“Catch 22” was published by Joseph Heller in 1961. It is a satirical novel written in the third person omniscient. The book follows an bombardier officer during World War II, Yossarian. He is paranoid because soldiers he doesn’t know are trying to kill him. He is sure he will die and begins to walk backward so no one can sneak up on him. Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more missions after his friend dies in his arms.
The story is told through the lives of various characters that all come together in the end into a cohesive plot. Each character is crazy and they behave irrationally. Their commander is tyrannical and doesn’t see them as men but as tools to use to further his own career. Yossarian tries every method he can think of to get out of flying while his crazy cast of characters die in battle or illness.
The title of the book was invented by Joseph Heller and has become an idiom in modern language. The best description is given by one of the characters when Yossarian tries to get permission to stop flying due to insanity. He is told that although people who are insane do not have to fly the missions, a person would have to be sane to ask to stop, therefore he is sane enough to keep flying because he is showing a rational concern for his own safety. It is a double blind or paradox.
“Catch 22” is a wonderful novel covering the horrific insanity of war. The ironic prose is brilliant.
“Catch 22” starts with “It was love at first sight”. Yossarian is an American officer in World War II who is in an Italian hospital due to a liver disorder. The doctors are unsure why his liver never improves or gets worse. He holds at a temperature of one hundred and one. Yossarian has made friend with a fellow patient, Dunbar, who is immobile. He calls the man “the soldier in white” because of his bandages. Yossarian is content with hospital life. Although the nurses don’t like him, his meals are hearty and delivered to his bed. Unlike Dunbar, who has to fall on his face to have his meals delivered to him, Yossarian just has to keep his temp up.
Since he is an officer, he is given the job of censoring the letters written by enlisted men. Yossarian only has to spend half his day at this job. But, after the first day he is bored. To keep himself entertained he randomly removes words and phrases then replaces them with his own words. He signs the letters “Washington Irving”, or sometimes “Irving Washington”. When he was first admitted he wrote to everyone he knew about his condition. Then decided to tell all of them he was on a secret mission and would get back to them as soon as he was finished.
One day a Texan is admitted to the hospital. He is gregarious and gives long talks about politics. He irritates the other patients by saying that “decent folk” deserve more votes. The only thing that cheers Yossarian is the chaplain’s visits. The chaplain is the object of Yossarian’s love at first sight. Within ten days of the Texan’s arrival, many of the patient’s health suddenly improved so they could leave the annoyance and return to active duty.
Often Yossarian feels that he is alone in thinking the war is senseless. Once he had a heated debate with another officer named Clevinger. Yossarian said that if felt like everyone was trying to kill him, but Clevinger argued that he personally was not the target. For Yossarian the concept of duty and honor were ridiculous, he just knew that people kept shooting at him. One night at the Officer’s Club, Yossarian stated that he was superhuman because he hadn’t been killed yet, Clevinger had called him crazy. Now, Yossarian’s roommate tells him Clevinger is still missing.
After returning to duty, Yossarian is leery of everyone. During a great meal in the Mess Hall, he learns from Doc Daneeka that Col. Cathcart had raised the number of missions a soldier must go on before he can be discharged from forty-five to fifty. When Yossarian went into the hospital, he had flown forty-four missions. He is furious.
The time between harrowing missions can be boring. The soldiers find themselves discussing ridiculous things. Yossarian remembers such a discussion with his roommate, Orr. He tells him about stuffing crab apples in his cheeks as a child. This prompts Yossarian to remember a time when they were in Rome. A whore beat the boy over the head with her shoe. Yossarian reflects the small size of Orr, which brings him to reflect on the young boy who lives near the tent of Hungry Joe. Hungry Joe is plagued with nightmares when he can’t fly every day. His screaming keeps the whole camp awake. Then he thinks about the location of Hungry Joe’s tent. It is near the road that the men use to pick up girls and take them into the tall grass that has an open air movie theater.
