‘Catch-22,’ Joseph Heller’s Darkly Hilarious Indictment of War, is 50

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s exuberantly surreal comedy about the insanity of war. The novel grew out of Heller’s experiences as an Air Force bombardier in Europe during World War II. Surprisingly, the author’s own attitude toward the war bore little resemblance to the views of his immortal protagonist, John Yossarian.

“I have no complaints about my service at all,” Heller told Allan Gregg of Canadian public broadcasting in an interview (see above) recorded not long before the author’s death in 1999. “If anything, it was beneficial to me in a number of ways.”  Catch-22, he says, was a response to what transpired during the novel’s 15-year gestation: the cold war, the McCarthy hearings–the hypocrisy, the bullying that was going on in America.”

As E.L. Doctorow told a reporter the day after Heller’s death, “When ‘Catch-22’ came out, people were saying, ‘Well, World War II wasn’t like this.’ But when we got tangled up in Vietnam, it became a sort of text for the consciousness of that time.” The novel went on to sell more than 10 million copies, and its title, as The New York Times wrote in Heller’s obituary, “became a universal metaphor not only for the insanity of war but also for the madness of life itself.”

In the story, Yossarian strives to get himself grounded from future missions, only to come up against the genius of bureaucratic logic:

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 were 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.

Heller went on to write six more novels, three plays, two memoirs and a collection of short stories, but none were as successful as his debut novel. In later years when Heller was asked why he hadn’t written another book like Catch-22, his stock response was: “Who has?”

For more on Heller and his achievement, you can listen to an interesting NPR interview with Christopher Buckley, a friend of Heller who wrote the introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Catch-22. And for a quick reminder of the novel’s sensibility, watch this excerpt from Mike Nichols’ 1970 film adaptation starring Alan Arkin as Yossarian:

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