Catch-22 is a classic that I started in high school and for some reason never finished, and I wanted to give it another shot. It’s the story of a military squadron on the island of Pianosa, off the coast of Italy, during World War II. Technically, it’s more about bombardier John Yossarian than about any other character, but it’s essentially an ensemble cast. Most chapters are titled after a character, although sometimes that character only makes a brief appearance.
Yossarian has flown his required number of missions and wants to go home, but squadron leader Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions that everyone has to fly. He tries various ways of getting out of flying the missions, namely spending time in the hospital, complaining to various people in charge or to fellow servicemen who might be able to speak on his behalf, and trying to get Doc Daneeka to ground him. Catch-22 is the reason he can’t be grounded: Doc Daneeka can ground anyone who is crazy, and anyone who is willing to go into combat must be crazy and can be grounded. However, they have to ask to be grounded, and if they ask to be grounded to get out of combat duty, that means they’re sane and they can no longer be grounded.
Catch-22 is about a lot of people serving in or running the squadron and the effects war has on them and their morale. Many of the characters are not particularly likable but are at least entertaining. The timeline can be hard to keep track of because it’s not told in a linear fashion, but I don’t think that makes much of a difference, although it’s occasionally confusing. The novel is dark at times, especially towards the end, but there is a lot of satire and humor, often of the absurdist type. For example, it is noted that Colonel Cathcart, who is solely focused on making himself look good to his superiors and trying to get a promotion to general, does not have sex orgies in his farmhouse:
“They might have occurred if either General Dreedle or General Peckem had once evinced an interest in taking part in orgies with him, but neither ever did, and the colonel was certainly not going to waste his time and energy making love to beautiful women unless there was something in it for him.”
Speaking of sex, most of the sex in the book happens with prostitutes, and Heller seems to be fairly sex-positive considering that this was written in the 50s. With a few exceptions, the soldiers generally don’t seem to denigrate the women for being prostitutes and no characters (at least that I recall) are viewed negatively for having or wanting to have sex. There also seems to be a broad range or what types of women are considered attractive, with variety in age, size, and other attributes. That said, there are some descriptions of behavior towards women that are harassing or of questionable consent at best, and one act is explicitly called rape, though fortunately it happens off-screen. The person who commits the rape and murder apparently doesn’t get in trouble for it and instead there is an absurdist twist as to who gets arrested and why, but I had trouble stomaching the rapist getting away with it, regardless of whether it served a literary purpose.
My other main issue with the book is that sometimes the absurdist conversations and descriptions got repetitive, which was almost enough to get me to stop reading once or twice. That combined with some of the actions towards women affected my rating of the novel, although in general I would recommend it. I give it 3 – 3.5 stars.