Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Joseph Heller’s best, and best known, novel, Catch–22. It is a novel about an American Army Air Force bomber squadron, operating in Italy during World War II; but it is not the typical sort of war story. Its central character is Captain Yossarian, a bombardier, who is becoming increasingly convinced that everyone, his own government included, is trying to kill him; nonetheless, he has a strong urge to keep on breathing. Among the other notable characters are Colonel Cathcart, the unit’s commanding officer; Major Major Major Major, the squadron leader, who can be seen in his office only when he is not there; Nately, a fellow aviator, whose idealism keeps surfacing despite ample evidence against it (Heller writes, “Nately’s mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution, and his father was a Son of a Bitch.”); and the chaplain, who is asked by Col. Cathcart to lead a prayer before each mission, but to avoid prayers about “valleys and rivers and God”. Although Catch–22 is a very funny book, its humor is decidedly dark. Clevinger, one of Yossarian’s friends, who tries to buck up his enthusiasm, is described thus:
Clevinger was dead. That was the basic flaw in his philosophy.
Yossarian tries to get the medical officer to ground him because he’s crazy, after flying so many missions, and in the process discovers the eponymous “Catch”:
[Yossarian] “Can’t you ground someone who’s crazy?”
[Doc Daneeka] “Oh sure. I have to. There’s a rule saying that I have to ground anyone who’s crazy. …But first he has to ask me. That’s part of the rule.”
“And then you can ground him?”, Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch–22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
There was only one catch, and that was Catch–22, which 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.
As The Economist points out in an article reviewing a Heller biography in this week’s magazine, Catch–22 was Heller’s first novel, and by common consensus his best. He did continue to write throughout his life, but he never reached quite the same level again.
LATE in life, Joseph Heller was occasionally asked why he had never written anything else as good as “Catch-22”. “Who has?” he’d reply with a self-satisfied grin. Heller was haunted by the long shadow cast by his absurdist first novel, which has sold over 10m copies since it was published in 1961.
The book, in Heller’s original manuscript, was titled “Catch-18”, but the title was changed because Leon Uris’s Mila 18 was published the same year.
Along with many of my friends, I first read Catch–22 when I was in high school, back in the late 1960s. (I need hardly add that it was not on the list of assigned reading.) At a time when the Vietnam War was in full swing, the book’s theme of the senselessness and absurdity of war definitely touched a nerve.