Heller High Water Mark

imageI’d been meaning to read Joseph Heller’s popular novel, “Catch-22,” for over a decade, during which time I eventually gave up hope that it would be re-published in a condensed “Great Illustrated Classics” or “Big Little Books” form. For one reason or another, I just never got around to reading it…despite the fact that I somehow had time that I could squander 20 minutes watching an episode of a predictable reality show called, “Finding Bigfoot,” about a band of intrepid anthropological researchers hot on the trail of a spectacular scientific discovery. Recently, I decided to finally buckle down and partake of some literary works that had eluded me (or that I had intentionally avoided). Since I had a long east-coast-to-Colorado commute coming up, I knew it would be an opportune time to complete my reading assignment without any tantalizing distractions, such as an all-day “Finding Bigfoot” marathon.

A friend of mine with a degree in English literature, who lists “Catch-22″ among his ten favorite books, described it as “anti-military” and expressed curiosity about my reaction to it as a former military man…albeit one who had an inauspicious start. (Early in my stellar military career, I distinguished myself by accumulating disciplinary de-merits at a rate that far outpaced my over-matched contemporaries. The “up” side is that I got to perfect my drill and ceremony skills because the punishment was to repeatedly march in a square every weekend. Ah, good times…)

I didn’t plunge into this literary endeavor with any preconceived notion that I would dislike “Catch-22″ because of its rumored anti-military tone, although I knew it was widely considered an anti-war novel. I was also vaguely familiar with the movie adaptation starring Alan Arkin, which seemed to be an absurd, dark comedy of sorts. Armed with these sketchy impressions, I boarded my plane and began reading. Well, first I narrowly avoided injury from the falling hard-shell bag that came crashing down inches from my head when some inattentive clod failed to properly secure it in the overhead bin. I studiously ignored this ominous omen of an imminent imbroglio and THEN I plunged into the book.

The first thing I noticed was Heller’s entertaining writing style. Each page is infused with amusing contradictions and witty double-speak, such as, “he had decided to live forever or die in the attempt” and “even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest.”

Heller’s prose is snappy, brilliant, clever and witty…that talented bastard.

Well, be that as it may (and I doubt that it was), the traditional narrative arc of a beginning, a struggle to resolve a problem, and a resolution is conveyed non-sequentially as the main character tries to avoid dangerous missions during a hot war. Instead of a straightforward storyline, there is a setting (a US air base in WWII Italy), a cast of wacky characters, and an omnipresent tension caused by the escalating number of bombing missions required for crew members to rotate back to the States. Heller’s penchant for highlighting the ridiculous is perfectly distilled in the book’s title, which has entered the common lexicon as a paradoxical situation that cannot be avoided because of contradictory rules.  Putting aside, for a moment, themes and underlying messages, I recommend “Catch-22″ simply for its clever tone and style. Yes, even a hack like me can occasionally recognize and enjoy the finer things.

imageThe novel’s most compelling asset is its eccentric cast of characters, who possess an assortment of amusing individual idiosyncracies. For instance, the Mess Officer uses his access to military aircraft to create a powerful worldwide black market syndicate, the Flight Surgeon is afraid of flying, General Scheisskopf is an incompetent jerk who rises through the ranks as a living embodiment of the Peter Principle, and the Squadron Commander is an overly ambitious brown-nosing fool. The odd interaction of all these crazy people is a substantial part of “Catch-22’s” charm. The main character is Captain Yossarian, who is so paranoid that both the enemy troops and allied personnel are plotting to kill him that he continually seeks ways to avoid going on any more of the constantly escalating number of combat missions required before rotation back to the US. Initially, his depiction as a malingerer and potential deserter is troubling, but he is eventually revealed to be a young man who has been through so much brutal, up-close wartime trauma that his desperate grasp on sanity is beginning to slip. His desire to shirk his duty in favor of a single-minded focus on self-preservation is explained by his previous terrifying experiences in battle, thus establishing him as a fairly sympathetic main character.

