Joseph Heller (1923-1999)

Catch-22 - 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]

Sex and the Single Girl (writer) -1964

We Bombed in New Haven (playwright) - 1967

Casino Royale (writer) - 1967

Love, Dad -1969

Dirty Dingus Magee (writer) - 1970

Clevinger's Trial - 1973

Something Happened - 1974

Good As Gold - 1979

God Knows - 1984

No Laughing Matter - 1986

Yossarian Survives - 1987

Picture This - G.P. Putnam's Sons - 1988 - 352 pages

Catch-23 - 1990

The Day Bush Left - 1990

Closing Time - Simon & Schuster - 1994 - 464 pages

Now and Then - Alfred A. Knopf - 1998 - 259 pages

Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man - 2000

Buyer beware.  The liner notes tell us that Heller finished this book in 1999 shortly before he died.  But, did he really?  This does not seem like a completed book by a writer who was such a perfectionist that it took him 13 years to publish his second novel (Something Happened) after the great success of Catch-22.  Supposedly, this is a "novel" about an author who was having trouble finding a story for his next book.  Instead it seems like a collection of false starts thrown together in some order pretending to portray the process a novelist (not Heller?) would pursue to get another book written.  The result is a complete failure.  Some reviewers have said that POTA is not a novel about writer's block, but a quick reread of pages 20-21 seems to confirm the opposite.  This is absolutely the worst of Heller's seven novels.  Is this the book he wanted to write?  His heirs could have patched this one together from the notes remaining in his office after his death.  [JAM 8/13/2020]

Catch As Catch Can - Simon & Schuster - 2003

Almost Like Christmas - 2013