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Joseph Heller | Biography

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Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, to Russian immigrant parents who lived in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York. He wrote his first short story in his teens, using a neighbor's typewriter. In 1942 he enrolled as an air force cadet.

Heller was stationed on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, where he flew 60 combat missions. On a raid over Avignon, his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire, which killed one of the gunners. Heller would later use this episode as the climax of Catch-22.

After the war, Heller taught and also worked in advertising. One morning in 1953 he suddenly conceived the first two lines of what would become Catch-22. "I didn't have the name Yossarian," he recalled. "But as soon as the first sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind." Writing the book took eight more years.

Catch-22 was published in 1961 to a mixed reception. The New Yorker said the book read as if Heller had "shouted onto paper." Norman Mailer was more positive, although he said, "One could take out a hundred pages anywhere from Catch-22, and not even the author could be sure they were missing." In its first year, Catch-22 sold a very respectable 30,000 copies in hardcover, and it became a best seller after being published in paperback in 1962. It went on to sell several million copies in the United States.

Heller wrote full time after Catch-22's publication. Among his later novels were:

  • Something Happened (1974)
  • God Knows (1984)
  • Closing Time (1994), a semi-sequel to Catch-22

Heller died of a heart attack on December 12, 1999.

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