“Catch-22″ forgoes the typical narrative techniques. Instead, Yossarian and the others continuously cross paths in a series of absurd non-chronological events. “Pulp Fiction” and the excellent film noir flick “Memento” used a similar non-chronological technique to add a unique flavor to the telling of their cinematic stories. Most of the book’s chapters begin as individual character studies of the various off-kilter players that transform into small vignettes that don’t come into full focus until later. Heller connects it all together by interweaving tenuously related  events with character guest appearances and references to seemingly innocuous details from previous chapters. These internal cross-references result in numerous ironica-ha!” moments that are pleasantly surprising. The dialogue crackles with clever banter. Conversations between characters often read like the Marx Brothers exchanging snappy, vaudevillian dialogue in a madcap Neil Simon play.

  “Read me back the last line.”
  “‘Read me back the last line,'” read back the corporal who could take shorthand.
  “Not MY last line, stupid!” the colonel shouted. “Somebody else’s.”
  “‘Read me back the last line,'” read back the corporal.
  “That’s MY last line again!” shrieked the colonel, turning purple with anger.
  “Oh, no, sir,” corrected the corporal. “That’s MY last line. I read it to you just a moment ago.”

Despite the fact that “Catch-22,” published in 1961, features an anti-hero wallowing in the tiresome post-modern self-absorption that would become so popular in the ensuing decade, I admired the rich literary tapestry of this novel. There is a thoroughly entertaining method behind this delicious madness.

Wartime scenarios, prison stories and crime thrillers are all inherently dramatic backdrops for a movie or a novel…and, on extremely rare occasions, for a suspenseful after school special starring a TV B-lister like Christy McNichol. Heller’s personal experience as a WWII bombardier is evident on every page, but especially in his battle sequences. His jarring descriptions of terrifying combat missions filled with spurting blood, disemboweled torsos and sudden death are skillfully juxtaposed against the lighthearted, humorous passages of the book. This stark contrast amplifies the deadly consequences of war and allows the funny absurdity in the remainder of the prose to serve as blessed comic relief. Although this tale is set in a WWII military unit, it didn’t strike me as “anti-military” or even “anti-war.” At least, not like the grueling, nerve-shattering pressure of combat bomber command depicted in the brilliant film, “12 O’Clock High.” After all, Heller’s novel is a black comedy satire, not a Greek tragedy. Instead, Heller uses his numerous characters to paint a much larger canvas. Not only does he deal with the foolishness and corruption of large organizations, he also addresses the mercenary greed of capitalism, moral hypocrisy, and the evil, fallen nature of the pitiless world in which we live. (You could use the weighty issues inside this book to create the syllabus of an Ethics class. As I recall, I enjoyed freshman Ethics class, although I did pay someone to take my final exam for me.) In the final analysis, war, and the military minds and organizations that wage it, are merely the vehicle through which Heller illustrates his broader point: an individual must rebel against the unjust, malevolent forces that will grind him to dust.

imageSeveral ludicrous situations in the book reminded me of my own experiences in the military.
— For instance, medals are given out like candy. In fact, I think you can actually get a shiny medal just for sending in three Frankenberry cereal box tops.
— There’s a  character named Major Major who holds the rank of Major. I worked with a senior non-commissioned officer called Sergeant Major Minor, a name that inevitably strikes several chords.
— An ever-changing and roster of multiple personnel are crammed into an impossibly small living space. Even if none of them snore or have stinky feet, the endless dynamic of new faces and personalities moving in and out gets old quick.
— At one point, the squadron is being addressed by a senior officer when Yossarian, sitting in the audience, voices a loud, extended, orgasmic, “Ooooooooh!” Several others follow his lead and soon the speech is drowned out by a deafening cacophony of “Ooooooohs!” I had a similar goofy experience. I was in an audience listening to a Brigadier General speak. Every time he said something remotely witty, I let loose with uproarious laughter. My inappropriate guffaws soon encouraged others to chortle at anything the speaker said, until the poor General couldn’t  utter two words without being drowned out by a chorus of exaggerated belly laughs. To this day, I don’t know why we weren’t all thrown in the brig. Of course, this is the kind of activity that results in a weekend of marching in squares.
— Finally, Heller describes the death of one pilot who, despite wearing a flak jacket, gets hit in an unprotected area just under the armpit. Unfortunately,  this still happens in spite of the advanced technology used in modern protective gear.

