This acerbic anti-war novel was slow to fire the public imagination, but is rightly regarded as a groundbreaking critique of military madness
Monday 30 March 2015
In 1962, writing in the Observer, Kenneth Tynan saluted Catch-22 as “the most striking debut in American fiction since Catcher in the Rye.” Within a year, he had been joined, in a chorus of praise, by writers as various as Harper Lee, Norman Mailer and Graham Greene. More than 50 years later, this brilliant novel still holds an unforgettable comic grip on the reader.
“It was love at first sight,” Heller begins, setting the tone for everything that follows. “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
This anticipates the notorious conditions under which a combat airman can be grounded: you have to be insane before you’re excused flying combat missions, but if you don’t want to fly any more missions that proves you are not insane. The OED defines this “Catch-22” as “a difficult situation from which there is no escape, because it involves mutually conflicting or dependent conditions”, which is a very dull way to describe the absurd crux whose mad logic exhilarates every page of one of the greatest war novels of all time.
Bombardier Yossarian, who is at odds with his own side as much as with the enemy, is an unforgettable second world war Everyman, whose cat-and-mouse relationship with a cast of deranged oddballs – Milo Minderbinder, Major Major and Doc Daneeka – is played out, amid mounting absurdity, on the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean. It’s 1944, and Yossarian has figured out that “the enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on”.
Inevitably, the high comedy with which the novel opens eventually modulates into a darker, bleaker humour, and movingly, it’s the tragic death of rear-gunner Snowden which reminds us that Heller’s merriment is the kind of gallows laughter that’s inspired by the horror of war.
Heller first began to write the novel that became Catch-22 in 1953, while working as a copywriter in New York. Once he’d found the famous opening – “It was love at first sight” – he had the voice he needed for the narrative.
The rest followed slowly in manuscript, and by 1957 he had about 270pp in typescript. Eventually his literary agent Candida Donadio sold an incomplete version of Catch-22 to Simon & Schuster, where it was taken up with enthusiasm by a young editor, Robert “Bob” Gottlieb, who would eventually move to Alfred A. Knopf. Gottlieb, who is now retired, after a distinguished career that included editing the New Yorker, oversaw all aspects of the novel’s appearance, and was instrumental in its launch. Heller later dedicated the novel to him as a “colleague”.
Gottlieb’s enthusiasm inspired him to send out advance copies, a strategy that (as so often) did not always work. Evelyn Waugh wrote back: “You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches – often repetitious – totally without structure.”
Structure aside, the main pre-publication debate was to do with Heller’s title, which had at first derived from the opening chapter of the novel, published in magazine form (next to an extract from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road), as Catch-18in 1955. Subsequently, Candida Donadio requested a change in the title, to avoid confusion with another recently published second world war novel, Mila 18 by Leon Uris, who was a bestselling literary name at the time.
Initially, Catch-11 was proposed, but then the release of the Hollywood movie Ocean’s 11 (1960) raised more anxieties, and this was also rejected. So was Catch-17 (deemed too similar to the film Stalag 17), and also Catch-14. Apparently, Simon & Schuster did not think that “14” was a “a funny number”. Eventually author, agent and publisher settled on Catch-22.
Joe Heller’s first novel was officially launched on 10 October 1961, priced $5.95 in hardcover. The book was not a bestseller in hardcover in the US. Despite selling 12,000 copies before Thanksgiving, it never entered the NYT bestseller list. However, Catch-22 got good notices (and bad: Heller later said that “the disparagements were frequently venomous”).
There were positive reviews from the Nation, which saluted “the best novel to come out in years”; the Herald Tribune (“A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book”), and the New York Times (“A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights”). Elsewhere, for example in the New Yorker, there was critical rage: attacks on a book which “doesn’t even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper... what remains is a debris of sour jokes”.
Nevertheless, it was nominated for the National Book Award, and went through four printings in hardcover, selling especially well on the east coast. The book never established itself nationally until it was published in paperback, and benefited from a national debate about the pointlessness of the Vietnam war. Abroad, Heller had better luck, and in the UK his novel did become a bestseller. During the 1960s, the book acquired a cult following, especially among teenagers and college students. Although Catch-22 won no awards, it has remained consistently in print and, since publication, has sold more than 10m copies.
Something Happened (1974); Good As Gold (1979); God Knows (1984)