Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: Catch-22

By Joseph Heller
Simon & Schuster, 2010
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Ty Dobbertin

Catch-22 is one of those odd books, not unlike The Catcher in the Rye, that if you didn't read in high school, you likely never will. This is a shame, as while Catcher is kind of a self-important ode to nothing, Catch-22 is a wickedly funny novel. Unfortunately, it's also an incredibly long, bleak one. Which one of these traits you remember more probably depends on your tolerance for pitch-black humor.

The story takes place in Italy during World War II. Captain John Yossarian is a bombardier during the last days of the Allied campaign in Italy, but he seems to be the only soldier who can see through the incompetence of the military command. Yossarian is afraid of dying - scared to death of it, in fact - and will do whatever he can to get out of the war. However, a vicious rule called Catch-22 prevents him from leaving: Any pilot who refuses to fly combat missions is deemed sane, and sane people must fly.

The most remarkable thing about Catch-22 is its humor. The book embraces every kind of humor, from jokes the soldiers tell one another to over-the-top dialogue to situations that push absurdity to its limits. Vignettes about commanding officers who insist the soldiers clock time on a skeet shooting range (which really improves their ability to shoot skeet) or march in parades serve to highlight how ridiculous the military chain of command can get.

While the book's humor rarely falls flat, it will almost definitely cross each reader's personal line of good taste at one point or another. One chapter involves a soldier organizing a bombing run on his own troops - complete with casualties - because he stands to make a lot of money from it. Others involve soldiers beating up prostitutes, threatening to slit a friend's throat open, and slicing a man in half with a propeller. There is definitely humor in these situations, but the book lacks any real pathos. As such, the black humor can get grating or depressing without any kind of contrast.

Still, none of that should take away from the brilliant writing, hilarious situations, and razor-sharp dialogue. The social critique of war as pure stupidity is apt and still relevant today, while the ending is just uplifting enough to redeem some of the book's bleaker moments. I don't have any solid recommendations for satirical books about war, but there is a lot of the same gallows humor and absurd wartime situations in Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien. For other examples of "political system taken to its extreme," 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell are, of course, the logical choices.