He worked on his first novel while he was an advertising copywriter in New York.

Catch 22 took seven years to complete. It was a slow seller when it was first published in the United States in 1961, and did not take off until it appeared in Britain six months later.

It became one of the most extravagantly praised works of fiction of the 1960s, and introduced the Catch 22, no-win dilemma into the English language.

The film rights were bought in 1962, but it took another eight years to reach the screen, with Orson Welles as the star.

The phenomenal sales of the novel and rights to the film made Heller a millionaire.

Critical success

It took him 12 years to complete his second novel, Something Happened.

Despite having some similar themes to Catch 22 in its treatment of bureaucracy and authority, it was more successful with the critics than the book-buying public.

Good as Gold followed five years later, God Knows in 1984, No Laughing Matter in 1986 and Picture This in 1988. All sold respectably but did not recapture the glittering early success.

In 1994, Heller published Closing Time, a sequel to Catch 22. In 1998, came a memoir, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here.

A play, We Bombed in New Haven, that dealt directly with American military involvement in Vietnam, was a moderate success on Broadway.

Rare disease

In 1982, Heller developed the rare, paralysing disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome. After a struggle lasting a number of years, he made a full recovery.

In 1987, he divorced his wife of 35 years, with whom he had a son and daughter, and married the nurse who had helped him recover

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13 Dec 99 |  Americas
Catch-22 author dies

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