I’ve already encouraged everyone to read this very entertaining and well-written novel, so here’s the part where I pick a few bones with the author. Thematically, Heller makes it his sacred mission to expertly repudiate countless conventional standards with nihilistic glee and endless logical contradictions. Even after factoring in the author’s method of using exaggeration that dramatically magnifies our hypocrisies to reveal an underlying truth, Heller comes off as a bit of a conspiracy nut. His Kafkaesque visions of persecution and victimization at the hands of a corrupt, unfeeling bureaucracy, illustrated by the inescapable contradictions of Catch-22, become so surreal that they lose some of their potential metaphorical impact. Much as if a pseudo-intellectual book reviewer had filled an entire paragraph with pretentious nonsense and tried to pass it off as serious critique. You have to keep you eye out for that sort of thing.

The same could be said about Heller’s characters. Although I loved the fact that every character was wacky in his own way, the lack of any “normal” character to serve as a straight man has it’s downsides. There’s not a single regular viewpoint to leaven the mix or provide any kind of moral benchmark. Patriots are all portrayed as unthinking fools. Almost every man in a leadership position is a creep or a cretin. But even satire (maybe especially satire) works best when it operates from a baseline of accuracy. If an author moves too far from that baseline, he risks making his characters unrecognizable cartoons. The story ceases to be a mirror we peer into to see our own foibles and simply becomes a bizarre theater of the absurd, instead. Although certain elements in the story did remind me of events in my past, methinks Heller might have strayed a bit too far over a fine line. In reality, most military units are full of fairly disciplined people doing the best they can in a tough situation. (Except for that homicidal maniac in the clown costume…but there’s one of those in every organization, am I right?) Since Heller’s novel is populated with nothing but extreme character types, some elements of his exaggeration in the service of broad satire must necessarily miss the mark. Even while acknowledging this shortcoming, I wouldn’t want Heller to change this aspect of his character development because it would ruin what I love about it. So why the hell did I even bring it up? Your guess is as good as mine.

And here’s another thing. Heller expends too many pages discussing how the pilots flew to Rome to whore around. These passages drag and add very little to the narrative. In a book that is already long and somewhat repetitive, most of them could have easily been removed with no loss in overall quality. Basically, I also like using the word “whore-mongering” in a book review….


I have the distinct impression that Heller, with his original, refreshing style and ambitious thematic scope, was on the verge of creating a true masterpiece but fell short. The leap from amusing popular satire to timeless classic is not insurmountable. However, there’s a catch, if you’ll pardon the expression. An author who unerringly identifies and skewers cultural hypocrisy at every turn may be a brilliant satirist, but if the moral lesson of the story is simply to abandon everything and try to run away, then I tend to not take it very seriously. (It may seem odd that I’ve read a book that purposely depicts ubiquitous lunacy only to arrive at the obvious conclusion that it is “unserious.” But I’m talking about the difference between a popular, entertaining satire and an upper-tier, timeless classic. Heller wrote the former. Some will insist that “Catch-22″ IS a masterpiece and will undoubtedly make arrangements to beat me up in the parking lot. I probably deserve worse for my unmitigated insolence. Anyway, Heller apparently decided that an overwhelming sense of humorous cynicism would suffice for his purposes. I don’t disagree because I enjoyed the book on it’s own merits, but I can’t ignore the opportunity that was squandered. Lord knows, I had my chance to squander opportunity, but of course I blew it. And who knows if I’ll get another bite at that apple?

Moving on to the spoiler alert…

SPOILER ALERT! Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want a critical plot device revealed…or skip the entire post…that’s always a good option, too.

