‘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:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

20 Pop­u­lar High School Books Avail­able as Free eBooks & Audio Books

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