Book #20: Catch-22
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. Orr 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. Orr 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 was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
And that is the gist of a Catch-22, a concept dreamed up by Catch-22 author Joseph Heller. You know an author and his book have had a powerful influence on culture when a new word or phrase from the novel becomes a part of the lexicon.
This book is seriously one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. As I’ve mentioned before, Heller’s style of humor reminds me a lot of Monty Python or the movie “Airplane.” It’s dry and effective satire.
I probably had more laugh-out-loud moments in this novel than the previous 19 books combined. For whatever reason, a lot of the books I’ve read on the Time list to this point have leaned toward sad and depressing.
But Catch-22 is not just a funny book—it has a lot of serious moments as well. After all, the setting is World War II. Twenty-something aged guys die in wars, you know? So that’s kind of sad, especially when it comes to characters who have grown on you.
And as characters go, Yossarian is the star of this show. Yossarian is a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force, which means he’s basically the guy in the plane who drops the bombs.
He’s a misfit, a slacker, an anti-hero who’s constantly paranoid about dying. One of the main themes of the novel is Yossarian’s repeated attempts to get out of flying the required number of missions in order to be discharged. But his superior, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the amount of missions required—from 30 to 35, then 35 to 40, all the way up to 70 missions. Yossarian often feigns sickness in order to be admitted to the hospital and get out of flying missions as well.
Another great character is Colonel Scheiskopf, a quirky guy who is obsessed with hosting parades and getting all of the men to march. And then there’s Milo Minderbender–the mess hall chef and budding entrepreneur who forms an international cartel that distributes black market fruits and vegetables.
The interesting thing about Catch-22—and this is where it breaks from just being a funny novel—is the larger issues at hand. With this book, Heller basically asks the question, “At what point does patriotism become irrational?”
When bureaucracy, red tape, and petty rules are the driving force for senior officers, at what point can an airman say “no more.” Yossarian blatantly disregards a lot of the rules and regulations that his fellow airmen blindly accept.
From Yossarian’s point of view:
“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”
What’s interesting about the “enemy” in this novel is that, even though the setting is World War II and the enemy is the Germans, not one German character appears in the story. All of the conflict is internal, mostly focused on bureaucratic nonsense that is quite funny.
Heller’s just an awesome writer and a master of satire. And he loves the paradox. A couple of examples:
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.
He also writes in a repetitive and circular style, which mirrors the structure of the novel in a lot of ways. Catch-22 is a little like Infinite Jest in its non-linear style. Heller takes you through a wide variety of time periods that focus on quite a few characters. Outside of Yossarian and the Chaplain, who play the feature roles, the dozens of other characters seem equal in importance.
All of the characters, despite their exaggerated flaws, are extremely likeable. They are all so memorable—not a lame character in this book, which is saying something because there’s a lot of them. That’s what makes Catch-22 so enjoyable to me. I could’ve read 400 more pages about these guys. So I was sad to see it end.
But, thankfully, Heller wrote a sequel in 1994 called Closing Time. The sequel isn’t on the Time list, so I’ll have to wait a few years to read it. But if you’ve read it, do tell me how it compares to Catch-22, without spoilers of course.
For now, I’ll have to appreciate the brilliance of this epic novel. Top 5 material. Long live Yossarian.
The Opening Line: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.”
The Meaning: You probably know the meaning of the term “Catch 22,” which basically refers to a lose-lose situation. With regard to this novel, it refers to the dilemma airmen face: They have to be considered crazy in order to be discharged, and they are considered crazy for being willing to fly missions in which they could be killed. But petitioning to be discharged proves their sanity, which means there are ineligible for discharge. Catch 22.
Highlights: Yossarian might be my favorite character in all of the books I’ve read on the list. Heller writes this character beautifully, and I hated to see the story end. Just a really funny guy. Running a close second is Milo Minderbender, the mess hall chef who also runs an international cartel that distributes black market fruits and vegetables.
Lowlights: Does it have to end? This was such a fun read that I really can’t think of anything negative about it.
Memorable Line: “When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven, or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and human tragedy.” – Yossarian
Final Thoughts: Heller does an amazing job of balancing laugh-out-loud humor with more somber moments that show the realities of war. If you even remotely enjoy dry humor, this book is worth the read. I’ve never read a novel quite like it. And, to my excitement, Heller wrote a sequel, Closing Time. But I’ll have to wait a few years to read that one.