Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
~Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Plot summary

“At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war.

Catch-22. Photo: Delwin Steven Campbell (CC BY 2.0)
Catch-22. Photo: Delwin Steven Campbell (CC BY 2.0)

His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he’s committed to flying, he’s trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he’s sane and therefore, ineligible to be relieved.” More on Goodreads

“Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” ~Joseph Heller, Catch-22

On Joseph Heller

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and 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. Orr 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 he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”
~Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Catch-22. Photo: Lisa Risager (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Catch-22. Photo: Lisa Risager (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Joseph Heller was the son of poor Jewish parents from Russia. Even as a child, he loved to write; at the age of eleven, he wrote a story about the Russian invasion of Finland. He sent it to New York Daily News, which rejected it. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller spent the next year working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, a messenger boy, and a filing clerk. In 1942, at age 19, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Italy, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. Heller later remembered the war as ‘fun in the beginning… You got the feeling that there was something glorious about it.’ On his return home he ‘felt like a hero… People think it quite remarkable that I was in combat in an airplane and I flew sixty missions even though I tell them that the missions were largely milk runs.'” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • The catch to end all catches
  • One man’s struggle with the war machine
  • Hilarious tale of the insanity 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?” ~Joseph Heller, Catch 22

Catch-22. Photo: University of Salford Press Office (CC BY 2.0)
Catch-22. Photo: University of Salford Press Office (CC BY 2.0)

Happy Friday the 13th, my friends 🙂

Joseph Heller’s (1923-1999) satire of an anti-hero trying desperately to be certified insane during World War II, so he can stop flying missions, is thrillingly funny and very real in its absurdity. The description offered by Goodreads only catches a glimpse of the personage of Catch-22. The chronology of the novel is mixed up: one is not certain which parts are flashbacks and what happens in which order. But this force of method only reinforces the absurd perspective of the narration.

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the definition of Catch-22 is as follows: “an impossible situation where you are prevented from doing one thing until you have done another thing that you cannot do until you have done the first thing”. As you can imagine while keeping tabs on the plot in the novel, nothing gets done. Lots of things do happen in the book, but their direction and purpose is rather interesting. But I guess that is the absolute definition of ‘war’.

In the novel, however, the mist caused by the insane turn of events are there to mask reality. Catch-22 is also a very sad tale, if you break the things witnessed down, of an individual’s cry for help during terrorizing events such as wars. As the saying goes, fact is stranger than fiction, and it applies to Catch-22 splendidly. The characters are in a sense unindividualized because they are caricatures, but those very same characters exist and have existed since time immemorial.

Through Heller’s lenses of looking at World War II, the responsibility and freedom of an individual soldier – in this case of a bombardier in Italy – for their states/countries are too interlinked in order to fully tell them apart. This is the dilemma that the main protagonist, Capt. John Yossarian, is facing. He is highly motivated to remain alive during his war efforts, staying alive is obviously his biggest concern and let’s be honest, he’s pretty outspoken about it.

The thin red line is very thin in his case between paranoia and sanity. Yossarian is convinced that people are either trying to kill him directly by targeting his plane or indirectly by making him fly the planes. The rules and regulations are absurd to start with and it seems that only a few decent people are actually participating in actual war efforts. The other, stranger than odd characters are involved in the most peculiar kinds of activities to boost their egos, twisted desires or financial gains.

The prize of the most ridiculous caricature goes to the war profiteer Milo. He’s fighting his own wars and at times sacrifices the war efforts for business profits. Otherwise, there are neurotic, idealistic and selfish characters. For the most part, Yossarian hates his superiors for causing him all the trouble and sorrow. These superiors – the sadistic careerist Captain Black and the egomaniacal Colonel Cathcart – are either trying to please their own superiors by raising the number of fly missions required for home rotation or sending their bombardiers to volunteer on highly dubious and dangerous missions.

Outsiders doubting superiors

There is a certain similarity between Captain Yossarian in Catch-22 and Corporal Antero Rokka in Väinö Linna’s novel The Unknown Soldier (1954). There are differences between the personalities, but both are outspoken, outsiders and they question orders given by their superiors. The doubting elements in their characters land them in serious trouble with war bureaucracy. I guess we all know persons that are like Yossarian, those who have the guts to call the game and tell the true nature of events. The sad part is that there seem to be more people like Colonel Cathcart and especially personages like Milo, to even things out. If the Yossarians of the world outweighed all those Milos and Cathcarts, we would not need Catch-22 and we wouldn’t fight so much. But that’s just my theory.

Catch-22 is a novel that makes you laugh out loud. It is so absurd that it is funny and sad at the same time. It perfectly paints the insanity of any war and how the war affects individuals in their freedoms and responsibilities. This is a great gem for all lovers of satire, Yossarian takes you on a bumpy ride full of hilarious surprising elements.

Also check out the film adaptation of Catch-22 from 1970 by director Mike Nichols starring Alan Arkin as Yossarian and Jon Voight as Milo among many. The film remains loyal to the original novel and the casting is excellent.

This novel was my favorite among the novels read in 2015 and I haven’t been fully able to stop laughing ever since I finished the novel. I’ve also placed Heller‘s continuation novel Closing Time (1994), the characters from Catch-22 return to the scene in their senior years. It remains to be seen whatever happened to the individuals.

The other day, I finished reading John Steinbeck‘s Once There Was a War, a book based on Steinbeck‘s reports as a war correspondent in 1943. In one of the reports, he explicitly describes the daily routines of US bomber and ground crews, so I was reminded of Yossarian, although his war efforts took place on a different planet than what Steinbeck witnessed.

“Meanwhile strange, conventional stories were born and duly reported. One of the oddest concerned the colonel or general in the Air Force whose duty required that he stay in reluctant comfort on the ground and who ate his heart out to be with his ‘boys’ out on missions over Germany among the red flak. It was hard, stern duty that kept him grounded, and much harder than flying missions. I don’t know where this one started, but it doesn’t sound as though it came from enlisted personnel. I never met a bomber crew which wouldn’t have taken on this sterner duty at the drop of a hat. They may have been a little wild, but they weren’t that crazy.” ~John Steinbeck, Once There Was a War

More information
BBC NewsWhat is Catch-22? And why does the book matter?, published on 12 March 2002, link retrieved on 18 November 2016
– Mike Nichols: Catch-22, film adaptation of the novel released in 1970, link retrieved on 18 November 2016
– Chris Cox: Catch-22: 50 years later, review published in the Guardian on 10 October 2011, link retrieved on 18 November 2016
– Orville Prescott: Books of The Times, review published in the New York Times on 23 October 1961, link retrieved on 18 November 2016

Other novels and stories by Heller
  • Something Happened (1966)
  • We Bombed In New Haven (1968)
  • Good as Gold (1974)
  • God Knows (1984)
  • Picture This (1988)
  • Closing Time (1994)
  • Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here: A Memoir (1998)
  • Portrait Of An Artist, As An Old Man (2000)

“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.”
~Joseph Heller, Catch-22


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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