Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 deservedly owns its place as a classic of modern American literature as both a narrative tour de force and a satiric view of one aspect of the military experience in World War II. Its central character, Yossarian, is the modern anti-hero in uniform, a suffering, struggling, well-meaning individual who attempts to operate ethically in a world where ethical behavior has been replaced by professional opportunism. The book is an unusual mixture of realistic description of the actual circumstances in which the author participated during the war as well as a series of improbable scenes and preposterous, often comic, dialogue, more suggestive of Lewis Carroll’s works. The book stylistically is a mixture of All Quiet on the Western Front and Alice in Wonderland.
It is based on Heller’s experiences as a bombardier in a B-25 unit which flew from a military airfield located on Corsica, an island near the west coast of central Italy, in the last year of the war. The men, missions, and aircraft described in the book are based on Heller’s experiences, and the dangers that the men faced are realistically described. However, the central events described in the book are improbable, fantastic, and surrealistic. The spirit of the book is a post-war spirit, an ironic spirit not normally associated with war novels based on lived experience.
Because of my flying background, I looked forward to reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when it first appeared in 1961. But when I tried to read the book, I put it down before I finished the first chapter. The first chapter was not about one of the flying airmen; it was about the unit’s chaplain, Chaplain Tappman. Yes, the main character, Yossarian, was present, but the chapter focused on the character of the chaplain, who never, as far as I could tell, went anywhere near an aircraft. Where was the flying action? It was not until much later that I set my initial expectations aside and determined to read the novel from beginning to end. I had to admit, after I finished it, that it deserved its reputation as a classic of modern literature. It was not a typical war novel; it was more complex in structure and theme, and its disconnected chronology worked against easy understanding even of the plot.
Most war novels written by the men who participated in World War II are based on their experiences in the war, with plots determined by personal progress through the combat action in which the author participated, often with names changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved. The intent of these novels is to depict, especially to a reader unfamiliar with that aspect (or any aspect) of the war, what it was like to experience combat at that particular time and location, with that particular unit, which had a particular mission. The plots of these novels generally follow the same chronological pattern: the protagonist trains for combat, enters combat, and survives combat. What distinguishes each novel are the unique experiences of the protagonists, which show how they were able to survive, as a result of the successful application of their individual combat skills or through the assistance of other men in the unit.
Each military service has its own special setting in which the application of its force is practiced: the army on the land, the navy on the sea, and the air force in the air, and the war novels written by soldiers, sailors, and airmen demonstrate the unique tools, procedures, and capabilities of combatants in each area of operation. The best examples from the World War II period in each arena are well-known: for the army, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line; for the navy, Herman Work’s Caine Mutiny; and for the air force, Beirne Lay’s Twelve O’Clock High. These popular novels describe the activities of the men and activities in the unit with which the author was associated.
Catch-22 is a war novel which describes the unique activities of the men and war-making machines in the author’s unit, in this case the North American B-25 (“Mitchell”) bomber. The B-25 first earned fame as the aircraft used in the raid Jimmy Doolittle led over Tokyo and other Japanese locations in April of 1942, four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event that brought America into the war. The B-25 was a versatile, rugged, and noisy twin engine aircraft that was used in a variety of missions and locations during the war. The typical crew numbered from six to eight, depending on the model and the mission: the crew members included the pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, top turret gunner, tail gunner, and, when appropriate, two side gunners.
The hazards of combat flying are an essential part of the book, and when such episodes appear, they are vividly described, but in Catch-22 they serve a dual purpose: in addition to describing the combat flying activities of the novel, they also serve as flags to mark the narrative trail of the novel, which is told in a non-linear style, in which the chronology of events is interrupted and confused. Heller consistently indicates the number of combat missions that Yossarian flies, starting initially as 25 and then proceeding to 80.
In the next several weeks I intend to discuss the context and reputation of the novel, and the historical as well as thematic aspects of the novel. I will first examine the historical aspects of the novel, including the key individuals in the unit whom Heller includes in the novel (usually disguised in some form), and Heller’s role in the unit. Then I will discuss the structure and theme of the novel.