The Modern Library dust jacket for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Catch-22

  • Rank:  #10
  • Author:  Joseph Heller  (1923  –  1999)
  • Published:  1961
  • Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
  • Pages:  455
  • First Line:  “It was love at first sight.”
  • Last Lines:  “Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down, missing him by inches and he took off.”
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #7; All-TIME List
  • ML Edition:  #375  (two dust jackets – 1966, 1968)
  • Film:  1970 – *** (dir. Mike Nichols)
  • First Read:  January, 1994

The Novel:  In a creative writing class that my roommate and I took together in college, Catch-22 kept coming to our brains.  When people would read their work aloud, we would constantly be muttering to ourselves, “Death to all modifiers!”  It was partially an inspired anarchy, partially being jackasses and partially because the book had, quite frankly, warped our minds.

The famous story about Joseph Heller is that he was once told, years later (depending on what version you hear, any time from the mid-70’s until just before he died in 1999), “You’ve never written anything as good as Catch-22.”  His response was “Who has?”  I’ve read thousands of books that were published since Catch-22.  Only one of them do I rank above it, and it wasn’t written in English.  So it’s a great comeback, and as far as I’m concerned, pretty much true.

When I re-read these books (and I have re-read all of them before writing these reviews, though I admit to only skimming the 7 volumes of Proust rather than re-reading all of them), I put brackets around various lines that I want to include in my review.  I was spared some of that in Catch-22 because my copy is heavily high-lighted (when breaking up with one ex, we were splitting up the books that we originally both had, but one copy had been gotten rid of, so we had to decide who got the single copy remaining and who would have to go get a new one – this was one she really wanted and I was adamant I was not letting it go – “open it”, I said, and when she did, she asked “How long has this been high-lighted” and I replied, “since I first read it my Sophomore year.”).  I write the page numbers in the front of the book so I can find the quotes easily.  There are, far and away, more page numbers written in the front of my copy of Catch-22 than in any other book on the list.  It’s not just that Catch-22 is one of the best novels ever written.  It also quite likely the single funniest book ever written (perhaps even beating The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).  It, more than any other novel (and the major contenders here include Portnoy’s Complaint, The World According to Garp and Confederacy of Dunces) combines sheer hilarity (and lunacy) with first-rate writing.

If you haven’t read it, well, why the hell haven’t you?  Well, if you haven’t, it’s the story of Yossarian, a bomber pilot in World War II.  “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.”  That is what his world has come to when we first meet him, in the hospital, with a problem just short of jaundice (“But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.”)  He is creatively censoring letters (this is where the death to all modifiers comes from – a rallying cry of his one day, but “He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an, and the.”)

This is all inspired lunacy.  These are the kind of people that Yossarian has to put up with:  A colonel who tells his men, “You’re American officers.  The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement.  Think about it.”  Another colonel who is astounded to learn that the enlisted men pray to the same god that the officers do.  A doctor who says “I had examined myself pretty thoroughly and discovered that I was unfit for military service.” (and when Yossarian tries to get Doc to ground him, Doc also tells him “It’s not my business to save lives.”).  A mess officer who ends up raising prices so high that the men have to turn over all their pay just to be able to eat (“Their alternative – there was an alternative, of course, since Milo detested coercion and was a vocal champion of freedom of choice – was to starve.”)

And he takes shots everywhere: “Yossarian was willing to give Orr the benefit of the doubt because Orr was from the wilderness outside New York City and knew so much more about wild-life than Yossarian did, and because Orr, unlike Yossarian’s mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, in-law, teacher, spiritual leader, legislator, neighbor and newspaper, had never lied to him about anything crucial before.”  Just think about how many institutions that Heller knocks in that one sentence.  Or this: “Milo was crestfallen, but from that moment on he trusted Yossarian with every secret but one, reasoning shrewdly that anyone who would not steal from the country he loved would not steal from everybody.”  When you read lines like “He never once took the name of the Lord his God in vain, committed adultery or coveted his neighbor’s ass.  In fact, he loved his neighbor and never even bore false witness against him.  Major Major’s elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant conformist,” remember this isn’t the middle of the revolution in the sixties, this isn’t a response to Vietnam.  The book was mostly written in the 50’s and published in 1961.