imageAs the story builds to its climax, a dejected Yossarian is walking through the nighttime streets of a desiccated, morally exhausted Rome. This exposure to the uncaring universe’s horrible injustice is the catalyst to Yossarian’s final decision to desert. The garish scenes of corruption and evil occurring all around him are palpable, as if he were strolling through Dante’s Inferno (where I actually have a summer home, by the way…5th level of Hell…location, location, location). To me, this ghoulish passage seems out of place, contrived and completely at odds with the pacing of the rest of the novel. As I was reading it I thought, “Well, this is obviously the part where our hero comes to a momentous conclusion.” And then, “Boy, I could really go for a Reuben sandwich right now.” Admittedly, the second thought, although truthful and “in the moment,” is not at all pertinent. Anyway, I was disappointed to discover that Yossarian, the sympathetic protagonist who is supposedly going nuts because his soul is being destroyed by the unjust insanity of war, fails to act when he encounters numerous cruel, immoral acts occurring right in front of him. Feeling overwhelmed, bewildered and depressed, he can’t summon the backbone to actually do anything about it, so he just keeps walking. And yet, immediately after his soul-crushing odyssey, Yossarian finds the inspiration and energy to save his own skin. I know this passage shows Yossarian’s utter feeling of helplessness. His recognition that he can’t change this cruel world is ultimately what propels him to look out for Number One. However, in light of such moral cowardice, I can’t be the only reader whose sympathy for the protagonist’s plight was diminished in direct proportion to Yossarian’s self-absorbed inaction in the face of depraved injustice. (And I know what I’m talking about, having earned a certificate in Self-Absorbed Inaction from the Institute for Depraved Injustice. Can you say “Honor Grad?”)

imageMaybe my one problem with the book is that Heller’s suggested course of action is an unsatisfying acquiescence to craven self-interest. (Note: There’s a subtle distinction between “craving self-interest” and “craven self-interest” that I haven’t bothered to figure out because, hey, what’s in it for me?) Heller justifies –even glorifies– Yossarian’s selfish decision to save his own skin as the logical and moral choice. Someone points out to Yossarian that his proposed dereliction of duty will unjustly burden his comrades-in-arms to risk their own lives because they’ll be forced to pick up his slack. When the moral question is posed, “Suppose everyone felt that way,” Yossarian quickly answers, “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?” This is a witty rejoinder masquerading as moral substance. Ultimately, it seems to elevate personal cowardice to an undeserved status as an accepted behavioral norm in the author’s eyes. But the morally lazy path of reverting to selfish instincts is shaky ground on which to establish a climactic “take-away” message for the saga. It struck me odd that Heller, through 800 pages, cleverly examined so many deep and important themes only to culminate his literary tour de force by slapping on such a shallow and false value at the conclusion. Of course, false values are better than no values at all. (Disclaimer: I don’t actually believe that, but I like for people to think that I do.)

END OF SPOILER ALERT! The unspeakable suffering may now continue.

That last bit of self-righteous bluster might seem like a damning indictment of “Catch-22,” but it’s really just an examination of one moral quandary that the main character wrestles with. Even though I disagree with the distorted justification for the anti-hero’s final decision, the book as a whole is a very entertaining read. If Escher had been an author (instead of an artist who played mind-blowing inside-out tricks with our visual perspective), he would have written a delightfully weird book like this one. So, immerse yourself in Heller’s fascinating maze of self-contradicting logical double-speak without delay. I’ll bet you enjoy it on at least one of it’s multiple levels. Personally, I nearly understood several of it’s profound literary facets.

In keeping with the mostly musical milieu of this venue, I will now make an awkward attempt to establish a weak, tangential link between this post and a song. Here are a list of songs that, just like the number 22, are multiples of 11.  I know “weak and tangential” when I see it and this, my friends, has “weak and tangential” written all over it.

Click on the song name to hear it.
We’ll start with the California band, “Mad Caddies,” and their ska-punk number, “Drinking For 11.”
Next, some breezy electro-pop from England’s adorable Lily Allen: “22.”
Check out Melbourne’s “Loon Lake” and their indie-pop song, “33.”
This next installment is a swinging ditty from jump-blues composer “Memphis Slim” called “44 Blues.”
As we reach the half-way mark, Tom Waits weighs in with the gritty saloon ballad, “Ol’ 55.”
Here’s the smooth vocal stylings of the inimitable Nat “King” Cole performing “Route 66.”
The late, great Marvin Hamlisch composed the music for the 007 flick, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” including this disco-fied action piece called “Bond 77.”
Moving right along, here’s Ike Turner’s rendition of the boogie-woogie standard “Rocket 88.”
And we stick a fork in it with Bruce Springsteen’s stripped down rock and roll jailbird saga, “Johnny 99.”

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed these prime musical numbers. (Yeah, I made a math pun…that’s how I roll, Biotches!) I have nothing to add.

Charlie “Pops” Lujack
Grand Poobah of Dubious Pedigree

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