Catch-22 book review

Back in 1977, Joseph Heller wrote the following for a collection of essays about the 1960s: “The concept of the novel came to me as a seizure, a single inspiration. I’d come to the conclusion that I wanted to write a novel, and moving back to New York after two years of teaching college in Pennsylvania sent the ambition coursing again. I had no idea what it would be about, however. Then one night the opening lines of Catch-22 – all but the character’s name, Yossarian – came to  me: ‘It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.'”*

Heller didn’t have the hero’s name at this point, the chaplain could have been anywhere – he could have been a prison chaplain, for all Heller knew – and he didn’t even have the title. For seven years, while the book was being written, edited, and made ready for publication, it was called Catch-18. Then, early in 1961, just a few months before Simon and Schuster were preparing to launch the novel, Leon Uris came out with Mila 18. Uris was a best-selling author; Heller was practically unknown to the general public. A new title was required. Catch-11 was promising, but it was too close to Frank Sinatra’s hit movie, Ocean’s Eleven, which had come out the year before. Heller came up with Catch-14, which had the same number of syllables, but his editor, Robert Gottlieb, didn’t like it.

This time it was Gottlieb who had the late-night flash of inspiration: Catch-22, he insisted, was the perfect title. The rest, as they like to say, is history. Catch-22 became a colloquialism “used to describe a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations”, to quote Wikipedia.

This is the kind of trivia I love. I can spend entire mornings, especially when I have more important things to do, scrolling through page after page of material only remotely relevant to something I’ve been reading. Or mean to read. Or once read a very long time ago.

Catch-22 is one of those books. I read it, I think, in high school, although it certainly wasn’t on the curriculum. I do remember seeing “YOSSARIAN LIVES” written on the walls of my alma mater so by the time I got to university the book had achieved cult status (which is, I often think, the only status that really matters).

Set on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy in the last days of World War II, the novel is a satirical take on the madness and futility of war, based on Heller’s wartime experiences. Like Yossarian, Heller was a bombardier with the US Army Corps. He would later say that he personally never had a bad officer, and the anti-war message of the book was influenced more by the Korean War and McCarthyism. Nevertheless, Heller paints a grim picture of military incompetence at the highest levels and you can’t help but feel he experienced at least some of that.

The hero – or anti-hero, perhaps – is Captain John Yossarian, a 28-year-old bombardier who is driven by a single, desperate, impulse: he does not want to die. And everybody, he believes, is trying to kill him.

Yossarian has flown more than 50 bombing missions but each time he reaches the quota and hopes to be discharged, the colonels raise the number of missions required in order to be sent home. He sees the war as a personal attack on his person, and the ones he’s the most afraid of are his commanding officers.

Colonel Cathcart, for instance, continually volunteers his men for perilous missions in a bid to be promoted to General. Colonel Cargill, employed as an Army troubleshooter, is a former marketing executive who “could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody”. Major _ _ de Coverley, the head of the squadron, is so revered by his men they’re afraid to ask his first name, yet he does nothing all day but play horseshoes and rent apartments for officers in cities the Allies have taken. As for Major Major Major Major,

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was”.

Those serving in other positions are not much better. The army medic, Doc Daneeka, is more concerned with his own welfare than that of his patients. The military has dealt him a terrible blow, he says, keeping him away from his lucrative medical practice. The mess officer, Milo Minderbinder, is a sociopathic entrepreneur whose sole loyalty lies with those who pay him. At one point he contracts a fleet of German pilots to bomb his own squadron. And A. T. Tappman, the chaplain, is an Anabaptist who is steadily questioning his faith in a supreme being the longer the war goes on. Who, after all, could blame him?

After a young gunner dies in his arms on a bombing mission over Avignon, Yossarian loses all taste for battle. He decides “to live forever or die in the attempt” and spends a lot of time in hospital, faking illness, in order to get out of combat duty. He pleads with Doc Daneeka to have him declared insane so he can be discharged and sent home. The doctor agrees that Yossarian would be crazy to keep on flying. But if he knows he’d be crazy to fly then he’s sane, and so he can’t be certified as crazy. Which means Yossarian has to keep on flying. This, the medic says, is Catch-22:

“Catch-22 … specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [A bombardier] 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. [A bombardier] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

Yossarian says, “That’s some catch, that Catch-22”.

And the doctor agrees: “It’s the best there is”.

This is a long, convoluted, and somewhat confusing novel, alternating between nightmare and hilarity. It flashes backward and forward in time, and involves at least 50 characters by my own count, each with their own story and having some connection with Yossarian.  There’s Lieutenant Nately, the 19-year-old son of a wealthy family, who falls in love with a prostitute, is killed on a mission by a pilot from his own squadron, and whose prostitute, known as “Nately’s whore”, goes after Yossarian in a bid for revenge. There’s Snowdon, the gunner who died in Yossarian’s arms during a bombing mission over Avignon; Hungry Joe, the former Life photographer who’s obsessed with trying to take pictures of naked women; and Orr, the simple-minded bomber pilot who crash lands every plane he flies, escaping unscathed every time. Until, finally, he sets off on a mission and never comes back.

Yossarian takes Nately’s death very hard. He decides he’s done with war, done with flying yet another mission. He’s flown 70 of them by now, and once again the quota’s been raised, this time to 80. He absconds to Rome, and spends a nightmarish, hallucinogenic night wandering the streets, before being arrested for being in the city without a pass. He’s taken back to Pianosa where he faces a court-martial for refusing to fly. Colonel Cathcart offers him a deal: he’ll send Yossarian home with an honourable discharge as long as he promises that when he gets back to the States he’ll praise the military for how they’re handling things here, and support Cathcart’s 80-mission policy. Reluctantly, Yossarian agrees to the deal, but as he’s leaving the room he’s attacked by Nately’s whore and ends up in the hospital.

There, he has a change of heart. He’s not going to go along with the colonels: it’s an odious deal, that will put other men’s lives at risk. The chaplain bursts in with electrifying news: Orr isn’t dead, after all. He crash landed his plane deliberately and washed ashore in Sweden. Yossarian realizes Orr must have planned this all along, and if Orr managed to escape, there’s hope for them all. He, too, will run away to Sweden, and leave the insanity of the war behind him. He gets dressed and steps outside, where Nately’s whore is waiting for him. She tries to stab him, misses, and he runs off into the distance.

The book ends there. We are not to know if Yossarian was successful in his escape, if he eventually got to Sweden or not. I take comfort in the thought that whoever penned that graffiti was right: somehow, somewhere, Yossarian lives.

*The Sixties, ed. Lynda Rosen Obst (New York: Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1977), p. 50.

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