General P. P. Peckem, wants to take over the command of Yossarian’s troop, so he starts his campaign with sending a U.S.O troupe to visit them. He also has Col. Cargill, who is his trouble shooter. Before the war, he was such a bad marketing executive that firms would hire him when they wanted to “establish losses for tax purposes”. In his job, which is to find ways to bring enthusiasm to the troops, Cargill is still a failure. Moral is low. Some of the men who have already flown their fiftieth mission are just hoping their orders to go home arrive before Col. Cathcart changes the requirements again.
Yossarian’s health takes another turn for the worse, but the doctor, Daneeka won’t restrict him from flying. He berates him for his fears, but Yossarian thinks his fear is healthy. Doc Daneeka praises another pilot, Havermeyer. But, Yossarian points out that the man takes pot shots at mice during the night. One of the shots woke Hungry Joe and he dived into a slit trench. These trenches showed up after an officer of the mess hall who bombed the squadron. To Yossarian most of the soldiers in his platoon are slightly mad. Hungry Joe is quite mad and Yossarian tries to give him advice, of course Joe doesn’t listen because he thinks Yossarian is mad. Daneeka just goes on and on about the money he isn’t making as a doctor in the states. Dunbar likes to shoot skeet. He’s very good, but the activity is boring for him. He likes to do boring things because time passes slowly, therefore it lengthens his life.
One day, a great uproar ensues when a phone call comes with the words, “T. S. Eliot”. General Peckem is sure it is a coded message, but in actuality, it’s just a reply to a memo in which a colonel asked name a poet who makes money. Doc Daneeka’s roommate is Chief White Halfoat. He tells stories about the many places he and his family have lived. In every stop they find oil. It became to where the oil execs would follow them around and called them “human divining rods”, then they would take the land, and set them to wandering again.
Once again Yossarian tries to get the doctor to ground him. He wants to know if he claimed to be crazy would that be enough. Doc tells him it won’t work because of Catch 22. It is a regulation that says if a pilot wants to stay on the ground because of sanity, he needs to ask for it. But, if he asks for it, he must be sane, because a sane person would never want to fly the missions.
As a bomber, Yossarian is in a particularly bad position in the plane; he can’t bail out because the escape hatch is too far. Every time they go up, Yossarian begs the pilot to avoid anti-aircraft fire. He remembers a time flying with him when he was sure the plane would crash; the plane was spinning out of control.
Yossarian believes that Hungry Joe is mad with lust. He is forever trying to get women to pose naked for him, but his photos don’t turn out well. He tells the women he is a photographer for Life magazine, which ironically he was before the war. Here the narrator sarcastically points out that Col. Cathcart shows great bravery… when it comes to volunteering his men for the most dangerous of missions. The ping-pong games can become violent. One night a fight breaks out and Chief Halfoat breaks the nose of Colonel Moodus. Moodus is the son in law of Gen. Dreedle, who is so impressed with the abuse that he wants Halfoat to repeat it often and then had him share a tent with Doc, so he can stay in peak physical condition.
Another example of Catch 22 appears when Col. Cathcart raises the number of required missions up to fifty-five. Yossarian wants to point out that that is against regulations, but his friend tells him that one of the regulations is that he must obey his commanding officer. Because Yossarian’s pilot is always cheerful and appears sane, Yossarian is sure that his happy and polite attitude mean that he must be the craziest of the all. Doc orders the Mess Hall to serve Yossarian lots of fruit to heal his liver, but since Yossarian doesn’t want to go back to flying he doesn’t want his liver to heal. So he won’t eat the fruit. Milo suggests that he sell the fruit on the black market.
Milo learns that the Criminal Investigation Division is looking for the criminal who has been forging Washington Irving’s name on censored letters. But, since he is paranoid, he believes they are actually after him for selling things on the black market. Milo comes up with some ideas about forming a syndicate with other airmen. While he is talking, Yossarian wonders about Milo’s idea of economics. It consists mostly of cheating, until he gets caught then claim moral superiority.
