Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
27 December 2003


Sublimely written, Catch-22 brings us into close personal contact with a group of men going mad in the jungle. The men are the enlisted men and officers of a squadron of bombers based in the Mediterranean Sea in the dying months World War Two. Chapter by chapter we get to know each man intimately through a combination of action, description and interior monologue. After that, chapter by chapter, we watch each one helplessly as he goes up on missions, goes whoring in Rome, goes up on more missions and then gets brutally killed.

The first half of the book is insanely funny, a scream. The second half is insanely horrible - also a scream. The story is held together through its painful deterioration by the twin threads of insanity and recurring storylines. There are a number of these. The colonel keeps forcing the men to fly more and still more missions. Someone is signing Washington Irving's name to official communications. Captain Flume lives in the woods because he is terrified of his tent-mate. A gunner named Snowden was killed by his co-pilot over Avignon, and our narrator, Yossarian, relives the experience continually, returning to it each time in still more gruesome detail, searching for reason, justification for Snowden's death and repeatedly finding none.

This scene, which recurs more frequently than any other, epitomises the tragedy of Yossarian's squadron, and by extension that of the whole war and of all wars. Very few, if any, of the casualties in the book result directly from enemy action. Men turn on each other and die; men become close friends and die; men become hermits and die. But in the end one dead man turns out to be alive, and everything is all right again, in the same way that everything was finally all right when World War Two receded and left the world with such a tragically shrunken population. Heller demonstrates with true and personal insight the devastating defeat which is victory. That the official position on Vietnam prevented him from ever winning the Booker or any other prize is nothing short of disgusting.


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