Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: During the Second World War, a burned-out bomber pilot approaches the squadron's medic and hopes he'll find him unfit for further missions. There was only one catch, wrote Joseph Heller in his classic novel, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind, or was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask. And as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

Or would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to. But if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. That's some catch, that Catch-22, he observed. It's the best there is, Doc Daneeka agree. This month marks 50 years since Heller's anti-war novel appeared in hardcover. What can we still learn from "Catch-22"?

Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. The 50th anniversary edition includes a new introduction by novelist Christopher Buckley, who joins us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. And thanks very much for coming in today.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Good afternoon, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: And you begin your introduction with exactly that passage that I read. I stole it from there. And having just reread it for the first time in many years, boy, that's deathless prose.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: It - I'm hard-pressed to think of a more famous paragraph in American fiction. Now, that will prompt 5,000 phone calls to your studio, but - and that's partly why I said it. But it - or at least, it is hard to think of a more famous title than "Catch-22," as I say on this sterling introduction...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: ...this deathless introduction. It's - I can't think of another book title, anyway, that has so permeated the English language that we use it almost every day, usually to describe some encounter with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: But it's a - it functions as a kind of algorithm to express the, you know, the bewildered outrage of humanity in the face of implacable bureaucracy.

CONAN: Implacable bureaucracy. We, of course, think of it as an anti-war novel, and it is. But a lot of that process was frustration with the impossible bureaucracy of what was then the War Department.

BUCKLEY: Yes. As you - all this had to do with Yossarian, the main character, the bombardier. His superiors kept raising the number of missions that you have to fly. In - at the book's opening, I think, you have to fly 25 missions. And by the book's ending, that's gone up to 80. Heller himself, as a bombardier, flying out of Corsica, flew something like 60 missions.

CONAN: And interestingly, he had nothing but praise for his fellow fliers and the unit that he was with. It is a work of the imagination, but nevertheless, it is a work that stems from his own experiences in those terrifying circumstances.

BUCKLEY: Very much. And the terrifying incident involving the mortally wounded flier Snowden that occurs at the end of the book is, in fact, drawn from a very real life, and how horrifying that must have been. It's funny. It - the book came out in, as you noted, 50 years ago, in October of 1961. And yet it was - it really is, in a way, a Vietnam - a book about Vietnam. Heller, you know, he was proud of his service in World War II. It, you know, he ran into a lot of the elements that are in the book there. But he, you know, he was not - he did not come out of World War II as an anti-war person. It was the Korean War and the Cold War that shaped the mindset of "Catch-22." And I note in this - gosh, this is such good introduction. You could just read it again and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Oh, but we - oh, wait. I'll just read it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: But I quoted, shortly after Joe died in December 1999, Jim Webb, the very decorated Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, a novelist - he wrote "Fields of Fire," he's currently the U.S. senator from Virginia - wrote an appreciation of "Catch-22." And he recounts being in a, you know, in a jungle in Vietnam with his men and their insides were crawling with hookworm from bad water and they were losing men every day in fierce combat. And he describes this moment of - in the midst of this sort of death - a place of death and blood and misery, one of his men comes, you know, leaping out of the jungle, waving this paperback book in his hand. He said, you got to read this. You got this read this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: And Jim had read the book growing up, but he devoured it there again in the jungle in Vietnam, and said that even though he was reading a book - as he put it in his article - that was, in a way, protesting the war that he was fighting in, he nonetheless felt that he had found a soul mate in Joe Heller, someone who understood.

CONAN: You do not mention in this otherwise completely comprehensive and magisterial introduction...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...do you think we read this book too early? It tends to be assigned in high school.

BUCKLEY: That's a good question, and I think the answer is probably yes. Some books can be ruined by being read too early, "Moby Dick" famously. You know, and all - put it this way - 90 percent of people, what they remember is that there were - those 200 pages about blubber.

CONAN: I remember a lot about flensing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: And flensing. Oh, you're very sophisticated man. So the - if I were a - I would think this would - "Catch-22" would be a good college level read rather than, say, a high school read.

CONAN: What have we learned from "Catch--22" 50 years on? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Let's start with Daniel, Daniel with us from Ithaca.

DANIEL: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

DANIEL: I love your shows, by the way.

CONAN: Thank you.

DANIEL: Thank you for airing them.

CONAN: Thank you.

DANIEL: I was reminded as soon I heard the title of his character, Milo Minderbinder.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DANIEL: And he serves in the group with Yossarian, but he transfers, you know, raw materials from the source of origin across international lines, and then manipulates the people into buying them and selling them back to him so that they're making a profit, and then he makes another profit.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DANIEL: You know, so he makes, like, two or three profits, and I just thought that that was pertinent to how international global trade has, you know, with free market economics over the borders, you know, it sounds really good...

CONAN: With the United States Air Force providing the transformation much of the time, but I thought of it more of a Scrooge McDuck character, Christopher Buckley, but I guess maybe a global trader.

BUCKLEY: I think if Milo Minderbinder were alive to day, he would probably be either working for Halliburton or running it. To me, Daniel, he is the most interesting character in the book.

DANIEL: I actually - and you just mentioned about they read it in high school. I went to a Catholic school, so we didn't read a lot of, you know, controversial books, but I read it after my MBA. I finished up at Ithaca College...

CONAN: It may have colored your opinions, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: Well, I hope you're well on the way to becoming Milo Minderbinder as an MBA because he did pretty well. He - I think the peak moment of insanity, of hilarious insanity in the book, is produced by Milo Minderbinder when their airbase is attacked by their own planes. And it turns out Milo has cut a deal with the Germans to bomb and strafe his own airbase for a tidy profit. I think the - for $1,000 a plane.

