Joseph Heller’s first novel, published in 1961. I read a very cool 1967 edition which once belonged to Chorley Public Library in England.
4 out of 5 stars.
US Air Force members stationed on the Italian island of Pianosa try to survive World War II with varying moralities and coping mechanisms.
Catch-22 has the reputation of being a humorous romp (on Amazon, it’s currently #1 in Dark Humor and #5 in Satire) but it’s ultimately more surrealistic-psychological nightmare than comedy.
There are some slow parts (and a couple of offensive ones) but the good is so damned good that I forgive it.
Catch-22 sits on many Greatest Books of the 20th Century and Best Novels lists (my ex-library copy has a sticker proclaiming it part of the “BBC Big Read Top 100”) which can be justified solely by Heller’s risk and innovation. Catch-22 should not work as a narrative; the cast of characters is too large, the timeline jumps around too much, no conversation goes anywhere…
But it does work and the unusually-shaped pieces come together to make an effectively moving novel.
Heller does an amazing job keeping his characters straight. Wikipeda’s List of Catch-22 characters has sixty entries. None of these are background or walk-ons. They all come to life with their individual personalities, actions, and quirks. (What a contrast to The Thin Red Line’s confusion.)
I read a British printing but it was in American English with double quotation marks for dialogue (“), American spellings and the Chaplain’s name as the revised Tappman and not the usual British (and Heller’s original) Shipman.
Let’s get to it.
 The forty-two chapters are named after characters in the book with few exceptions: Bologna (ch.21), Thanksgiving (ch.34), The Cellar (ch.36), The Eternal City (ch.39), and Catch-22 (ch.40). The named character for each chapter doesn’t necessarily have much to do in those pages but it’s another way Heller uses to introduce the cast and put their names in our mind.
He also uses colorful and unique names, making it easy to keep some characters straight with simple mnemonics:
Yossarian is Assyrian.
Snowden’s only line is, “I’m cold.”
Clevinger is a book-smart, street-idiotic man.
Major Major (birth name Major Major Major) is a Major who can’t catch a break in life.
Milo Minderbinder runs the syndicate (he “minds” the store).
Scheisskopf is German for shit head.
Appleby is a brown-nosing all-American type (apple pie).
Wintergreen is constantly being promoted and demoted (a combination of seniority: Winter; and Novice: green).
 The phrase “Catch-22” (which originates from this book) is used many times. For a first-time reader in 1961, its first appearance would have been an intriguing but empty statement:
Catch-22 required that each censored letter bear the censoring officer’s name.
Heller waits awhile longer before beginning to define it:
“Sure, there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
By the end of the book, we understand: Catch-22 is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”; a situation presented with no way out, no way to “win.”
 Anyone going into Catch-22 looking for a chuckle-fest is going to put the book down by the hundredth page. Heller has a small bag of tricks when it comes to jokes.
The most common style:
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
“Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family.”
McWatt was the craziest combat man of them all probably, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war.
Colonel Cathcart was greatly indebted to Colonel Korn and did not like him at all. The two were very close.
Nately was a sensitive, rich, good-looking boy with dark hair, trusting eyes, and a pain in the neck when he awoke on the sofa early the next morning and wondered dully where he was. His nature was invariably gentle and polite. He had lived for almost twenty years without trauma, tension, hate, or neurosis, which was proof to Yossarian of just how crazy he really was. His childhood had been a pleasant, though disciplined one. He got on well with his brothers and sisters, and he did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been very good to him.
(To be fair, I wrote all of the above quotes down because I liked them. Their humor is the most effective.)
The second type of joke involves rapid-fire exchanges where no one understands a damn thing. It’s so useless and exhausting that I’m only give you examples from one scene:
“You think it’s a big fat joke.”
“I don’t think it’s a joke, sir,” Clevinger replied.
“And say ‘sir’ when you do,” ordered Major Metcalf.
“Weren’t you just ordered not to interrupt?” Major Metcalf inquired coldly.
“But I didn’t interrupt, sir,” Clevinger protested.
“No. And you didn’t say ‘sir,’ either. Add that to the charges against him,” Major Metcalf directed the corporal who could take shorthand. “Failure to say ‘sir’ to superior officers when not interrupting them.”
“Just what the hell did you mean, you bastard, when you said we couldn’t punish you?”
“I don’t think I ever made that statement, sir.”
“Will you speak up, please? I couldn’t hear you.”
“Yes, sir. I-”
“Will you speak up please? He couldn’t hear you.”
“Yes, sir. I-”
“Didn’t I tell you to keep your stupid mouth shut?”
“Then keep your stupid mouth shut when I tell you to keep your stupid mouth shut. Do you understand? Will you speak up, please? I couldn’t hear you.”
“Yes, sir. I-”
“Metcalf, is that your foot I’m stepping on?”
“No, sir. It must be Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s foot.”
“It isn’t my foot,” said Lieutenant Scheisskopf.
“Then maybe it is my foot after all,” said Major Metcalf.
“Yes, sir. You’ll have to move your foot first, colonel. It’s on top of mine.”
“Are you telling me to move my foot?”
“No, sir. Oh, no, sir.”
“Yes, sir. I said that I didn’t say that you couldn’t punish me.”
“Just what the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m answering your question, sir.”
“ ‘Just what the hell did you mean, you bastard, when you said we couldn’t punish you?’ ” said the corporal who could take shorthand, reading from his steno pad.
“All right,” said the colonel. “Just what the hell did you mean?”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.”
“When?” asked the colonel.
“When what, sir?”
