Books of The Times
By Joseph Heller.
atch-22," by Joseph Heller, is not an entirely successful novel. It is not even a good novel. It is not even a good novel by conventional standards. But there can be no doubt that it is the strangest novel yet written about the United States Air Force in World War II. Wildly original, brilliantly comic, brutally gruesome, it is a dazzling performance that will probably outrage nearly as many readers as it delights. In any case, it is one of the most startling first novels of the year and it may make its author famous. Mr. Heller, who spent eight years writing "Catch-22," is a former student at three universities--New York, Columbia and Oxford--and a former teacher at Pennsylvania State College. Today he is a promotion man busily engaged in the circulation wars of women's magazines. From 1942 to 1945 he served as a combat bombardier in the Twelfth Air Force and was stationed on the Island of Corsica. That experience provided only the jumping-off place for this novel.
"Catch-22" is realistic in its powerful accounts of bombing missions with men screaming and dying and planes crashing. But most of Mr. Heller's story rises above mere realism and soars into the stratosphere of satire, grotesque exaggeration, fantasy, farce and sheer lunacy. Those who are interested may be reminded of the Voltaire who wrote "Candide" and of the Kafka who wrote "The Trial."
Multiplicity of Targets
"Catch-22" is a funny book--vulgarly, bitterly, savagely funny. Its humor, I think, is essentially masculine. Few women are likely to enjoy it. And perhaps "enjoy" is not quite the right word for anyone's reaction to Mr Heller's imaginative inventions. "Relish" might be more accurate. One can relish his delirious dialogue and his ludicrous situations while recognizing that they reflect a basic range and disgust.
Joseph Heller's key sentence is this: "Men went mad and were rewarded with medals." His story is a satirical denunciation of war and of mankind that glorifies war and wages war cruelly, stupidly, selfishly. So Mr. Heller satirizes among other matters: militarism, red tape, bureaucracy, nationalism, patriotism, discipline, ambition, loyalty, medicine, psychiatry, money, big business, high finance, sex, religion, mankind and God.
To cover so much territory Mr. Heller has contrived a simple formula:
His hero, Captain Yossarian, an Assyrian bombardier, is intimately acquainted with many officers and men and with numerous Roman prostitutes. Yossarian's predicaments and disasters at his squadron's base upon the Island of Pianosa and his amorous diversions in Rome provide the principal narrative.
Yossarian was brave once. But he had cracked up and couldn't face any more bombing missions: "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive." Unfortunately, the colonel, who wanted to be a general, kept raising the number of compulsory missions. By the time they reached ninety everybody had cracked up and insanity prevailed.
More than a score of Yossarian's friends and enemies play prominent parts in his story and each gets one or more chapters to himself. Each is a marvel of fear, cupidity, lust, ambition, dishonesty, stupidity or incompetence. The war effort--defeating Hitler, supporting the infantry--meant nothing to anybody. Blatant self-interest was the only motive on the strange Island of Pianosa.
Array of Devious Figures
A brief introduction to some of Yossarian's acquaintances can give only an inadequate conception of their bizarre variety: Major Major, "who looked a little bit like Henry Fonda in distress" and was so ineffectual he finally hid from even his own sergeant. Milo Minderbinder, the mess sergeant, the supreme champion of the profit motive and free enterprise, who knew how to buy eggs for 7 cents and to sell them at a profit for 5 cents; who combed his own airfield when the Germans made him a reasonable offer: cost plus 6 per cent.
Clevinger, who knew everything, "one of those people with lots of intelligence but no brains."
Captain Block, whose "Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade of Continuous Reaffirmation" required a new signing before each meal and the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" before the use of the salt and pepper.
Corporal Snark, who put laundry soap in the sweet potatoes.
Chief White Halfoat, who decided it would be nice to die of pneumonia and did.
Major de Coverley, whose duties as squadron executive officer consisted of "pitching horseshoes, kidnapping Italian laborers, and renting apartments for the enlisted men and officers to use on rest leave."
Such people and others even more spectacularly unhinged make certain that "Catch-22" will not be forgotten by those who can take it.