A look back at the author of our catchiest novel.

By Troy Patterson
Updated January 07, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”Had Joe lived,” says editor Michael Korda, ”I would have argued with him about the title.” Korda is talking — one week after Joseph Heller, 76, died of a heart attack, Dec. 12, in East Hampton, N.Y. — about the misleading Joycean name of Heller’s seventh novel, A Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, which Simon & Schuster will publish this fall. The book, Korda says, is about a blocked writer ”who realizes that the subject he’s looking for is coming to terms with death.”

That trick of fate has the poetic cruelty, if not the pristine illogic, of a Catch-22—the titular ground rule of Heller’s nakedly emotional and deadpan-absurd 1961 masterpiece. In it, John Yossarian — a WWII bombardier, just like his creator — can’t escape flight duty because of a clause mandating that anyone who expresses a fear of death in combat by declaring himself insane is thus behaving sanely, and must fight. As the book caught on like crazy in the late ’60s, the term became a catchall for the paradoxical madness of modernity and helped to sustain Heller’s reputation. ”Some of the other novels are more ambitious,” Korda believes. ”But I think certainly Catch-22 will be read as long as anyone cares about American literature.” But as long as Catch-22 is around, how could anyone stop caring about American literature?

Essential Novels: Catch-22 (1961), Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979)