Then there is Lieutenant Scheisskopf. He was the squad leader while Yossarian and Clevinger were training while in America. To the consternation of Clevinger, the Lieutenant hated him. The Lieutenant’s wife and her friend slept with all the men under her husband’s command so they don’t know why he especially hated Clevinger. He even brought charges against him. Clevinger thinks that the Lieutenant and the colonel hate him more than any enemy soldier ever could.
The next person we meet is Major Major Major Major. The name is the result of his father’s sick sense of humor. He looks like Henry Fonda and performs so well in school that the FBI suspects he may be a communist. Then, when he joins the army a computer error makes him a Major. Thus Major Major Major, becomes Major Major Major Major. His drill sergeant finds himself training someone who outranks him. Major’s life goes from confused commander to confused commander. By the time he arrives in Yossarian’s squad he is put in charge and loses all his friends. To relieve his melancholy he begins forging Washington Irving’s name on documents. The C. I. D. investigates twice, but when Major denies it they believe him. He begins to wear a mustache and dark glasses whenever he signs the fake name and sometimes adds variety by signing Milton. When Yossarian comes to him to be grounded, Major tells him there is nothing he can do.
News that Clevinger’s plane has disappeared of the coast of Elba, but Yossarian doesn’t believe he is dead. Meanwhile, he tells the story of ex- P.F.C. Wintergreen. While they were in the U.S. he went AWOL often. Every time he returns his punishment is to dig holes and fill them. He goes about the punishment like it is his duty to his country. One day he hits a water line and water sprays out. Since Halfoat is with him they assume at first it is oil, then the two men are sent to Pianosa where Yossarian is.
The next soldier Yossarian tells about is Mudd. He was killed before he even reported for duty. Although no one remembers the man, his stuff is in Yossarian’s tent. This thought of death brings to mind the fact that once again the Colonel volunteered them for another mission, and there was no way he can get out of it, even if he is sick. Dr. Stubbs asks why he is healing people so that they can send them to them to a sure death.
Captain Black hates Yossarian’s squad because he is jealous that Major Major was promoted ahead of him. He is happy that the Colonel volunteered them for the mission to bomb Bologna. One way he has decided to get revenge on Major is to make the men swear an oath before they can eat. He calls it the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade and refuses to allow Major to participate, hoping to make the men not trust him. But, the plan crashes when the feared Major – de Coverley comes in and yells, “Gimme eat!”. The Mess Hall feeds him without hearing the oath, so everyone else stops signing it.
Rain delays the start of the mission, but when it stops. Yossarian plans more ways to delay. He moves the line on the map, so it looks like they already captured Bologna. Then when that plan fails, he poisons the food, so everyone gets diarrhea. Then nature helps with the next plan and the rain starts again.
Although no one wants to go on the mission, the waiting is rough. Milo and Wintergreen compete as black market salesmen, Clevinger and Yossarian ague about their duty in bombing Bologna, Halfoat corners the market in Egyptian cotton and can’t sell it, and Hungry Joe tries to shoot Huple’s cat who he blames for keeping him awake. The men try to convince him to fight the cat fairly, but the cat runs away. Even though he is glad to see the cat go, Hungry Joe dreams about him in his nightmare.
Next we become more acquainted with Major – de Coverley. A huge imposing man with a “massive leonine head and an angry shock of wild white hair that raged like a blizzard around his stern, patriarchal face”. He went to a newly acquired city to rent apartments for the men to stay in on leave. Therefore he was always in the photographs with the first wave of troops. So to the enemy he is terrifying. Although he is very smart, Yossarian manages to fool him by moving the bomb line on the map. He packs his bag and takes off for Florence, which has not been captured.