“Now you’re asking me questions again.” (…)
“I’m sorry, sir. But I don’t know how to answer it. I never said you couldn’t punish me.”
“Now you’re telling us when you did say it. I’m asking you to tell us when you didn’t say it.”
Clevinger took a deep breath. “I always didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.”
“Now, where were we? Read me back the last line.”
“ ‘Read me back the last line,’ ” read back the corporal who could take shorthand.
“Not my last line, stupid!” the colonel shouted. “Somebody else’s.”
“ ‘Read me back my last line,’ ” read back the corporal.
“That’s my last line again!” shrieked the colonel, turning purple with anger.
“Oh, no, sir,” corrected the corporal. “That’s my last line. I read it you just a moment ago. Don’t you remember, sir? It was only a moment ago.”
Get ready for fifty pages of this.
 Before going any further, we have to talk about Snowden. And if we talk about Snowden at all, we should talk about all of Snowden. His death is the central event of the book and the key to Yossarian’s arc.
References to Snowden’s death during the Avignon mission slowly creep into the narrative, beginning as asides:
There was the crawlway, and since the mess on the mission over Avignon [Yossarian] had learned to detest every mammoth inch of it.
Everybody else in the plane kept off the intercom, except for the pitiful time of the mess on the mission to Avignon when Dobbs went crazy in mid-air and began weeping pathetically for help. (…)
And Snowden lay dying in back.
An exchange between Snowden and Yossarian is repeated again and again, taking on a haunting rhythm:
“I’m cold,” Snowden has whimpered. “I’m cold.”
“There, there,” Yossarian had tried to comfort him. “There, there.”
Snowden’s death lingers and grows in the background the same way memories claw and circle through our own minds, especially the ones we don’t want to think of.
That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon – they were all out to get him; and Snowden had spilled it all over the back of the plane.
References to Yossarian accepting a medal while naked seem like another farcical episode until Heller drops this on us:
“Why isn’t he wearing clothes?” Colonel Korn demanded of Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren.
“A man was killed in his place over Avignon last week and bled all over him,” Captain Wren replied. “He swears he’s never going to wear a uniform again.”
That was the mission on which Yossarian lost his nerve. Yossarian lost his nerve on the mission to Avignon because Snowden lost his guts.
Doc Daneeka tended each moaning man that night with the same glum and profound and introverted grief he showed at the airfield the day of the Avignon mission when Yossarian climbed down the few steps of his plane naked, in a state of utter shock, with Snowden smeared abundantly all over his bare heels and toes, knees, arms and fingers, and pointed inside wordlessly toward where the young radio-gunner lay freezing to death on the floor beside the still younger tail-gunner who kept falling back into a dead faint each time he opened his eyes and saw Snowden dying.
As Yossarian’s fear and paranoia increases with the number of required missions, more of his memory of Snowden bleeds through:
The next thing he knew, another stranger, a radio-gunner named Snowden, was dying in back. It was impossible to be positive that Dobbs had killed him, for when Yossarian plugged his headset back in, Dobbs was already on the intercom pleading for someone to go up front and help the bombardier. And almost immediately Snowden broke in, whimpering, “Help me. Please help me. I’m cold. I’m cold.” And Yossarian crawled slowly out of the nose and up on top of the plane – passing the first-aid kit on the way that he had to return for – to treat Snowden for the wrong wound, the yawning, raw, melon-shaped hole as big as a football in the outside of his thigh, the unsevered, blood-soaked muscle fibers inside pulsating weirdly like blind things with lives of their own, the oval, naked wound that was almost a foot long and made Yossarian moan in shock and sympathy the instant he spied it.
“Please,” he urged her inarticulately with his arm around her shoulders, recollecting with pained sadness how inarticulate and enfeebled he had felt in the plane coming back from Avignon when Snowden kept whimpering to him that he was cold, he was cold, and all Yossarian could offer him in return was “There, there. There, there.”
Heller increases the details and effect of Snowden’s death until, pages before the end, the entire episode is allowed to run in full, to horrifying effect.
If I quoted any of it, I’d have to quote all of it.
That patriotic Texan with his infundibuliform jowls.
noun – (anatomy; zoology) – a funnel-shaped cavity or structure.
the hollow stalk that connects the hypothalamus and the posterior pituitary gland.
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“What difference does that make?” (…)
Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all. And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier.
(p.16 – 17)
Immediately next door to Yossarian was Havermeyer, who liked peanut brittle and lived all by himself in the two-man tent in which he shot tiny field mice every night with huge bullets from the .45 he had stolen from the dead man in Yossarian’s tent.
They couldn’t touch him because he was (…) Deirdre of the sorrows, Sweeney in the nightingales among trees. He was miracle ingredient Z-247.
Deirdre of the Sorrows is a three-act play written by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, first performed in 1910. The play is based on Irish mythology. In legend, Deirdre was born under a prophesy that her beauty would cause war and bloodshed. When the prophecies proved true and Deirdre was ultimately forced to marry a man she hated, she killed herself.
Sweeney among the Nightingales is a poem by T.S. Eliot.
Miracle ingredient Z-247 is probably just a combination of advertising slogan and nonsense. Though there is a non-coding RNA molecule named Z247.
Steaming cups of fresh coffee with Benedictine and brandy.
Benedictine is an herbal liqueur beverage developed by Aleandre Le Grand in the 19th century and produced in France.
Between the ditch, with its rusted railroad tracks, and the twisted black bituminous road.
noun – a black viscous mixture of hydrocarbons obtained naturally or as a residue from petroleum distillation. It is used for road surfacing and roofing.