Nov 5, 2015

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

First published in 1955, this American classic is often included on lists of the funniest books of all time, and it holds such resonance that the title is a firm member of our lexicon. And while it certainly is very funny, it is also not an easy read. "Catch-22" is absurdist satire and mostly nonsensical. As such, what little plot there is can only be followed by careful reading, making it a little slow going. It is exceedingly smart, and its groundbreaking satire continues to inspire comedy to this day. The movie Dr. Strangelove especially comes to mind.

The main character, as much as there is one, is Yossarian, an American bombardier of Assyrian descent stuck in a regiment in Italy run by all manner of incompetent officers. Of particular concern to Yossarian is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the maximum number of missions needed to finish one's tour of duty and be sent back home. By the time Yossarian hits 40, it's 45. When he hits 45, it's 50. And so on. One can hardly blame Yossarian for feeling that everyone, friends and enemies alike, are trying to murder him. There's the flak in the sky, the Colonel on the ground, and the sullen, violent whores of Rome who have a penchant for hitting him over the head and with whom he falls in love constantly. Most of the men surrounding Yossarian get a few chapters themselves, none less ridiculous than the others.

What's incredible about "Catch-22" is its sharp, quick brilliance. It's hard to describe humor like this, nor is it easy to understand, for that matter. There's probably plenty of people for whom it flies right over their head, or they simply don't have the patience to buckle into it and get the full weight of absurdity. And then there are the moments of horror - Snowden's bloody, cold death in the plane; Yossarian's nighttime walk through Rome that reveals the myriad ways in which the strong take advantage of and abuse the weak; the unfeeling manipulation of a sensitive man by a narcissistic one - that are written so expertly but so suddenly that you don't even realize you've left the realm of satire and are now neck-deep in a condemnation of war and the men who seek self-aggrandizement from it. This is a masterful book, well-deserving of the term "classic," and I encourage all readers to take the dive into "Catch-22" with Yossarian.

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