One time Cathcart tried to give a medal to Yossarian. While on a mission, Yossarian circled a target twice and another pilot swooped in a took the target, but was killed. Since the army couldn’t rebuke Yossarian they decided to give him a medal so he wouldn’t criticize them. When the mission finally comes, Yossarian plays his last card. He lies that his intercom isn’t working and convinces his pilot to return. While he is taking a nap on the beach, the planes return. Surprised to see they took no enemy fire, he learns the mission destroyed the city with no losses to them. But, since they didn’t hit the ammunition dumps they are forced back in. Yossarian thinks it will be easy, but the enemy fights back this time and many lives are lost. Afterwards Yossarian takes an emergency leave in Rome to rest.
While on leave Yossarian meets a beautiful Italian woman. He convinces her to sleep with him. He proposes to her and she turns him down because he is crazy. She tells him that she knows he is crazy because no man wants to marry a woman who is not a virgin. Before she leaves she gives him her number, then tells him she knows he will tear it up, because he is so proud of himself for getting such a pretty girl to sleep with him. He denies the plan, but as soon as she leaves, he tears the number up. Then he learns about the Colonel raising the number of missions required and admits himself into the hospital.
Once again at the hospital, Yossarian does a lot of musing on the fairness of death. Then he thinks about him and Hungry Joe collecting descriptions of diseases they could claim to stay grounded. But, Doc Daneeka won’t let them claim them until after their fifty-fifth mission, then he will think about helping Yossarian.
Yossarian remembers the first time he entered the hospital as a private. He complained about abdominal pain then when the doctors called him cured, he adopted another soldier’s complaint of double vision. This works through Thanksgiving, which he enjoyed and promised to himself he would spend every Thanksgiving of the war this way. But, he breaks that promise the next Thanksgiving by spending it in bed with Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife.
When Yossarian calls himself cured of double vision, the hospital asks him to pose as a young soldier that died that morning. His family is coming to visit. So they bandage him up, and the father asks him to tell God, “It ain’t right for people to die when they are young.” The brother tells him not to let anyone in heaven push him around, and the mother tells him to dress warmly.
Colonel Cathcart’s story comes in the next chapter. He reads in the Saturday Evening Post about an idea of asking the Chaplain to pray for them after each mission. But the Chaplain tells him that God might punish the Colonel for not including the enlisted men, so he drops that idea. Then the Chaplain tells him that the men aren’t happy that he keeps raising the number of mission required, and he ignores the man. Later the Chaplain learns that the C.I.D. have suspicions that he is the one signing Washington Irving’s name. He often feels useless in trying to make life better for his congregation.
Yossarian is a problem that Cathcart can’t seem to handle. His many complaints on the number of missions, the fact that he claimed all his uniforms had blood on them, so he arrived naked to his medal ceremony and then there was the moaning epidemic. Before the Avignon mission, he complained that he was going to die and would never again sleep with a beautiful woman, this set the rest of the men off. He thinks that if he could solve the problem of Yossarian he could impress Gen. Dreedle. But, Dreedle’s only concerns are keeping enough troops alive to keep fighting, and having Halfoat occasionally punch his hated son in law. He also travels with a beautiful nurse who he hopes to tempt his son in law will make a pass at her so he can bust him down and put him on permanent KP duty.
The medal he accepted while naked was right after the death of Snowden. The man had died begging Yossarian for help. This broke Yossarian bravery and made Dobbs who had taken the plane’s controls from Huple. Dobbs makes a plan to kill the Colonel before he can raise the required mission again, but he abandons the plan when Yossarian won’t back it.
Milo takes Orr and Yossarian with him on a supply trip. Along the way, the men discover the extent of Milo’s black market business. Throughout Europe and parts of Asia, he is known for his deals. He is the mayor of Palermo, the vice-shah of Oran, and the imam of Damascus to name a few. The trip is rough on Orr and Yossarian who get very little sleep while they travel transporting goods from place to place and Milo stays in palaces.
