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Joseph Heller Biography

(1923–99), Time, Look, Catch-22, Something Happened, Good as Gold, God Knows, No Laughing Matter

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: William Hart-Smith Biography to Sir John [Frederick William] Herschel Biography

American novelist, born in Brooklyn, educated at New York, Columbia, and Oxford Universities. Heller published short storìes, becoming a full-time writer in 1961 after having worked for Time and Look magazines. His experiences in the US Army Air Force during the Second World War led to his first novel and major success with Catch-22 (1961), which depicted the absurdity and chaos of warfare through a group of memorable characters, with a plot based on the military bureaucratic mind. The book's immense success during the years of the Vietnam War led to its title becoming a common phrase in modern usage to express an impossibly frustrating position. His next fiction was Something Happened (1974), which investigates the alienation suffered by a commercial functionary, Robert Slocum, by surrounding the central and eponymous event with a mass of detail to describe the tedium of his life as he becomes a victim of his own psychological paralysis. With Good as Gold (1979), Heller made an effective return to satire with this cruelly humorous portrait of Washington political life, with the focus on the Jewish professor Bruce Gold, who ‘sells out’ to material, sexual, and literary opportunism. Other works include God Knows (1984), about the Biblical hero David, albeit from the alternative confessional perspective of David the cocky Jewish child and one-time crony of God; No Laughing Matter (1986), with Speed Vogel, a narrative about suffering and recovering from an illness; and Picture This (1988), a novel that looks at the differing frames of reference of Renaissance Holland and Ancient Greece, as it examines Rembrandt's picture ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’. With the elaborately structured Closing Time (1994), Heller returns to the cast of Catch-22 who are now fighting the battle against old age. In addition, he has written several screenplays, among them Sex and the Single Girl (1964), Casino Royale (1967), and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970).

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