Joseph Heller himself has recounted the story of his early life in his latest book Now and Then (1998). He was born in Brooklyn in 1923 and grew up on Coney Island. At the outbreak of World War II, he worked first in a navy yard and then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, training at bases in South Carolina before flying sixty missions as bombardier in B-25s in North Africa and Italy.
After the War he went through college and graduate study at the University of Southern California, New York University (B.A. 1948), Columbia (M.A. 1949), and Oxford (Fulbright Scholar, 1949-50). During this time he began to publish short fiction. Two years of teaching composition at Penn State followed, till in 1952 he returned to New York as a writer in advertising and promotions for Time, Look, and McCall's. Hunched at hisTime desk one morning in 1953, Heller wrote out longhand the first section of "Catch 18," the start of his war novel Catch-22 (1961). The extraordinary and sustained impact of that novel, both with critics and readers, was only the beginning of a literary career that now encompasses eight major books as well as stage plays, screenplays, short stories, articles, and reviews.
Heller's long-mulled second novel, Something Happened (1974), switched attention to the anxieties and competition of civilian management.Good as Gold (1979) has a double target: not only does it follow a hustling English professor into the world of presidential public relations, but it is also searchingly concerned with the ex-professor's identity as a Jewish-American and his relations with his extensive family. God Knows(1984) carries that theme daringly into the Old Testament itself, reimagining the deathbed autobiography of King David in Heller's distinctive mingling of the philosophical, the satiric and the absurd.
In the early 1980s, Heller became first paralyzed and then seriously weakened by a deadly nerve disease, Guillain-Barre Syndrome; with his friend Speed Vogal, he interpreted this experience and his recovery in the collaborative work No Laughing Matter (1986). Heller's next (anti-)novel, Picture This (1988), juxtaposes great figures from Western culture (Plato, Rembrandt) with twentieth-century America to exploit the recurrent clashes between genius and power. His novel, Closing Time (1994), comes full circle by reuniting the wartime heroes of his first book — Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, and the others — in New York fifty years later. Closing Time received wide critical acclaim: according to one reviewer, it showed "a national treasure at work," and it brought renewed recognition of Mr. Heller's place as one of the greatest and most distinctive of twentieth-century Anerican novelists. His posthumously-published novella Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (2000) provided critics with further opportunity for appreciative retrospective comment.
Mr. Heller's literary achievement brought numerous awards, including the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Medal in 1996. Mr. Heller died on December 12, 1999.