And it continues to be read.  By everyone.  It is, along with Catcher in the Rye, the biggest selling book in Powells history because people still buy it by the thousands every single year.  It appeals to people in its humor, in its anarchy, but also in its quality.  It is pure literature, not just flights of inspired lunacy.  “April had been the best month of all for Milo.”  A line like that is just crack for us Eliot fans.  But the paragraph goes on: “Lilacs bloomed in April and fruit ripened on the vine.  Heartbeats quickened and old appetites were renewed.  In April a livelier iris gleamed upon the burnished dove.  April was spring, and in the spring Milo Minderbinder’s fancy had lightly turned to thoughts of tangerines.”  Then we get the rest of the chapter on Milo, where we see how much he has taken control, to the point where he hires his plane to bomb a bridge and hires the Germans to defend it and culminates with his contract with the Germans to bomb his own outfit.

We have been hearing hints of this all through the book, with constant comments about the bombing raid, as well as other events that keep cropping up in the book.  Does my review seem a bit scattered?  Part of that is because there is so much good about this novel that I can’t figure out how to approach it.  But then I decided, the hell with it, to just approach it anyway, because that’s what the book does.  You could take the first 35 chapters of the book and pretty much read them in any order.  Time moves back and forth, we get references to events that haven’t happened yet (or we haven’t seen yet – if you do a detailed analysis you’ll actually find that certain things happen that couldn’t have happened because a character involved hasn’t come on the scene yet, so resist trying to do that and go with the flow).  It is only the end of the book that brings everything together into a coherent narrative flow and moves towards any sort of conclusion.

And so I come to the end here.  I think about how much of a rebellion this novel is, with Yossarian fleeing not only from Nately’s whore, but from the war and civilization in itself as he takes off.  I haven’t talked about the actual catch and how incredibly brilliant it is (and how it was originally Catch-18) because if you don’t know what the catch is, I can’t help you.  And I haven’t even talked about Major Major or the General who demands someone to be shot for moaning or one of my favorite lines, when Yossarian is chided for his unabated contempt for God by a young atheist: “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God.  He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.”  How could he do anything but take off?

The poster for Mike Nichols uneven attempt at filming Catch-22.

The Film:  “I watched a great war film last night adapted from a great novel.”  “Was it Catch-22?”  “It was a coherent film,” I replied.  That conversation happened in the spring of 1996, talking to my advisor (the film in question was For Whom the Bell Tolls).  It was in his class in the Winter III term that I had first read Catch-22, so it was a natural question.  But the fact is, the film version of Catch-22, while satisfying in several ways, is not a completely coherent film, and quite frankly it shouldn’t be.  It is also not a great film, because it can’t quite hold together.

What Catch-22 has going for it is a triumph of acting and casting (ironic, since I just wrote a review of Little Miss Sunshine this morning and it has the same strength and both films have Alan Arkin).  I had, thankfully, not seen the film when I first read the book, so I was able to imagine the roles in my own head.  However, I can’t imagine better performers in those roles than who the filmmakers actually got.  Just like at how right this is – Alan Arkin as Yossarian, Anthony Perkins as the Chaplin, Bob Newhart as Major Major Major Major (though the book describes him as looking like Henry Fonda, this seems perfect), Martin Balsam as Cathcart, Jack Guildford as Daneeka, Jon Voight as Milo, and, best of all, Orson Welles as General Dreedle.  Who else but Welles would actually believe that he could simply decide to have someone shot because they irritated him.  Not to mention all the people in the smaller roles – Martin Sheen, Charles Grodin, Art Garfunkel, Buck Henry and Austin Pendelton.  Hell, if nothing else, the casting of Art Garfunkel lead to his delay in Mexico and the writing of “The Only Living Boy in New York”, one of the most beautiful songs in rock and roll history.  But every person is just right for their role.  I can’t imagine anyone else in any of those roles.  And look at how ahead of its time the casting is – Voight was cast in this before Midnight Cowboy was released, this was 3 years before Sheen would make Badlands, 2 years before Grodin would be in The Heartbreak Kid and years and years before Pendelton would do The Muppet Movie.

Every classic line you would expect to find in the film is here.  You get the great Welles line “I want this man shot,” you have the brilliant explanation of what Catch-22 is, you have the insane conversation in which Major Major explains to his poor secretary that people are only allowed to come in and see him when he’s not there (a brilliant touch in that scene – as Major Major walks past the wall, the picture changes, from FDR to Churchill to Stalin).  You get the urging for Doc to jump from the plane when he’s standing right there.  And best of all, you get every ridiculous thing Milo does perfectly there on the screen.  The film catches quite a bit of the insanity of the book.

Unfortunately, it catches all the anarchy as well.  While the book builds towards the last few chapters, the film attempts to do the same and it can’t quite hold together as well.  And the actual ending seems to lack the sheer requisite of insanity that it should have.  But overall, it is a solid film, with unforgettable performances.  Once you’ve seen the film one thing you can’t do is go back and imagine anyone other than the actors in those roles.

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