DANIEL: It's all a little bit frightening.

BUCKLEY: It's all a little scary, yeah.

DANIEL: But it's also - it's good to know it, you know? I think everyone should read this book 50 years later, you know. I mean, my favorite book is "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand, and you know, "Atlas Shrugged" certainly plays right along the same lines. It's crazy.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks.

BUCKLEY: The book...

CONAN: Go ahead.

BUCKLEY: Well, I was just going to say, it's - there are certain ironies in the life of "Catch-22" when it came out in October - it came out in October 1961, and it got generally favorable reviews, but some also very bad ones. And it never made The New York Times bestseller list or - and it didn't win any literary prizes. Then - but when it came, it - when it published in England shortly after, it rocketed right to the top of the British bestseller list. What does this tell us about the difference between them and us? And then when it was published in paperback two years later, it sold very briskly. It had sold a million copies by April of 1963 and had gone through 30 printings by the end of the decade. It's sold to date at about 10 million copies, which is literary immortality enough. But ironically, it was the - Mike Nichols's movie that came out in 1970 that finally propelled it onto U.S. bestseller lists.

CONAN: Not a very good movie.

BUCKLEY: Well, I'm going to be on stage with Mike Nichols tomorrow and Bob Gottlieb in New York discussing this, so I'm not going to bite at that, but I think there are marvelous aspects in the movie. Alan Arkin, playing Yossarian, I thought was just flawless. Milo Minderbinder was played wonderfully by Jon Voight. Practically everyone in the world was in this movie: Buck Henry, Orson Welles, Martin Balsam. But it's a hard book to, you know, it's a tough book to translate. It's - and by the way, at the technical level, filming "Catch-22" in the pre-CGI days, the pre-computer graphic days, he required, poor Mr. Nichols, to assemble what ended up being the world's 12th largest air force.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Buckley about his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition...

BUCKLEY: A sterling introduction.

CONAN: ...of "Catch" - magisterial - of "Catch-22." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Dick, and Dick's with us from Paloma in California. Dick, are you there? I guess Dick has left us. Let's go instead to John, John in Landrum, South Carolina.

JOHN: Hi. Hi. I read "Catch-22" in about 1962, when I was a senior in high school or a freshman in college, that era, and it taught me that they we're all insane. It's just that some of us are more insane than others. So I mean everybody in the world is insane. It's just that some are more insane than others.

CONAN: And some situations more insane than others.

JOHN: And by the way, I thought the movie was great.

CONAN: Ah, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: There you go, a dissenting voice. Yeah, I'm going to, actually, watch the movie again tonight in preparation for tomorrow. I'll be interested to see - I think one of the...

CONAN: I think it was too hard to cut. There were so many great scenes, and they could not fit them all in the movie.

BUCKLEY: Is - I don't recall. Is it a very long movie?

CONAN: It is a long movie, yes.

BUCKLEY: Oh, it is. OK, well, that's never good. But what happened, you know, the difficulty may be...

CONAN: It's all right with "Lawrence of Arabia."

BUCKLEY: Yeah. "Lawrence of Arabia" could have gone on for another hour as far as I was concerned. But what I think - one of the things that made it a hard book to translate into film is that, you know, the first 90 percent or seven-eighths are - are comic, and then it turns grim and it turns really, really grim and really gory. And I think that's a tough trajectory for a lot of movie audiences.

CONAN: You also point out in the introduction that it is the father of a - you say, not me this time - a much better movie, "MASH," which came out, I guess, the same year as the film of "Catch-22," and indeed, of a lot of the satirical approaches towards warfare that we've seen since then.

BUCKLEY: Yeah. I think it's - let's do the timeline. "Catch-22" came out in 1961, "Dr. Strangelove" came out in 1964, then "MASH" in 1970. I think - I wonder if we would have had "MASH" had we not had "Catch-22." So in a sense, I think, it was the progenitor of a lot of - of a lot of these very dark but hilarious movies about war.

CONAN: Here's...

BUCKLEY: It's not, you know, war is not a generally funny thing.

CONAN: No, it's not. Here's Joe writing from Niagara Falls: I discovered "Catch-22" when I was in technical training for the Air Force in 2003. I got caught reading in class when we were supposed to be studying and was really yelled at by my instructor/supervisor for reading outside materials. He ended the session by telling me that if I graduated, he would give it back to me. Six weeks later, I graduated at the top of my class. After my instructor/supervisor refused to give me back the book, claiming he'd never told me he would, I caught I glimpse of my copy of "Catch-22" on a table behind his desk with a bookmark in a different spot further into the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUCKLEY: Well, maybe that's why it sold 10 million copies since 1961.

CONAN: And could have been "Catch-18."

BUCKLEY: Yeah. Interesting little numerological footnote, yeah. It took - Heller worked on this book for seven years, which is, you know, a long time, and he - from the very beginning he had in mind to call it "Catch-18." And then just as they were about to go to press, it turned out that Leon Uris, who was a very famous and bestselling author, was bringing out a war novel called "Mila 18." And Heller was devastated at first because, I mean, imagine having to, you know, change the name of your baby that you've lived with for seven years.

CONAN: I think he did OK by it, though.

BUCKLEY: He did OK, but on the other hand, who's to say - I mean, if Leon Uris hadn't brought out a book, we might be sitting here talking about the marvelous novel, "Catch-18."

CONAN: Christopher Buckley joined us from member station WSHU in Fairfield. You can read part of his introduction at our website, npr.org. Thanks very much. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.