Review of “Catch-22,” by Joseph Heller
This book is easy and difficult to review. First, I want to say that it took eight years to write; started in 1953 and published in 1961, it became a bestseller in 1962, then a movie of the same name in 1970. I mention how long it took to write because the book reads as if it had several authors, who shared notes but had different writing styles. The first writer wrote enigmatically, with references to events not presented; the second discovered the beauty of metaphors, filling mundane scenes with dashing clouds, spitting oceans, and other sophomoric phrases; the third author forgot about metaphors, moving on to run-on sentences with prepositions spitting from the typewriter like confetti.
Amid all of this jumble, Heller wraps up most of the complicated threads he started at the beginning. Of course, many of them had nothing to do with the anti-war theme of the story. And they are wrapped up as if he was going down a checklist.
The plot involves the men who flew in medium bombers (B-25s) over Italy in the later stages of WW II. This was dangerous because they had to fly low to hit tactical targets, rather than the famous B-17 flights over Germany. Instead of fighters, they deal with antiaircraft guns, which apparently were very accurate, and losses among the characters in the book are high. The story doesn’t gloss over the violence in the air. The central theme is that everyone, not just the aircrews, in the bomb wing is crazy. Detailed biographies of unimportant characters are given along with insight into the entire staff, right up to the general in charge of the air group.
The long writing period may partly explain the inexplicable insertion of flashbacks (actually jumps back and forth in the story line), which usually occur in mid-sentence on unrelated topics. It was very confusing because it was the standard, not the exception. Back and forth, back and forth… Dizzying.
The mixture of comic-book characters and situations, black humor, overshadowed by a sense of hopelessness by the main character, Captain John Yossarian, is irregular, adding to the confusion. The resulting jumble can be explained as intentional but I think it was the result of poor writing, albeit with good notes. The story really is remarkably consistent in its own way. Critics call stories like this “satires” and “scathing” and other ad-hoc adjectives that never occurred to the author. I note that in the preface, Joseph Heller makes no such claims of deep hatred of war, but simply that it took a long time to write and became a big success. Timing is everything.
I guess I have to say something in conclusion. I can’t recommend Catch-22 for casual reading. I read this book as part of my reading comprehension program, and it was a good choice. However, if you like complex stories that come together like a mystery (albeit without a purpose), it isn’t that bad. The reviewers either liked it or hated it. It’s that kind of book.
As a bonus, I have a few words to say about the movie version of Catch-22, released in 1970. I just read a summary of its reception and it’s obvious that the screenplay by Buck Henry wasn’t appreciated for its greatest accomplishment. Working with the director, Mike Nichols, he turned a jumbled mess into a coherent movie, which incorporated every major scene from the book. The movie explained a lot that didn’t make sense when read word-by-word. Some of the more-ridiculous antics from the book are omitted, but not many. As a spoiler, if you recall the famous scene with Yossarian rowing away at the end in a yellow life raft. Never happened. The author settled down and gave the book a reasonable ending (maybe the fourth version of Joseph Heller?).
Jumbled, confusing book but a good movie.