Reviewed date: 2005 Dec 29
Catch-22 is a war novel that feels like a cross between Going After Cacciato and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (To be fair, Catch-22 was written first.) It is a fractured, non-linear tale where all the characters are demonstrably insane. Some of their madness is innate, but much stems from the stresses of war.
"They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.
"No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.
"They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
"And what difference does that make?"
Captain Yossarian and his friends are attached to a bomber squadron whose commander keeps extending their tour of duty, time after time, until they realize they will never be rotated out of combat. Their only hope is to find a medical or psychological excuse to get sent home. They can claim insanity and be relieved from combat duty, but there is one catch.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [A man who was crazy] could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. [He] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them then he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't then he was sane and had to.
The novel is quite clever in its roundabout way of story-telling. A little too clever sometimes, as Joseph Heller's style becomes infuriating. The characters' hijinks make MASH seem like child's play, and the ineptitude of the generals and military leaders makes Colonel Klink to be a genuine Einstein. All this is amusing for a short while, but the joke wears thin quickly. Catch-22 would make an excellent novella, but as a novel it is a one-trick pony that Joseph Heller rides for 450 pages. Catch-22 is well-written, but simply doing something well does not make it worth doing.
"When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don't see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy."
"But you must try not to think of that," Major Danby insisted. "And you must try not to let it upset you."
"Oh, it doesn't really upset me. What does upset me, though, is that they think I'm a sucker. They think that they're smart, and that the rest of us are dumb. And you know, Danby, the thought occurs to me right now, for the first time, that maybe they're right."