Nately convinces Yossarian and Aarfy to help him when he finally finds his whore again. She refuses to sleep with him unless the other men hire her friends. But, they refuse, and Nately spends most of the night discussing politics with an old man. When he finally gets in bed with her, they are interrupted by her little sister.
By April Milo is in control of the international black market. He is playing a huge role in the nation’s economy. Milo makes use of the Air Force to transport his goods. He even repaints the planes with “M & M Enterprises” but he insists the men in his squad all have a share in his business. The Germans pay him to bomb Americans and Americans pay him to bomb Germans. He is having trouble moving the Egyptian cotton until Yossarian gives him the idea to sell it to the government.
Yossarian is wounded by flak in the leg while on a mission. At the hospital, he and Dunbar decide to trade beds with some privates which anger the nurses. Nurse Ducket pulls him by the ear back to bed.
Finally Yossarian almost finds a way out of the war. He makes a pass at Nurse Ducket. When she complains he tells the doctor he thought he was fishing. So, he sees a therapist who listens to his story and wants to send him home. But, a mix up happens and the private he switched places with as a joke, is sent home in his place. When Yossarian complains to Doc Daneeka he replies that if he sent all the crazy people home there would be no one left to fight.
When Yossarian gets back to the base, he tries to get Dobbs to go ahead and follow through with his plan to kill the Colonel, but Dobbs has flown his sixty missions and doesn’t want to. Yossarian hopes Orr will help him kill the Colonel. Orr crashed his plane and was fished out of the ocean without life jackets because Milo used the carbon dioxide to make ice cream sodas. The next time Orr flies his plane again crashes in the ocean and his raft drifts away from the others. He disappears. General Peckem has promoted and transferred Lieutenant Scheisskopf to his staff. At a briefing the men learn that they are to bomb a village that is undefended. They are to make it into rubble because Colonel Cathcart wants to impress General Peckem.
One day while Yossarian and Nurse Duket, who he is dating, are sitting on the beach, he is thinking about the men that have drowned including Orr and Clevinger. While doing daredevil tricks with his plane McWatt flies too close to the ground. His propellers cut Kid Sampson in half. Instead of landing McWatt leaves and flies into a mountain killing himself. After the disaster, Colonel Cathcart calms himself by raising the required mission number to sixty five. Then he learns that Doc Daneeka was also on the plane and raises the number to seventy. Afterwards they learn that since Doc was afraid to fly and had Yossarian doctor his papers, he wasn’t on the plane and he is alive. His wife, though had already gotten the condolence letter, learned she would get a monthly allowance from the government and that her husband had a huge insurance policy. She dyed her hair and started dating.
The men blame Doc for the raised numbers of flights, and they ostracize him. Since he is officially dead he can’t even practice medicine. He writes an ardent letter to his wife begging her to let the government know he is still alive. After a little thought, she and the children relocate to Michigan and don’t leave a forwarding address.
Time passes and winter settles in. Kid Sampson’s legs are still on the beach. Yossarian gets a couple of new roommates who insist on calling him Yo Yo. He hates it and considers killing them. He decides to take some time in Rome. He helps Nately search for his whore. When they find her Nately takes her to a nice hotel room and after a good night’s sleep, she wakes up in love with Nately. He wants to take her back to the states and raise her little sister as his own daughter. But, the whore does not want to stop working. They argue and she becomes more angry, but misses Nately when he leaves. So she becomes enraged when he punches Nately in the face and breaks his nose. Nately was trying to stop Yossarian from shooting some men playing a prank by firing machine guns.
Yossarian visits Nately in the hospital and sees the Chaplain there. He made up a disease to be admitted. Nurse Duckett warns Yossarian that the doctors were talking about disappearing Dunbar. Yossarian can’t find him. Chief White Halfoat dies of pneumonia. Nately finishes his seventieth mission and Yossarian begs him not to fly any more. Milo talks the Colonel into excusing him for the missions he hasn’t flown, and the Colonel raises the number of missions required for everyone else to eighty to make up for the missions Milo isn’t flying. He also promises to give Milo the medal if any one earns one on one of the missions they are flying for him.
