Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) - Simon and Schuster - 1961 - (443 pages)

Catch-22 is the greatest American novel.  Author Heller (1923-1999) absolutely captures the hopeless feeling of every military person trapped in a situation of uncertain danger and morality.  Written in the deja vu style, the book employs flashbacks, timelines and alternate views to keep the reader always wondering if one scene is similar to another.

The book is set in the latter part of World War II on an Army Air Force base on an island off the coast of Italy.  The protagonist is Captain John Yossarian, a bomber pilot trying to retain his sanity while chasing a moving target of bombing sorties needed for a rotation.  Yossarian can go home whenever he wants if he just agrees to say nice things about the hated Colonels Cathcart and Korn.  He is not alone in his mental angst.  Colleagues include Orr who is always assembling and disassembling the stove in Yossarian's tent; Hungry Joe who was afraid of melanoma and Ewing's tumor; Natley who was madly in love with an Italian streetwalker; Doc Daneeka who was officially dead; Major Major who could only see visitors when he was out of the office; Milo Minderbinder who traded mess supplies for Egyptian cotton; and Dunbar and Clevinger and Dobbs and McWatt and Snowden and Popinjay and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen and Huple's cat and Major Danby and Major _____ de Coverly and Nurse Duckett and Nurse Cramer and Dori Duz and Colonel Scheisskopf and General Dreedle and the soldier in white. 

My favorite chapter is "VIII Lieutenant Scheisskopf" wherein Scheisskopf, the bloated colonel with the big fat mustache and Major Metcalf engage Yossarian, Popinjay and Clevinger in a six-play dialog that ends as follows:  [JAM 3/9/2009]

Colonel: "What did you say to Yossarian?"

Clevinger: "I said to him, sir that you couldn't find me guilty of the offense with which I am charged and still be faithful to the cause of ..."

Colonel: "Of what? You're mumbling."

Metcalf: "Stop mumbling."

Clevinger: "Yes, sir."

Metcalf: "And mumble 'sir' when you do."

Colonel: "Metcalf, you bastard!"

Clevinger: "Yes, sir.  Of justice, sir.  That you couldn't find ..."

Colonel: "Justice.  What is justice?"

Clevinger: "Justice, sir ..."

Colonel: "That's not what justice is.  That's what Karl Marx is.  I'll tell you what justice is.  Justice is a knee in the gut from the floor on the chin at night sneaky with a knife brought up down on the magazine of a battleship sandbagged underhanded in the dark without a word of warning.  Garroting.  That's what justice is when we've all got to be tough enough and rough enough to fight Billy Petrolle.  From the hip.  Get it?"

Clevinger: "No, sir."

Colonel: "Don't sir me!"

Clevinger: "Yes, sir."

Metcalf: "And say 'sir' when you don't."


["Catch-22 hardly needs any further critical exegesis.  It is a major classic, not just of American satire, but of American literature -- and a world-class one to boot.  A couple of points about it are worth making in passing, however, which might help to illuminate the ways in which the book both shared in and further shaped developing trends of Boomer humor.  The first addresses itself to the often-heard and simplistic summation of Catch-22 as an "anti-war" book.  It's not antiwar so much as antimilitary.  At the core of its humor is Heller's wild depiction of the military mentality and its circular, murderous logic.  Catch-22 is less about tragedy and inhumanity as about absurdity.  For Yossarian and his fellow pilots, it is their own officers who -- given the reality of the war -- are out to kill them.  And the impregnable stupidity of their commanders, the supreme lunacy of their lack of concern for life, is what drives them crazy.  That indeed is why Catch-22 has passed into everyday language as a synonym for absurd paradox."  Tony Hendra Going Too Far]