My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Catch-22 is set in the waning days of World War II and follows Captain John Yossarian and a squadron of airmen. Yossarian wants to go home but someone keeps raising the number of missions he has to fly to go home.
It is widely considered one of the all-time classics of American literature. Most reviewers and literary types will say that it is also one of the funniest books ever. So you can stop reading my review right now because I didn’t think it was funny, but what do I know about literature anyways?
I will hand it to author Joseph Heller. He integrated a number of points of view and managed to line up all of the story arcs. It took him years to write the book and get all of the fragments of the tale heading in the right direction. Those multiple storylines, characters, non-linear thoughts are a marvel to behold.
Early jokes in Catch-22 felt like discarded Groucho Marx gags. I learned that these jokes are examples of absurdist humor. “The self-contradictory circular logic” that is the military Catch-22 is also how I felt about many of the paradoxical one-liners. “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” Someone named Major is a Major, so people have to call him Major Major.
The tone of the book reminded me of the movie and TV show, M.A.S.H., and its nonsensical military logic, so I googled it to see if Catch-22 was used in any way as source material for either. What I found out is that the movie, Catch-22 (directed by Mike Nichols), came out the same year, 1970, as the movie, M.A.S.H (directed by Robert Altman). Catch-22 was expected to be the blockbuster, but M.A.S.H., another black comedy, anti-war film went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year (perhaps because, while set in the Korean War, it was really commenting on the Vietnam War that the U.S. was hip deep in … and because it was a better film with a funnier script.)
(There was a pilot shot for a Catch-22 television series with Richard Dreyfus as Captain Yossarian, but it did not catch on.)
So M.A.S.H., the movie and TV show, were not based on the book, Catch-22, directly. But the book, M.A.S.H., may very well have been. It was published seven years after Catch-22. On the book’s cover, there is a Ring Lardner Jr. quote: “Not since Catch-22 has the struggle to maintain sanity in the rampant insanity of war been told in such outrageously funny terms.”
The original New York Times review of Catch-22 stated, “A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights.” I wasn’t outraged nor delighted. Perhaps because I read it 50 years after publication and didn’t go through World War II. I am sure I am missing many references of the period or the literary allusions and am not able to appreciate it as much as others.