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‘Catch-22’ Author Heller Dies at 76

December 14, 1999 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Before the 1960s even began, the time’s subversive mindset had been imagined in such works as Jack Kerouac’s novel ``On the Road,″ the early poems of Allen Ginsberg and the manuscript of Joseph Heller’s ``Catch-22.″

Heller, who died Sunday of a heart attack at age 76, started his novel in the 1950s, when he was working in advertising and protest was mostly an underground movement. The book was published in 1961, with no tour to support it and few reviews to alert anyone that a new kind of war story had been told.

``When `Catch-22′ came out, people were saying, `Well, World War II wasn’t like this,‴ E.L. Doctorow, Heller’s friend and fellow author, said Monday. ``But when we got tangled up in Vietnam, it became a sort of text for the consciousness of that time.

``They say fiction can’t change anything, but they can certainly organize a generation’s consciousness.″

Heller wasn’t the first author of his generation to suggest that war was a less than heroic affair _ Norman Mailer and James Jones had both famously done so _ but he was the first to capture a special kind of madness.

Mailer’s ``The Naked and the Dead″ and Jones’ ``From Here to Eternity″ were heavy, earnest novels, stories of war as the young man’s unfortunate, but inevitable education. ``Catch-22″ gave us war as the worst kind of acid trip, in which reality could be likened to a record spinning so fast the needle is thrown off the vinyl.

The novel’s protagonist, Capt. John Yossarian, is a bombardier who tries to get himself declared crazy so he won’t have to fly more missions. But he is foiled by regulations, which Doc Daneeka explains: ``Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.″

The bind was called Catch-22.

Heller based the book on his experience as an Army Air Corps bombardier who flew 60 combat missions over Italy after being born and raised on New York’s Coney Island. He enlisted at 19.

In all, Heller wrote six novels, but none of them resonated as widely or as powerfully as ``Catch-22,″ The novel was made into a movie starring Alan Arkin in 1970; Heller himself did a stage adaptation in 1973 and also published a sequel, ``Closing Time,″ in 1994.

Like any work ahead of its time, Heller’s novel was destined to embarrass those who hated it. A critic in The New York Times Book Review called it an ``emotional hodgepodge.″ A reviewer for The New Yorker found the book ``a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior children fall into when they know they are losing our attention.″

It was up to readers to discover ``Catch-22.″ Heller’s novel sold millions of copies and became one of the last works of literature to actually add a new phrase to the language. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) defines Catch-22 as ``a condition or consequence that precludes success, a dilemma where the victim cannot win.″

``Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy,″ Heller once said. ``Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts _ and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?″

Without ``Catch-22″ it’s hard to imagine Kurt Vonnegut’s novel ``Slaughterhouse-Five,″ films such as ``Dr. Strangelove″ and ``M A S H″ and songs such as Bob Dylan’s ``Clothesline Saga″ and Arlo Guthrie’s ``Alice’s Restaurant.″ All assumed the system was insane. All reacted less with righteous anger than with pokerfaced humor (and horror).

Heller once openly wished that his novel would turn young people against the military, but he eventually stopped hoping the world would change _ or believed it was worth changing. In his later books he worked in the tradition of Jewish pessimists from Job to Kafka, raging against a god who didn’t respond.

In ``Something Happened,″ the author entered the confused, tortured mind of a suburban father. ``God Knows″ took readers through a ranting monologue by King David, who complained at the end the book ``I want my God back!″ In ``Picture This,″ the author looked back to ancient Greece and concluded history was one long Catch-22.

``I tend to see my people as living in a vacuum, not anarchy, but living in a void of meaning _ even my King David, who despairs because God doesn’t talk to anyone,″ Heller told The Associated Press in a 1994 interview.

``It used to shock me and alarm me and discourage me that there was a general decline of everything of value. But it doesn’t surprise me anymore. It seems inevitable and natural and there’s no way to resist it.″

Heller had recently submitted the final revisions for his last novel, ``Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man.″ It is scheduled to be published next year.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.