The next morning the men go on another mission and twelve men are killed. Dobbs and Nately among them. The Chaplain is devastated by Nately’s death. Then he is arrested and charged with unspecified crimes. He is convicted of stealing a plum tomato from Colonel Cathcart and being Washington Irving. While he is waiting for them to decide what his punishment will be, he threatens to go to General Dreedle about the number of flights required rising. But, he learns from Colonel Korn that General Dreedle has been replaced by General Peckem. Now, he and Colonel Cathcart can require the men to fly as many missions as they want, and no one will stop them. They even transferred Dr. Stubbs to the Pacific so he couldn’t ground anyone.
On General Peckem’s first day in the post he coveted, he learns that Scheisskopf has been promoted to Lieutenant General and is his commander. Scheisskopf loves parades and plans to make every man march in lots of them. Yossarian has become even more paranoid. He marches backward so no one can surprise him. He completely refuses to fly any more missions.
The Colonels decide he is reacting to Nately’s death and send him to Rome for rest. While there he tells Nately’s whore about his death and she tries to attack him with a potato peeler for bringing her bad news. Then her little sister goes after him with a knife. The whore starts to follow him around, jumping out and trying to stab him. He flies her far away and drops her in a parachute. One day he hears that the MP’s ran the whore and her sister out of their apartment building. He goes to find them, but finds that most of Rome has been bombed and the apartment lies in ruins. He finds an old lady and questions her. She tells him that the soldiers made the girls leave by saying it was the right of Catch 22. They told her that with that they had the right to do anything and she couldn’t stop them. Yossarian asks if she saw it written down and she says they told her that Catch 22 says they don’t have to show it to her.
Yossarian knows Catch 22 doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t matter because all believe it does. As Yossarian walks around Rome looking for the kid sister, he sees atrocities committed by people. When he returns to his apartment he sees that Aarfy raped and killed a maid. The MP’s apologize after they enter the apartment to Aarfy for barging in and arrest Yossarian for not having a pass. When he returns he is called into see Colonels Cathcart and Korn. They want to send him home, but Catch 22 prevents him. Finally they agree to promote him and then send him home if he agrees to say he likes them. After much deliberation he agrees and leaves. He is stabbed by Nately’s whore and passes out.
In the hospital he is operated on. One of the times he regains consciousness he tells the Chaplain that the only friend he has left alive is Hungry Joe. The Chaplain tells him Hungry Joe is dead, too. Yossarian tells Danby that he won’t take Cathcart and Korn’s deal. He wants to run away, but Danby convinces him it is impossible. Suddenly the Chaplain rushes in telling him that Orr came ashore in Sweden. Yossarian thinks he can escape after all. The Chaplain helps secure clothes for him and plans to run to Sweden. When he steps outside Nately’s whore tries to stab him again and misses. Yossarian keeps running.
Yossarian – the hero of the story. He is a bombardier during World War II stationed near Rome, Italy. He has seen too much death and is slowly loosing his mind. He realizes that people he hasn’t even met want to kill him, and then becomes paranoid, believing every one wants him dead. He tries every method he can think of to get out of flying missions because he is sure one of them will get him killed. Yossarian is in and out of the hospital trying to use a medical excuse to stay on the ground. Then he tries psychological. After one of his friends dies next to him, Yossarian has trouble finding his balance. Especially since his commander seems to hate him and continuously changes the number of missions the men have to go on before they can go home. Finally, he begins to walk backward so he can be sure no one sneaks up on him and he refuses to fly again. At the end of the book he deserts and heads for Sweden.
