Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was published in 1961. After an initial smattering of mostly negative notices, the novel—helped by a canonizing New Republic piece by Robert Brustein, a fawning review by Nelson Algren in The Nation, and an expensive advertising campaign—became a success and then a phenomenon, eventually selling millions of copies around the world. These reviews and others, such as Norman Podhoretz’s sober reassessment of the novel in 2000, make for lively reading in the latest (and much improved) edition of Catch-22 in Harold Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations series. A mix of reviews, memoir, literary gossip, and scholarly analysis, the volume offers a feast of follies—the puerile adoration that greeted the novel, the ensuing orgy of congratulation and self-congratulation indulged in by Heller and his admirers, the reverence subsequently bestowed on the work by some of the academy’s most Casaubon-like commentators, and the inevitable vicious attacks on the ill and elderly novelist when, in 1994, he had the audacity to write a sequel to his early triumph.

Despite its cringing protagonist, the novel speaks with an old-fashioned muscular conviction pulsing with testosterone.

Reading through almost fifty years of commentary on Heller, one is less surprised by the literati’s savaging of a vulnerable pack member in the 1990s than by their ecstatic reception of Catch-22 in the 1960s. Yes, the novel has its share of literary virtues. And yes, it is a rebel’s amusement park. But, to paraphrase Kingsley Amis’s line about breasts, we know why the critics liked it, but why did they like it so much? The question opens a window onto not only how we thought then but also the perils attending how we think now.

When, at fifteen, my friends and I read Catch-22, it was love at first sight. Despite its cringing protagonist, the novel speaks with an old-fashioned muscular conviction pulsing with testosterone. It was the authorial voice—bellicose, caustic, and knowing—that we fell for first. And what vivid battle scenes in this pacifist manifesto! Echoing “boom-boom-boom-booms” of flak and the “sharp, piercing crack! of a single shell,” the bombardier shrieking “Turn right hard!” and “Climb, you bastard! Climb, climb, climb, climb!” thrilled us like the inky panels of a comic book. And even more thrilling to us were the recurring scenes of languid, grumpy whores consorting in a Roman brothel with hero John Yossarian and his fellow flyboys.

But Catch-22 is not a comic book any more than Yossarian is a traditional war hero. This smug, anti-war jeremiad about a World War II bombardier who doesn’t want to fly any more missions is also a literary novel with a vengeance. Crammed with allusions to scripture and mythology, to Synge, Sartre, T. S. Eliot, and Washington Irving, the novel simultaneously flattered and challenged bookish young baby boomers. Endless queues of exotic adjectives and busy verbs beguiled us, too: “that patriotic Texan with his infundibuliform jowls and his lumpy, rumpleheaded, indestructible smile.” “Hungry Joe ate voraciously, gnawed incessantly … stammered, choked, itched, sweated, salivated, and sprang from spot to spot fanatically.”

The novel’s oft-touted “courageous” anti-authoritarianism was also a potent lure. We pubescent malcontents, like the puer eternus Brustein (whose New Republic review came to be seen as “definitive”), were captivated by the cowering Yossarian’s “free, rebellious spirit in this explosive, bitter, subversive, brilliant book.” We identified. Yossarian felt the same way about fighting in World War II as we felt about gym class.

How could we arrive so easily at this grotesque equivalence? That’s where the sine qua non of the novel’s allure comes in: its comedy. An inspired hybrid of introductory logic and advanced Marx Brothers, the humor of Catch-22 is like a manic, dissolute, indefatigably inventive friend. For much of the book, Heller’s comic touch is so delicately tuned that he can say just about anything and the result is delight. Heller is a master of the elliptical, cumulative, deliberately frustrating internal illogic of certain kinds of vaudeville patter. It’s a comedy based mainly on wordplay and misapprehension—and, more often than not in Catch-22, a generous dose of sadism.

“Precisely what did you mean, Cadet Clevinger, when you said we couldn’t find you guilty?”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t find me guilty, sir.”

“When?”

“When what, sir?” …

“[A]nswer the question. When didn’t you say we couldn’t find you guilty?”

“Late last night in the latrine, sir.”

“Is that the only time you didn’t say it?”

“No, sir. I always didn’t say you couldn’t find me guilty, sir. What I did say to Yossarian was—”

“Nobody asked you what you did say to Yossarian. We asked you what you didn’t say to him. We’re not at all interested in what you did say to Yossarian. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then we’ll go on. What did you say to Yossarian?”

One of the miracles of the book is that this comic technique—a string of seemingly endless variations on “Who’s on first”—remains so effective for so long.

Yossarian found Luciana sitting alone at a table in the Allied officers’ night club:

“All right. I’ll dance with you,” she said, before Yossarian could even speak. “But I won’t let you sleep with me.”

“Who asked you?” Yossarian asked her.

“You don’t want to sleep with me?” she exclaimed with surprise.

“I don’t want to dance with you.”

