Joseph Heller

Cover of Catch-22

Rank: A+
No. Times Read: 2
Last Read: Spring, 2000

Author Name: Joseph Heller

Review: Believe it or not, reading is tough for me. It always takes me a long time, and I can never do it for very long, before getting antsy. Thus, there are few books I will go back and reread because I want to. This is one I did, and one I’ll reread again and again. It may be my favorite book of all time, and certainly is one of the greatest ever written by an American.

Catch-22 is about Yossarian, a bombadier in the American airforce during World War II. The plot is hard to describe, because it focuses on the events of Yossarian’s stint in the war, as well as those of the men he’s serving with, and the people he meets. There’s Major Major Major Major (the first is a rank; the last three are first, middle and last names), who will never be promoted or demoted, because of his name. There’s Milo Minderbinder, the entrepreneur who at one time seeks to get rid of his stores of Egyptian cotton by feeding it to the men in the mess hall. Then there are scores of others, whose names I can’t remember, but whose deeds I can (e.g. the man that can’t see the flies in his eyes because he has flies in his eyes).

Essentially, the book is a study of circular logic, as applied to the war. The main idea can be summarized by catch-22, which is an actual catch. It goes as follows: Any man who would go up in an airplane and participate in a bombing mission, for example, is clinically insane. Any man who reports himself as clinically insane because he’s willing to go up in an airplane and participate in a bombing mission is sane enough to realize that he’s insane, and therefore can’t be discharged as clinically insane and sent back home. Thus, he’s sent right back into combat. The action of the novel builds off itself and spirals upwards, growing and growing until it finally culminates in a climax that’s unforgettable.

There have been a lot of books written about World War II. Why is this one the best? Many reasons. First, it’s hysterical. The humor remains fresh to this day, and the pacing is perfect. I don’t know how a writer can remain consistently funny and consistently good for a novel of this length (a little over four hundred pages), but Heller does it. Second, possibly because of the humor and the absurdism, the novel drives its point home in a more effective, and never heavy-handed way that no one has ever successfully duplicated (though others have tried and succeeded to a fair degree, e.g. M.A.S.H. and Dr. Strangelove). Finally, the ideas remain relevant, as more and more of the circular logic seen throughout Catch-22 has become commonplace in the politics of the day—a theme Heller himself later explored in his sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time.

Catch-22 was voted the seventh greatest book written in the English language in the twentieth century by Random House. It certainly deserves the rank, though I think it should be a little bit higher (though I’d be hard-pressed to think of a book above it which would have to be demoted as a result of its higher rank [<cough!> Brave New World <cough!>]). It’s definitely one of my favorite books, though it will have to do battle with The Great Gatsby for my all-time top spot. However, it is unique, in that whenever I’m reading a book that bores me (e.g. The Age of Innocence), offends me (e.g. The Old Man and the Sea), embarrasses me (e.g. The Illyrian Adventure), or disgusts me (e.g. Wuthering Heights), it’s this book that I wish I was reading. In fact, at any given moment, I find myself thinking, “I could be reading Catch-22 right now instead of doing x”. I find myself thinking that right now, in fact. Where is my copy…

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