50 years of Catch-22


YOSSARIAN HAS problems. He is a captain in the US Airforce and would really prefer to stay alive, but it’s not that easy when you are in the middle of a war flying bombing missions and the guys in charge, the guys on your side in fact, are clearly insane or not very bright, or possibly both, and not to be trusted.

“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on,” reasons Yossarian. The only option is to play sick, claim any illness, there is a chance you will be believed, as the doctor is preoccupied with the various illnesses he may – or may not – be suffering from. There is another way out – you could be declared insane. In order to be grounded you have to be crazy, but, hey, that’s not so easy to prove.

Yossarian makes some enquires and asks if there is a catch.

“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replies. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”


“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 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.”

And on this absurd logic spins Joseph Heller’s wonderful satire, the defining anti-war novel that today, on its 50th birthday, reads as well as ever; funny, angry, brilliantly executed and unsettling in its profundity.

Catch-22will make you howl with laughter, the characters are three-dimensional, the dialogue is sharp and even at its most unbelievable it remains believable. With its echoes of Swift and Lewis Carroll and in its comic exasperation, hints of William Gaddis, Catch-22is deliberately circular. Four-fifths of the action happens before the narrative begins and aside from the sustained tone of absurdist logic, much of the genius of the book – and it is probably even more clever than one might think – is due to Heller's inspired use of repetition, including riffs such as "The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice." It is a comic book about deeply serious matters and for all the immorality, it is also about as moral as fiction can be.

Catch-22is the ultimate polemic, only Joseph Heller was too smart to be polemical.

Instead, he makes points, sharp, anti-establishment and precise. For a man who claimed only to know New York – his experience of the rest of the United States was, as he liked to remark, largely confined to book tours – he knew his society. Consider Nately in Catch-22, the "sensitive, rich, good-looking boy" who falls in love with a noncommittal Italian whore. Nately had lived "for almost 20 years without trauma, tension, hate or neurosis. He got on well with his brothers and sisters, and he did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been very good to him."

Set largely on a US airforce base in the Mediterranean, it is a big book and one that took off quietly on publication in the US on October 10th, 1961.

Ironically, it was the British reaction that initially launched Catch-22into orbit. The humour is manic and black and the descriptions vivid: "Hungry Joe was a jumpy, emaciated wretch with a fleshless face of dingy skin and bone and twitching veins squirming subcutaneously in the blackened hollows behind his eyes like severed sections of a snake. It was a desolate, cratered face, sooty with care like an abandoned mining town."

But one of the many interesting aspects of the writing, and it is the writing that is the strength of the book, is that Heller, born in Brooklyn the son of Jewish Russian immigrants, does not rely on Jewish gags. There is no denying that the speed and wit of his humour is very Jewish, but he is not a Jewish writer in the way Philip Roth is. There are no Jews in Catch-22, only bewildered Americans and a couple of pragmatic Italians.

Each time the men think they have reached the required number of missions, Colonel Cathcart, the real enemy, decides they have to do more. Yossarian, one of literature’s most enduring anti-heroes, removes his uniform and sits naked in a tree. As protests go, it is passive, if eye-catching. Then there is Major Major Major Major, who “had been born too late and too mediocre. 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.” He also looks like Henry Fonda. Major Major, we are told, “never sees anyone in his office while he’s in his office”.

HELLER KNEW THE WORLDhe was writing about. He had flown 60 missions himself, and up until the 37th, was having a good time. Then he confronted death face-to-face when a colleague was killed. But Catch-22is not a war memoir; Heller is not telling his story. His book is universal. Yossarian is a bit of Candide, a bit of Leopold Bloom, a large part of Everyman and clearly not Heller. The message is that the higher up the hierarchy, the poorer the quality. The Vietnam generation grasped the novel to its collective heart in a way that it would never have reacted to Norman Mailer's more conventional The Naked and the Dead(1948). War itself emerges as the ultimate absurdity, a fact that it ingeniously underlined by the entrepreneurial antics of Milo Minderbender, the mess officer whose days are dominated by bizarre business schemes. Eventually he contracts German pilots to bomb the base, for financial reasons. When informed by Major Danby, "we're at war with Germany, and those are German planes", Milo, ever the rationalist, retorts: "Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share. The only country with which Milo refuses to do business is Russia."

Catch-22made – and kept – Heller famous. But he was not a one hit wonder.

Something Happened(1974) is a dark, unsettling and admittedly often unpleasant masterwork exploring one man's obsessions, doubts and multiple deceptions.

Joe Slocum, the narrator and central character, is at war with the world: “in the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid”, while at home he despises the wife he cheats on and fears his children.

Heller's other novels, Good as Gold(1979), God Knows(1984), Picture This(1988) and Closing Time(1994) – the lack lustre though bestselling sequel to Catch-22– vary from good to middling to disappointing, but at his best, as in his first two books, Heller writes eloquently and wittily, with consummate panache, and as he said to me in 1998, about 18 months before his death, "I write a lot better than I talk." It's true, his written prose is often unexpectedly formal.

AND WHAT ABOUTHeller in person? Well, the first time I interviewed him, he was 65, looking good, and promoting Picture This. He seemed not too much interested in anything and was very serious, appearing a bit like an academic who had found himself in the wrong airport. There were no wisecracks. He said he was reading all of the major US writers but wasn't saying who they were. Perhaps he was still recovering from the Guillain-Barres syndrome which he had contracted in late 1981, it left him paralysed and unable to swallow and Heller had always loved food. Still, the Heller of 1988 was grumpy and remote and intent on saying he hated US politics but it was all he wanted to discuss.

Fast forward a decade and he was a delight, funny and nosey and regretting that he had never paid much attention to his father who had died following a botched operation when Heller was five, leaving his young mother to raise two older stepchildren as well as him.

Heller grew up in Coney Island, poor but happily unburdened by artistic angst. Education came later, after he returned from the war and availed of the GI bill. He wrote Catch-22while working in advertising and, according to his daughter Erica's memoir of him, conducting himself fairly much as a Don Draper. It took him eight years. Its success eventually saw Heller teaching at Penn State and also at Yale. But he didn't like teaching, and recalled how he watched the clock. There was a natural cockiness about him. Heller maintained that he wasn't egotistical and never dreamed about being either a prophet or the Great American Writer. Yet he wrote two very different great books and one of them, Catch-22is an apocalyptic book, easily withstanding the challenge of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow(1973).

Heller said Catch-22would last. It has and it will and the best way to celebrate its 50th birthday is simple. Read it again. And if you haven't already, now is the moment. Either way, you are going to have a lot of fun, because there's a catch – you can't not laugh.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times