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Heller Denies He Plagiarized Novel

April 27, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ Joseph Heller and his publisher denied Monday that he plagiarized ``Catch 22″ from a novel published 10 years earlier.

An amateur bibliophile wrote a letter to The Sunday Times of London two weeks ago noting ``the amazing similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents″ in Heller’s 1961 book and ``Face of a Hero″ by Louis Falstein.

The letter from Lewis Pollock led the Times and The Washington Post to investigate, driven in part by a Heller biography last month that quotes him as saying he had ``borrowed″ actions and settings from other writers.

Heller told The Associated Press that he hadn’t known of Falstein, who died in 1995, or read his book, which was published in England as ``The Sky Is a Lonely Place.″

``I’m amused that there’d be such a fuss or that much interest in it,″ Heller said. ``It’s irritating because of the implied insinuations.″

The points of similarity begin with the authors themselves, both Air Force veterans from Russian-Jewish families in Brooklyn who served in Italy during the war.

Both novels are set at the Mediterranean base of an American bomber squadron in World War II. Both focus on terrified airmen forced by bureaucratic muddling to fly an excessive number of dangerous missions over Nazi-occupied Italy, the Times said.

Each writer used the powerful and evocative image of a wounded soldier whose body is encased, mummylike, in a white cast.

Falstein’s book was published in 1951; the first chapter of ``Catch-22″ was written in 1953, shortly after Heller completed his studies at Oxford University, the Times said.

``In World War II there were lots of soldiers, sometimes drunk and firing their weapons and sometimes stuck in white body casts, and there were outbreaks of both diarrhea and idiotic censorship,″ said Andrew Giangola, spokesman for Simon & Schuster, Heller’s publisher.

``Saying that two writers can’t cover this ground completely independent of each other is absurd and maybe more absurd than what Heller can dream up.″

Falstein’s daughter-in-law, Gail Falstein, agreed, recalling that she had never heard Falstein speak about Heller or ``Catch 22″ or say that another writer had used his ideas.

``If he had, I’m sure he would have brought a lawsuit,″ she said from the Falstein home in Brooklyn.

In Falstein’s book, the crew flew a B-24; in Heller’s, it was a B-25. Both books include diarrhea epidemics among airmen as American troops advance, the Post said. Heller’s novel opens with a chapter titled ``The Texan,″ while Falstein’s narrator introduces a character referred to as ``the stringy Texan.″

Both books also have a fatal relationship between a flier and a young Italian girl.

In ``Face of a Hero,″ a character says ``Grazie, Nazi″ and another replies, ``Prego, dago.″ In ``Catch 22,″ some dialogue goes: ``Pass the salt, Walt,″ ``Pass the bread, Fred″ and ``Shoot me a beet, Pete.″

``That goes all the way back to Dalton Trumbo’s `Johnny Got His Gun,‴ said Heller, referring to an antiwar novel of 1939.

Falstein wrote of a Christmas Eve party that dissolves into drunken singing, screaming, sobbing and lamenting and ends with gunfire mistaken as an enemy attack. ``There were several more carbine pings, and somebody answered fire with a forty-five pistol,″ Falstein wrote.

Late in ``Catch 22,″ Heller wrote of a wild Thanksgiving celebration that ends with gunfire and his protagonist, Yossarian, charging out of his tent with his .45.