Milo Minderbender – a mess officer who starts dealing in black market produce and becomes extremely rich and powerful throughout Europe and parts of Asia. He lies, cheats and steals his way through the war. The Germans pay him to bomb his own base and the Americans pay him to bomb Germans. He uses military planes to fly his goods from place to place, and lives in palaces. He holds many important offices in various cities because of his ability to produce goods. Milo tells the men in his squadron that they all have a share of his profits, but that is another of his lies. On the up side, he values his job in the Mess Hall and therefore his squadron has the best food available.
Doc Daneeka – he was a rich doctor before the war. He spends the time he should be tending patients moaning over his lost career. When Yossarian comes to him for paperwork to ground him from flying, the Doc explains Catch 22 to him. When he is presumed dead, his wife takes his money and leaves no forwarding address.
The Chaplain – he is bullied by the officers but wants to help the men. But, as he watches men dying needlessly, he begins to lose his faith in God. Finally, he helps Yossarian go AWOL and plans to punch the officers who treat him so badly, and he plans to insist on fewer missions required before discharge.
Hungry Joe – one of the many men in the book who have gone a bit mad. He was a photographer for Life magazine and now spends his off time trying to get women to pose nude. The only nights he sleeps well is when he is scheduled to fly the next morning. Otherwise, he becomes destructive at night.
Nately – he is young, nineteen years old, and falls in love with a whore in Rome. He plans to marry her and take her back to the U.S., but she alternates between being kind to him and trying to kill him. When he is killed in combat, she tries to kill Yossarian.
Joseph Heller Biography
Joseph Heller was born in 1923 in Brooklyn, New York. He wrote ironical novels and short stories, as well as plays. His parents were from Russia. They were a poor Jewish family. As a child, he loved to write and wrote a story for the New York Daily News as a teenager on the Russian invasion of Finland.
Before joining the United States Army Air Corps (which became the Air Force) as nineteen years old, he worked as a blacksmith, messenger and a filing clerk. At twenty-one years old he was sent to Italy and flew sixty combat missions. After discharge he enrolled at the University of Southern California and NYU paid for by the G I Bill. He earned his M. A. in English from Columbia University in 1949. Then he was a Fulbright Scholar at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford in England. When his education ended he began teaching composition at Pennsylvania State University. He taught for two years, then taught fiction and writing at Yale. For a short time he worked at a copywriter with Mary Higgins Clark.
Although he was a prolific writer, Heller’s best known book is “Catch 22”. While relaxing at home one morning in 1953, he had what is known to writers today as a “plot-bunny”. A single thought or sentence that sends the writer into a story or novel. For Heller it was the opening line, “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him”. By the end of the next day he had a plot line and the characters. By the end of the week he had written the first chapter and sent it to his agent. Originally it was called “Catch-18”, but due to the publication of Uris’ “Mila 18”, when the novel was published, the name changed to “Catch 22” and became an idiom for American language. A catch 22 is a paradoxical problem. For example, a person needs experience to get a job, but can’t get experience without a job.
The novel was received to mixed reviews early, but now has become a classic and is listed as number seven on the Modern Library’s list of top one hundred novels of the twentieth century. It is used by the United States Air Force Academy to help officers recognize the problems of bureaucracy.
Heller also wrote the novel Something Happened, and the television script for “McHale’s Navy.”
He also wrote the play, “We Bombed in New Haven” which played on Broadway. In 1994 he published “Closing Time” which followed the lives of some of the characters from “Catch 22” after World War II was over. When an interviewer asked him if he had ever written anything as good as “Catch 22” he responded, “Who has?”.
In 1945 Heller married Shirley Held. They had two children and divorced in 1984. He met his second wife, Valerie Humphries while recovering from a debilitating illness, Guillain-Barre Syndrome. She was his nurse at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. He was temporarily paralyzed and his recovery was long and painful. The story is recounted in his autobiography, “No Laughing Matter”. The book is co-authored with Speed Vogel. In his book he tells of the help and companionship he received from such friends as Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo, and Dustin Hoffman.
After an almost full recovery, Heller continued teaching and writing. He died of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of seventy-nine in his home. He had just completed his last novel, “Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.”