Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

On the Italian island of Pianosa, close to the end of the Second World War, US air-force captain Yossarian is desperate to be grounded. He’s become convinced that the next bomb raid he undertakes will be the one that kills him. He’s not alone in this. Most of the saner members of his squadron want out. They have flown the 50 obligatory missions but, unfortunately, their over-ambitious Major has something to prove if he’s ever to make general. He keeps raising the limit. His men are understandably not impressed and it’s this disaffection that explains the madcap schemes and shenanigans that Yossarian and his comrades get up to.

When any member of a flight crew approaches the squadron doctor with a view to being excused from duty, they are faced with the military-invented paradox known as Catch 22. They find that the only way to avoid duty, short of very serious injury or death, is to be declared insane. Unfortunately, if a pilot claims to be too crazy to fly, then his protestations are ignored as, apparently, only a sane person would recognize such craziness. An insane person does not know that they’re insane and so will continue to fly. A sane person will not want to fly but must, because they are not insane. Confused? Yossarian is, and very frustrated. There seems to be no safe way out.

The term Catch 22 is used a lot in this novel to describe many contradictory positions. It’s a manufactured descriptor used liberally by the military to prevent it’s troops from finding a way out of active service. It doesn’t have one firm definition and variants appear throughout. A good example for today is “I can only get a job if I have relevant experience but I can only get relevant experience if I have a job”.

Originally the book was going to be called Catch 18, but a novel by Leon Uris, Mila 18 was out at that time. Catch 11 was mooted but Ocean’s Eleven was released then also. It was Joseph Heller‘s agent who eventually came up with the number final title of Catch 22. It’s amazing to think that a term now in common usage was coined in such a casual manner.

Although the US air-force think they have shut down any protest on Pianosa, Yossarian is a very determined and ingenuous individual driven by a desperate need to survive. He bluffs the medical staff into believing that he has a serious kidney problem. His ailment is not that bad as to require surgery, but just bad enough to cause concern. However, the other patients are all crazier than he could ever be and he flees the insanity of the hospital back to the welcome embrace of his squadron, the shadow of death following him wherever he goes.

He is joined in his manic existence by such notable wackos as Hungry Joe who cries in his sleep; Aarfy who is a real surprise towards the end of the book; Orr who disappears after a plane crash; Nately who has an Italian ‘whore’ who hates both him and Yossarian; Clevinger and Dunbar; and the black marketeer Milo who has built up a complex system of international trade that no one understands. The story allows us an introduction to each of these and more, as the reader enters the sheer lunacy of life in an air-force community that is living on its last nerve.

Although Catch 22 could be described as slapstick – some of the scenes are ridiculous in the extreme – there is also a strangely realistic and vivid insight into the minds and conduct of military men during war-time. It does have scenes reminiscent of the Pink Panther movies in a Cato-leaping-on-Clouseau way that should bring a smile to your face. Yossarian finds himself being hunted by an Italian prostitute who cannot be stopped. Hilarious but perhaps a metaphor for the apparently unstoppable craziness of armed conflict, or perhaps the prostitute is a personification of Catch 22 itself.

Much of the dialogue in this novel could have come straight from Abbot and Costello. Their ‘Who’s on first base’ sketch is to be found in various guises scattered throughout Catch 22. It might sound lame but it works. Some of the conversation is laugh-out-loud entertaining. It serves to intensify the critique of war, which is what Catch 22 is. This story might be one of the cleverest and most effective anti-war novels ever written.

The more missions the doomed Yossarian flies, the worse the mood in the squadron gets. His comrades die, one by one. There is the ongoing reveal about Snowden who died in Yossarian’s arms. We are given partial details about what happened as the story progresses, but it’s only at the end that we hear the full tale. The explicit nature of Snowden’s demise hits the reader like a sledgehammer. This means that the readers are laughing at Yossarian’s hapless exploits without fully realizing what makes him so broken. The shock of Snowden’s death and the means by which he died become all the more dramatic and hard-hitting as the reader’s guilt is exacerbated by the contrast. It’s a gut-punch that will stay with you long after you finish this book. Very well written.

“Almost on cue, a nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy in the thin shirt and thin, tattered trousers and of all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenuous and unscrupulous handful.”

Tough thoughts from a despondent Yossarian as he walks the streets of war-time Rome. It continues;

“He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunks and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they couldn’t afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to black-guards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere.”

These are the thoughts of Yossarian. Although published in 1961, Catch 22 is as relevant today as ever; perhaps more so as we move inexorably towards yet another global conflict. It is a beautifully disjointed and chaotic book designed to keep you off-balance and on-track emotionally. It entertains. It thrills. It shocks at times in its callous disregard. It pokes fun at ambition and bureaucracy and eventually it damns us all. It tells us straight that our apathy is killing us.

Catch 22 is an uber-intelligent commentary upon what keeps the vicious cycle of failed human societies turning. It tells us we ignore injustice because it’s inconvenient to acknowledge it, and that we hate those who thrust the truth about the suffering of others upon us. Catch 22 is, therefore, a wacky manual for better understanding our own flaws, all the better to improve upon them in a world gone mad.

Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Catch 22 is a mental, apostate, irreverent, broken, funny and necessary novel. This book is regarded as a classic for a very good reason; it’s a very good read and highly recommended by Rebel Voice.

Yossarian lives!


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