Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Published in 1961
Genre: Satire, black comedy
“It was love at first sight.”
This is most likely not what many would expect to be the first line in a book about a group of American bombardiers in World War II; then again, this isn’t just any book about a group of American bombardiers. Chances are high that popular culture has probably imprinted the title of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, Catch-22, in our collective minds. Focusing on John Yossarian, an American Captain on an island in war-torn Italy who tries his hardest to stay out of the air, it is a tale of lust, violence, convoluted sentences, repetitive exchanges of dialogue, and long winded paragraphs.
The book begins with Yossarian in the hospital because he simply wants to stop flying missions. He tries to find any excuse to spend as much time in the hospital to avoid being shot at by strangers, which starts rumors of his paranoia among the other officers. Originally required to fly fifty missions, this number is continually raised throughout the book by Colonel Cathcart, who does so to improve his reputation by having the most volunteered flights in the European theater of war.
Much of the plot of the novel centers around the rising number of missions and Yossarian recounts the tales of his fellow airmen with this catalyst ever present in the background. Each chapter focuses on a different member of the squadron and while many have character names as their title, they don’t necessarily pertain to that specific person. Among the myriad and motley group are Hungry Joe (who has night terrors), Doc Daneeka (who thinks he was wrongfully pulled into the war and tells anyone who will listen), and Major Major Major Major, a man with an unfortunate name who successfully becomes a recluse on a military base.
From the exchanges of dialogue to the actions of the characters, Catch-22 is ridiculous at every turn. One poignant example can be found in the story of Captain Black and his Glorious Loyalty Crusade. Upon hearing that Major Major was promoted to…Major, Captain Black begins making the men sign loyalty oaths in order to do daily tasks like receiving food in the mess hall. However, due to his grudge, Captain Black doesn’t let Major Major sign the oaths and then calls him a communist because he won’t sign. Many of the character interactions are simply the two people repeating each other or contradicting one another in order to trick them into changing their mind (think Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny arguing about whether it’s rabbit season or duck season).
These absurd situations are due to the name of the book itself: Catch-22. This catch says that in order for a pilot to be grounded, they must be crazy. However, if they ask to be grounded, then it logically follows that they must be sane because they realize that only a crazy person would want to fly a mission. This conundrum is the root of Yossarian’s problems because he no longer wishes to fly after one of his fellow bombardiers is killed in front of him. It is also used as a form of justification in later parts of the book where people do terrible things and when asked what authority or right they have, they simply reply, “Catch-22.”
Though humor, albeit dark, abounds throughout Catch-22, there are some rather gut-wrenching moments, one the most explicit of these is Yossarian’s account of Snowden, his friend who died next to him during a flight. Many of the darker events are simply mentioned in the earlier parts of the book, but the later sections describe the disappearances and deaths of many of Yossarian’s friends in grim detail. This turn is then replaced by a hopeful ending when Yossarian learns of his friend’s escape to Sweden and decides to follow in his path.
I was a little put off by the style of Heller’s writing in Catch-22. He has a penchant for long descriptive paragraphs which are contrasted by often curt exchanges of dialogue between characters that suddenly appear like staccato bursts and then fade back into description. Summary rules much of the book and the narrative also skips around in time, referencing events from other chapters. This can quickly become confusing and had me accepting these allusions as such rather than trying to remember them directly.
Catch-22 definitely isn’t a book that I would recommend for everyone. The storyline is a bit convoluted, the characters are rich but remain unchanged throughout, and the pace of the novel gets bogged down by the intricate contradictions that Heller places intentionally to make his point; what that point may be, however, is lost on me. I understand the appeal of Catch-22 and why it lands on so many “must read” lists, but this is definitely one book that will leave some loving it and most simply content with finishing it.
Verdict: 3 logical conundrums out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of “classic” literature, those who enjoy satire and roundabout conversations, lovers of logical conundrums, and you!
Not recommended for: People who dislike long paragraphs (we’re talking half-pagers here, folks), those not fond of prostitutes being referred to as whores (I kind of brushed over this in the review, but there’s a lot of whore talk), McWatt, Hungry Joe, Nately, Colonel Cathcart, or Major Major Major Major.