The routine does eventually fall flat, especially in the interminable scenes featuring the arch-capitalist Milo Minderbinder. Milo, an affable profiteer and one of Yossarian’s close friends, is a socialist’s paranoid nightmare of bloated, mercantile self-interest. Like many of Catch-22’s caricature villains, Milo is hard to credit, especially in the novel’s unsatisfying last third when he and Yossarian are lassoed by Heller into increasingly lugubrious moralizing (an escalation as alarming as Colonel Cathcart’s raising of the number of required missions). As astute critics have pointed out, Heller’s “anarchic” and “savage” humor cannot withstand the novel’s last-minute swerve toward ethical self-justification.

Perhaps as important as Catch-22’s stylistic felicity was the timing of its publication. The “American hymn to cowardice,” as Philip Larkin called it, came along at just the right cultural moment. In the decade after the novel’s release, peacefully protesting Southern blacks shot backwards across America’s television screens powered by lawmen’s hoses, and women and children ran burning down roads in Southeast Asia. At the same time, marijuana’s singular, seductive logic trivialized the more pacific endeavors of the “straight” world. Under these powerful stimuli, it was a formidable challenge to think as well as to feel. It was not easy to refrain from conflating “Bull” Connor and his thugs with all peace officers. Nor was it easy to look at the brutal war in Vietnam in a larger, geopolitical context—or to say “no” to drugs. Not only did fifteen-year-olds fail to meet this challenge, but sober adults previously able to differentiate between Republicans and Nazis, between authority and authoritarianism, between tolerance and license, also lost their way. As if in a perverse Pied Piper story, a host of elders followed their capering children toward willed ignorance. And one of the more effective tunes in the piper’s repertoire was Catch-22.

The novel is an eloquent argument for the American radical’s primitive certainty that no evil is random. Leftists (much like the Azande of North Africa, who when a roof collapses look not for structural deficiencies but witchcraft) cannot see an accident without blaming an automaker, a beggar without blaming a banker, or a hurricane without blaming a president. And, a fortiori, they cannot see a war without blaming the United States of America. Ironically, while Catch-22 has been lauded relentlessly as a picture of a lunatic world where nothing makes sense, “a swamp of absurdity,” as Frederick Karl termed it in 1965, in fact everything in the novel makes sense—the kind of sense contrived by the politically paranoid mind. All the poverty, misery, squalor, violence, and sexual exploitation in the world can be traced to the malevolent appetite of the usual suspects: big business, big military, and big politics.

Crammed with allusions to scripture and mythology, to Synge, Sartre, T. S. Eliot, and Washington Irving, the novel simultaneously flattered and challenged bookish young baby boomers.

Accordingly, contemporary celebrations of Catch-22 talked about American society as if it suffered under the benighted regimes of Hitler or Stalin and not the prosperity and hopes of the New Frontier, the Civil Rights movement, and, soon, the “Great” Society. Brustein in 1961: “Through the agency of grotesque comedy, Heller has found a way to confront the humbug, hypocrisy, cruelty, and sheer stupidity of our mass society— qualities which have made the few other Americans who care almost speechless with baffled rage.” The reader, if he can’t attain to the elite class to which the reviewer belongs—one of “the few Americans who care”—feels compelled to ask, “Who is this masked man, this ‘mass society?’”

Nelson Algren’s febrile prose ferrets out an even greater villain. The novel is a repudiation of “the horror and the hypocrisy, the greed and the complacency, the endless cunning and the endless stupidity which now go to constitute what we term Christianity.”

Like ideologues before them who simplified a variety of hypocritical politicians, greedy businessmen, and corrupt military men into a single evil entity—Catholicism, capitalism, Jewry—Heller and numberless other more or less talented malcontents invented out of a multiplicity of interests the shapeless monstrous entity known as the “military-industrial complex” or “mass society,” against which they can throw a perpetual tantrum.

Sadly, the “horrors” of American society continue to feature in assessments of Catch-22. “[T]he novel’s absurdities,” wrote Leon Seltzer in 1979, “operate almost always to expose the alarming inhumanities which pollute our political, social, and economic system.” And in 2000, Sanford Pinsker assails the sickness of the “contemporary world, in its shameless greed and thorough-going corruption.” And now, in 2008, it is a commonplace that fighting against this “system” is a virtue while, of course, fighting for it makes no sense at all.

One of the cleverest of the many clever logical twists in Catch-22 comes when the rather decent Major Major challenges Yossarian’s choice to avoid battle:

“Would you like to see our country lose?” Major Major asked.

“We won’t lose [answers Yossarian]. We’ve got more men, more money and more material. There are ten million men in uniform who could replace me. Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed.”

“But suppose everybody on our side felt that way.”

“Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?”

How we boys laughed at this little piece of sophistry. Now, of course, when we again face real, earnest enemies, and when so many Americans do “feel that way,” it isn’t so funny, after all.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 7, on page 62
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