Book Review – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Does the bureaucracy where you work seem out of control? Do you feel your company populated with dregs each more incompetent than the next? Do you often catch yourself lamenting the demons that drive you to return every day? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, read Catch-22. No matter how bad things get, they will seem the paragon of efficiency by comparison.

I recently read this iconic work by Joseph Heller for the first time. A gentleman in one of my writing groups recommended it on several occasions. Every time he discussed it he broke into laughter. I thought: a story about a bomber squadron during World War II. The commander keeps extending the number of missions air crews must complete before going home. What could be funny about that? Within a few pages I couldn’t restrain my chuckles. To borrow the opening line of the book, “It was love at first sight.”(Loc 211)

Heller’s use of absurdist humor impressed me the most. He fired off comic phrases like the bullets out of a machine gun. Here’s a segment of an address by Colonel Cargill.

“Men,” he began his address to the officers, measuring his pauses carefully. “You’re American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement. Think about it.” (Loc 592)
Another great sentence along similar lines read as follows.

Colonel Korn’s rule was a stroke of genius, Colonel Korn explained in his report to Colonel Cathcart. Under Colonel Korn’s rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything. (Loc 718)

While I found those humorous, the most comedic line addressed Colonel Cathcart’s view of the opposite sex.

No such private nights of ecstasy or hushed-up drinking and sex orgies ever occurred. They might have occurred if either General Dreedle or General Peckem had once evinced an interest in taking part in orgies with him, but neither ever did, and the colonel was certainly not going to waste his time and energy making love to beautiful women unless there was something in it for him. (Loc 3851)

One incident in the book, while embellished for comic effect, bothered me. Due to a bizarre snafu, Colonel Cathcart believed Doc Daneeka killed in combat. He sent the following letter to the doctor’s wife.

Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father, or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action. (Loc 6281)

Granted, Heller used this to show the heartless and callous aspects of the colonel’s personality as well as an uncaring and inhumane bureaucracy. He certainly made his point, but even I thought this passage too harsh.

While Heller populated his prose with humor, he saved the real comedy for his character descriptions. While all of them riveted my attention, Major Major Major Major stood out at the most bizarre. Condemned to spend his entire career as a Major due to his name, here’s how the author described him.

Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking in distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed with how unimpressive he was. (Loc 1571)

His moral character reflected his limited abilities. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. (Loc 1575)

My favorite line from the book entailed how Major Major always did what his elders wanted him to. I laughed while writing this section.

He was told to honor his father and his mother, and he honored his father and his mother. He was told that he should not kill, and he did not kill, until he got into the Army. Then he was told to kill and he killed. (Loc 1613)

While I enjoyed reading Catch-22 I thought the author could have structured it better. What I remembered most were the character sketches and vignettes. The overall story about Yosarian, the protagonist who longed to go home, got lost at times. His quest became impossible since the commander kept raising the number of missions for his crews to fly. I don’t remember much about this key portion of the book due to the digressions.

Due to the entertaining presentation of the story, I’d strongly recommend Catch-22 to anyone who enjoys satirical writing. Once I finished the book, something started to bother me, though. Heller served in the Second World War as a bombardier. It made me wonder just how much of this work fictitious.

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