A memorable scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) is Yossarian’s romance with Nurse Duckett, which is followed immediately by death when McNutt’s plane flies too close to the wooden raft on which Kid Sampson is standing. The first is lively and vital and satiric, and the second benefits from the gruesome contrast—the idyll of love followed by the bizarre gruesomeness of a horrible death.
Much in this novel is slapstick and vaudevillian. A good example is the scene in which the three officers interrogate cadet Clevinger. The dialogue could easily be that of a vaudeville comedy act from the 1920s or 30s, and it reminded me of the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First” routine—nonsensical and hilarious. This novel contains more self-contained hilarious one-liners than any book I can think of. They sometimes overwhelm the narrative.
One might argue that Catch-22 is a moral indictment of war. I regard it as an amoral indictment. Yossarian is the heart and conscience of the book. He is outraged by the death and carnage of war, especially by the deaths of men in his unit caused by corruption of the military bureaucracy or the incompetence of senior officers or simply bad luck. But he is also afraid to die, and this fear drives him more strongly than any other motive. It explains why, in a scene late in the novel, he joins in a plot hatched by Colonels Cathcart and Corn to send him back home to the states if he will simply agree to “like” them. He later rescinds this agreement, in part out of concern for the other men in his unit, but it is nonetheless an example of the subversively amoral undertones of the novel.
There is not much plot here. What plot there is concerns Yossarian’s desire to survive the war, with corollary threads concerning Nately’s whore and her attempts to kill Yossarian, his half-memories of Snowden mortally wounded in the plane, his various stints in the hospital tent.
War in Catch-22 is a capitalistic enterprise. The growing conglomerate that Milo Minderbinder builds after he is appointed to kitchen duty is the primary vehicle through which Heller develops this idea. “What’s good for the syndicate is good for the country.” This notion leads Minderbinder to sell the morphine in the first-aid kits used to treat wounded soldiers, to bomb his own squadron headquarters, to feed chocolate-coated cotton to the soldiers, to enter into business agreements with the enemy, and so on. The enterprise is the nation, but more than that, the enterprise is the institution, the bureaucratic organism that consumes every individual. Catch-22 is about that organism, which feeds on the corruption and self-interest of all characters, including Yossarian himself.
In some ways the novel may be dated, especially in its treatment of women. In others it remains vital and pertinent. In the later chapters, especially after the death of Yossarian’s friend Nately, the novel becomes increasingly dark and hallucinatory. Some of the scenes, especially those in which Yossarian searches for the young sister of Nately’s whore, in which he discovers that Minderbinder’s men have driven all the whores away, in which he experiences one horrific vision after another, is like a journey through hell. It doesn’t approach the gruesomeness of the scene in the plane with Snowden, which Yossarian manages to avoid through most of the novel.
The novel’s pessimism is summed up in this realization: “He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.”