Joseph Heller, master of black satire, dies at 76

JOSEPH HELLER, who achieved worldwide fame with his 1961 anti- war novel Catch-22, about the lunacies of the United States military in the Second World War, has died aged 76. His wife, Valerie, said he had a heart attack on Sunday at their home in East Hampton on Long Island.

The book, which at first drew only a lukewarm reception from critics, became one of the English language classics of the second half of the century. Its title also entered the lexicon to describe a conundrum from which there is no escape for the victim. Attempt any solution, and you will be defeated.

"Oh, God, how terrible," the author and friend Kurt Vonnegut, who last spoke to Heller a week ago, said yesterday. "This is a calamity for American letters."

Arthur Gelb, a former editor of The New York Times, said: "He had this never-flagging satirical wit that was always entertaining - except when you were in the path of one of his acerbic bullets." Mr Gelb saw him at a recent dinner party. "I asked him if he was feeling well. He said he regretted to report that age appeared to be mellowing him and that people would have to stop referring to him as a curmudgeon."

Catch-22, a masterpiece in black humour, was arguably ahead of its time. At publication, its relentless satirising of the system seemed startling, even blasphemous. But soon Heller's bleak perspective began to resonate strongly with the emerging counter-culture, growing disillusionment with government and political leaders and the first stirrings of the anti-Vietnam movement.

Eventually, Catch-22 came to sell 10 million copies in the US alone and Heller was held in affection by successive generations. It was also made into a Hollywood film, which did no justice to the novel. "Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy," Heller said of the book. "Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts. The question is: what does a sane man do in an insane society?"

Later novels included Something Happened (1974), published after a 13- year hiatus in his output - and Closing Time (1994). He wrote four other works of fiction but none was considered a match for that first work. Closing Time, the most mellow and least cutting of all his works, was loosely a sequel to Catch-22 and featured many of its characters, including Yossarian, the US airman who could find no escape from the terrors of combat. Though fictional, Yossarian emerged as an icon of the Sixties anti-war movement. A favourite hippie bumper sticker read: "Yossarian Lives".

Heller also wrote No Laughing Matter, a non-fiction work about his battle in the early Eighties with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralysing nerve disorder from which he never fully recovered.

Born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn on 1 May 1923, Heller set himself apart as a child through his love of writing. While still at school, he submitted a story to the New York Daily News. The newspaper never published it. Among his favourite authors were Hemingway and Irwin Shaw.

In 1942, Heller enlisted in the US Air Force and found himself dispatched to Italy where he flew 60 missions. It was his experience of combat - and of the absurdities of warfare and of the US military bureaucracy - that gave him the inspiration for the book that was to make him so famous.

Written over several years while Heller was a copywriter for a New York advertising firm Catch-22 centres on Yossarian's attempts to escape flying dangerous missions by pleading insanity with his superiors. He got nowhere, because the officers said his determination to stop flying the missions demonstrated he had to be sane. There was no way out.

Catch-22, the crazed world of the victim

An extract from Catch 22:

``CATCH-22: The title alone was enough to suggest a universe where the only hope for escape was by going crazy - which, as the good Colonel Korn would point out, was proof you were normal after all.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them."

The phrase quickly entered the lexicon: The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines Catch-22 as "a condition or consequence that precludes success, a dilemma where the victim cannot win".