Reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) on the heels of reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), as I did recently, is like taking a ride in that contraption that was featured in the film, An Officer and a Gentleman. You know the one: a diabolical training exercise that was meant to simulate for Navy Flight School candidates what it’s like to experience a sea-going plane crash. The machine slams you hard into a deep pool of cold, murky water, twists and spins you around so that you are punchy, shaken, disoriented, with no idea which way is up or down. Many aspiring pilots washed out after confronting this bit of controlled mayhem.
Yeah, so reading Catch-22 is kind of like that.
It’s a topsy turvy universe that Heller has concocted for our elucidation and entertainment. And it’s soooo different from the world of To Kill a Mockingbird (which was published just the previous year). In fact, Catch-22 is the anti-Mockingbird.
Mockingbird is all about learning how to be a responsible adult: how to see things from others’ points of view, how to care about the less fortunate, how to stand up for what’s right. Even though the novel darkens near the end with the tragedy of Tom Robinson’s false conviction and death, it is nevertheless an optimistic book. One feels that the good guys–like the grandly heroic Atticus Finch and his children–will eventually prevail.
Catch-22 posits quite the opposite: a nightmare world where there are no heroes, where everyone’s motives are suspect, where stupidity and incompetence and ugliness and squalor and death reign supreme. Where the best are ineffectual losers and the worst are firmly in charge.
The story follows one Captain John Yossarian as he struggles to maintain his life and sanity as a B-25 bombardier in a U.S. Army Air Forces unit based on the Italian island of Pianossa. (Heller, himself, was a bombardier who flew 60 combat missions in Europe during World War II.)
For my money, Catch-22 remains the best modern war novel ever written (sorry Ernest Hemingway, sorry James Jones, sorry Michael Herr, sorry Tim O’Brien, sorry all you other guys). Can’t think of a novel that so perfectly captures the real state of modern warfare.
It’s amazing to think that Heller wrote most of the book–not in the turbulent, counter-cultural upheavals of the late Sixties, nor the cynical, post-Watergate Seventies–but in the Fifties (he began the book in 1953 and finally published it in 1961).
While the rest of America was in a period of materialistic somnambulism, Heller was writing this explosive diatribe against . . . conformity, mindless patriotism, bureaucratic bumbling, state-sanctioned hypocrisy and the whole depressing tenor of modern life. While Catch-22 is, of course, a war novel . . . it is really about something even bigger and more threatening: the rise of the amoral, soulless, mind-numbing bureaucratic machine that forms much of modern society.
Here’s Heller on Major Major’s right-wing, alfalfa-farmer father:
He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. . . . His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. . . .
So while Mockingbird was teaching us lessons about becoming moral, upright young people, Catch-22 was schooling us about being skeptical and questioning authority and suspecting people’s motives and seeing life through a corrective lens of irony.
These two oil-and-water books–so different in almost every conceivable way–form the alpha and omega of the Baby Boomer literary experience. And with Mockingbird and Catch-22 as the bookends for the Baby Boom generation, it’s a wonder that all of us Baby Boomers didn’t turn out to be raging schizos (or did we?).
The really interesting thing about Catch-22 is how it manages this wonderful balancing act: on the one hand it is absolutely funny, darkly funny, infuriatingly funny, funny in a way many of us had never experienced before . . . and sets this humor . . . against a backdrop of stupidity, incompetence, heartlessness, terror, and death. Always death.
The book manages to tickle our funny bones while it touches our heartstrings. And that ain’t easy, boys and girls. It’s not too hard to do one or the other, but to combine satire with heartfelt emotion, to create characters who we can laugh at and yet cry for. That’s art of the highest order.
So what is Heller up to here?
Essentially he’s telling us that even a “good war” like World War II is no walk in the park. That even if the cause is just, even if intentions are noble–every war is in essence a kind of a gruesome lab experiment: put human beings in a frightening, horrible, confusing, brutalizing environment and see what happens to them.
And the results of the experiment are invariably the same: the moments we all like to celebrate and remember and make movies about–moments of valor and glory–are inextricably mixed in with many, many more moments of boredom and malice and incompetence and cruelty.
