”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. 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.
Originally Catch-22 was Catch-18, but because Leon Uris was publishing a novel called Mila-18 that same year Joseph Heller’s agent decided the title needed to be changed so as to not confuse the book buying public. Also given that 22 is a double 11 they liked the way it represented the many déjà vu moments that occur in the book. The East Coast publishing intelligentsia really embraced the book even though there were doubts if it would ever gain traction with the American public.
I understand the frustration that publishers feel with the American book buying public. They have all been scorched by a book they felt should have sold by the wheelbarrow only to have it crash and burn with the majority of the first printing sold off to a remainder company. Sometimes a book needs a lightning strike in the form of Oprah or a school banning the book (thank-you Strongsville, OH), but for Heller all he needed was the 1960s.
The book is set during WWII, the last good war according to everyone from Tom Brokaw to the school janitor at Phillipsburg High School. Fat novels glorifying the war, some extraordinarily good, were hitting bookstores at a fast clip from the late 1940s on. By the time Catch-22 came out in 1961 the world had changed. So those people who bought this book who thought they were in for another “weren’t we great” novel about World War Two were in for a shock. A typical reaction was:
Some thought it was irreverent, but there were a growing group of people who thought it was among the best American novels they had ever read. Both reactions helped juice the novel and sales began to climb.
Joseph Heller in uniform.
At the tender age of 19 in 1942 Joseph Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corp. By 1944 he found himself on the Italian Front as a B-25 Bombardier. He flew 60 missions most of which he categorized as milk runs; these were flight missions that encounter no or very little anti-aircraft artillery or enemy fighters. Heller admits that his disillusionment with the war in Korea colored the novel. It gives me the shakes to think how different the novel would be if he had published the book in 1951 instead of 1961. Little did he know how prophetic his novel would be regarding the Vietnam War.
Yossarian has reached the end of his rope. He has flown the required number of combat missions several times, but each time Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions required to go home. A similar circumstance plagued Hawkeye Pierce and his fellow doctors in the Korean War based TV series M*A*S*H. The pressure of thousands of people he doesn’t even know and hundreds he does know trying to kill him is just too much for him to bear. As he becomes more and more insane(sane) he becomes more and more qualified to fly combat missions as far as the military is concerned. He comes up with various ailments to keep him in the hospital. He shows up to receive his war medal naked except for a pair of moccasins. He finally refuses to fly any more missions and begins parading around the camp walking backwards. This does start to foment rebellion among his fellow flyers and drives Colonel Cathcart to distraction.
”Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”
Heller surrounds Yossarian with a wonderful cast of detailed characters of which I will only be able to mention a few.
Lieutenant Nately is one of Yossarian’s best friends, a trust fund baby with red, white, and blue blood running through his veins. He is a good looking kid and could have any woman he wanted, but he falls in love with an Italian prostitute who begrudgingly sleeps with him when he pays for sex with her, but would rather he just disappeared. He has this great discussion with her “107” year old pimp.
”Italy is one of the least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that’s exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while your country is doing so poorly.”
Nately guffawed with surprise...”But Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don’t call that doing very well, do you?”
“But of course I do.” exclaimed the old man cheerfully. “The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying any more. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well.”
Nately continues to be the straight man for the old man as they discuss the absurdity of risking one’s life for their country.
”There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country.” he (Nately) declared.
“Isn’t there?”asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
“Anything worth living for,” said Nately, “is worth dying for.”
“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man. “is certainly worth living for.”
Milo Minderbinder is in charge of the mess at the U.S. Army Corps base. As he learns more and more about how goods are moved around the globe he begins a business of supply and demand (war profiteering). He becomes the ultimate capitalist with no allegiance to any country. He trades with the enemy and as part of contract negotiations he also warns the Germans once of an impending attack even to the point of guiding anti-artillery against American planes and in another case bombs his own base to fulfill another contract. The absurdity of his position is that he is too important to the American high command to get in trouble for any of these acts of treason. He tries to explain one of his more successful schemes to Yossarian.
”I don’t understand why you buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and sell them for five cents.”
“I do it to make a profit.”
“But how can you make a profit? You lose two cents an egg.”
“But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them from for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make the profit. the syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.”
Yossarian felt he was beginning to understand. “And the people you sell the eggs to at four anda quarter cents a piece make a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when they sell them back to you at seven cents apiece. Is that right? Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you and eliminate the people you buy them from?”
“Because I’m the people I buy them from.” Milo explained. “I make a profit of three and a quarter cents apiece when I sell them to me and a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when I buy them back from me. That’s a total profit of six cents and egg. I lose only two cents an egg when I sell them to the mess halls at five cents apiece, and that’s how I can make a profit buying eggs for seven cents apiece and selling them for five cents apiece.
Hungry Joe keeps meeting the flight standards time and time again only to have his paperwork take too long to process before the flight standards have been raised again. He packs and then he unpacks. He is a fat, pervert who convinces women to take their clothes off to be photographed by telling them that he works for Life Magazine and will put them on the cover. Unfortunately the photographs never turn out. Ironically he did work as a photographer for Life Magazine before the war.
Women do play a role in this book mostly as objects of lust. Heller has these wonderful, creative descriptions of them.
”She would have been perfect for Yossarian, a debauched, coarse, vulgar, amoral, appetizing slattern whom he had longed for and idolized for months. She was a real find. She paid for her own drinks, and she had an automobile, an apartment and a salmon-colored cameo ring that drove Hungry Joe clean out of his senses with its exquisitely carved figures of a naked boy and girl on a rock.”
And then there is a nurse that brings Yossarian nearly to his knees with desire.
”Yossarian was sick with lust and mesmerized with regret. General Dreedle’s nurse was only a little chubby, and his senses were stuffed to congestion with the yellow radiance of her hair and the unfelt pressure of her soft short fingers, with the rounded untasted wealth of her nubile breast in her Army-pink shirt that was opened wide at the the throat and with the rolling, ripened triangular confluences of her belly and thighs in her tight, slick forest-green garbardine officer’s pants. He drank her in insatiably from head to painted toenail. He never wanted to lose her. ‘Ooooooooooooh,’ he moaned again, and this time the whole room rippled at his quavering, drown-out cry.”.
You will probably need to google the next one.
”He enjoyed Nurse Sue Ann Druckett’s long white legs and supple, callipygous ass.”
Paradoxes abound even when Heller describes a character he will have countering characteristics like she was plain, but pretty or he was handsome, but ugly. Aren’t we all a sum of those characteristics anyway?
Joseph Heller looking handsome and ugly.
This book is hilarious, (I laughed out loud at several points.)but wrapped with increasingly more tragic circumstances. As Yossarian’s friends die or disappear his desperation increases. His behavior becomes more and more erratic. The absurd traps him time and time again. There are a whole host of reasons why everyone should read this novel. I’m not saying that everyone will like it as much as I did, but it is IMHO one of the top five most important American novels ever written. It impacted our culture, added words to our language, and gave voice to a generation of people dissatisfied with the war aims of this country. More importantly don’t be the one person in the middle of a Catch-22 discussion who hasn’t read the book.