When I was in grad school at Rutgers in the Seventies I was lucky enough to have as a teacher one of our finest writers about modern warfare, Paul Fussell (who won the National Book Award for his ground-breaking, 1975 The Great War and Modern Memory). Fussell was a professor of literature, but also happened to be a WWII combat vet who was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for action in France.
Fussell had plenty to say about our tendency to mindlessly glorify and sugar-coat the grim reality of modern warfare. This is from the preface to his book about WWII, Wartime:
The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit. For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recongnition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales.
I suspect this is what Heller is up to as well in Catch-22–just trying to balance the scales.
So for all the reassuring media images of super-competent military leadership, steely-eyed, determined warriors calmly and superbly guiding their men with unflinching resolve and for the noblest of intentions, he gives us the opposite view.
Colonel Cathcart, for instance, the group commander who keeps raising the number of combat missions the men must fly before they can go home–from 35 to 4o to 45 to . . . 80. And why? When there are many replacement crews available and ready to relieve the exhausted and brutalized airmen?
So he can look good to his superiors (his only ace card, he realizes, is not the quality of his command but the sheer number of missions he can make his men fly) and, perhaps most importantly for him, to win a coveted cover story in The Saturday Evening Post.
Or the mind-bogglingly incompetent and aptly named Lieutenant Scheisskopff whose funny/scary obsession with military parades and utter unsuitability as a leader of men inevitably (in this bureaucratic nightmare world Heller has concoted) leads to his promotion to general by the end of the book.
There are so many great moments and so much great writing that I can only give you a few snippets.
Here’s Heller describing the concept of “Catch-22” in all its mind-numbing absurdity:
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, of course, the novel’s centerpiece is the terrifying raid over Avignon. Throughout the novel the narrator comes back to the mission again and again, like a bad tooth that he can’t help prodding with his tongue. Until, toward the end of Catch-22, we finally find out what happened to Snowden, a member of Yossarian’s crew on that ill-fated mission.
The scene is one of the most intense and horrifying in all of literature: a shaken Yossarian goes to the back of the heavily-damaged plane to tend to Snowden, who has a gaping, football-sized wound in his thigh. Yossarian conscientiously manages to staunch the bleeding and dress the wound and is feeling somewhat relieved about Snowden’s prospects for survival when . . .
But Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest movement of his chin, down toward his armpit. Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. . . .
“I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered. “I’m cold.”
“There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. “There, there.”
Funny thing is the very first time I read the book was in a totally loopy manner that might have appealed to Heller’s twisted sense of humor.
I was probably 13 or 14 when I noticed the book on my older brother’s desk (a beat-up 95-cent Dell paperback as I recall). The title intrigued me a bit–I had never heard the term “Catch-22”–and wondered what the heck it might mean.
So I took a look. Then another. Then another. I admit it was the sex that first captured my post-pubescent attention. I raced through the book searching out the titillating “dirty parts”–mostly the scenes in the Roman brothels where Yossarian and Nately and the rest of the airmen go for R&R.
I would sneak peaks at the book when my brother left our shared bedroom or when he was out of the house altogether. I was, it goes without saying, way too young to be reading the novel, and certainly way too young to truly grasp its dark humor or grim lessons.
I find it so humorous to recall that long-ago first “reading” (if that’s what you would call it): hunting for stray mentions of naked young prostitutes or barely mentioned sex acts. In retrospect, Catch-22 may be the least erotic novel ever written, but back then pickings were very slim in the erotica department for an adolescent boy. We had to make do with what little scraps of titillation we could find.
But while I was searching for mentions of young girls and naked flesh, Catch-22 was inadvertently teaching me lessons . . . lessons about warfare, about human nature, about irony, about life. Lessons that have stayed with me ever since.
So if you are not a Baby Boomer and want to figure out why the older generation can seem so squirrely and schizoid at times, I suggest you run out and read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Heller’s Catch-22 back to back. That experience may tell you all you need to know about us, where we came from, what we value, and why The Books that Mattered, matter.