Joe Heller began work on his World War II novel around the time the Korean War was winding down and published it just as another American war, in Vietnam, was getting under way. He was not the first twentieth-century author to find dark humor in war. Jaroslav Hasek's unfinished classic The Good Soldier schweik — a book Heller knew well — got there first. But Catch's tone of outraged bewilderment in the face of carnage and a deranged military mentality set the tone for the satires against the arms race and Vietnam. Dr. Strangelove appeared in 1964. Robert Altman's 1970 film M*A*S*H, with its Osterizer blend of black humor and stark horror, is a direct descendant of Catch-22. Ironically, that movie appeared the same year as Mike Nichol's film version of Catch. M*A*S*H is the better movie by far, but in a nice bit of irony, it propelled the novel — finally! — onto American bestseller lists.
When Heller died in December 1999, James Webb, the highly decorated Marine platoon leader, novelist (Fields of Fire), journalist, moviemaker, and now United States senator for Virginia, wrote an appreciation of in The Wall Street Journal. Webb, a self-described Air Force brat, had first read and liked the novel as a teenager growing up on a Nebraska air base. He reread it in a foxhole in Vietnam in 1969, during a lull in fierce combat that took the lives of many of his men. One day, as he lay there feverish, insides crawling with hookworm from bad water, one of Webb's men began laughing "uncontrollably, waving a book in the air. He crawled underneath my poncho hooch and held the book in front of me, open at a favorite page.
"'Read this!' he said, unable to stop laughing. 'Read it!'"
Webb wrote, "In the next few days I devoured the book again. It mattered not to me that Joseph Heller was then protesting the war in which I was fighting, and it matters not a whit to me today. In his book, from that lonely place of blood and misery and disease, I found a soul mate who helped me face the next day and all the days and months that followed."
Soul mate. Catch-22's admirers cross boundaries — ideological, generational, geographical. Daugherty relates a very funny anecdote about Bertrand Russell, the pacifist and philosopher. He had praised the book in print and invited Heller to visit him while in England. (Russell was then in his nineties.) When Heller presented himself at the door, Russell flew into a rage, screaming, "Go away, damn you! Never come back here again!" A perplexed Heller fled, only to be intercepted by Russell's manservant, who explained, "Mr. Russell thought you said 'Edward Teller.'" The ideological distance between Jim Webb and Bertrand Russell can be measured in light years. An author who reaches both of them exerts something like universal appeal.
Returning to a favorite book, one approaches with trepidation. Will it be as good as one remembers it? Has it dated? As Heller's friend and fan Christopher Hitchens would say, "Has it time-traveled?" Any answer is subjective, but a fifty-year-old book that continues to sell 85,000 copies a year must be doing something right, time travel–wise — even discounting the number assigned in the classroom.
I asked Salman Rushdie, another friend and admirer of Heller's, what he thought about the book all these years later.
"I think Catch-22 stands the test of time pretty well," he replied, "because Heller's language-comedy, the twisted-sane logic of his twisted-insane world, is as funny now as it was when the book came out. The bits of Catch-22 that survive best are the craziest bits: Milo Minderbinder's chocolate-coated cotton-wool, Major Major Major Major's name, and of course the immortal Catch itself ('it's the best there is'). The only storyline that now seems sentimental, even mawkish, is the one about 'Nately's whore.' Oh well. As Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon, 'Nobody's perfect.'"
A book resonates along different bandwidths as it ages. Catch-22's first readers were largely of the generation that went through World War II. For them, it provided a startlingly fresh take, a much-needed, much-delayed laugh at the terror and madness they endured. To the Vietnam generation, enduring its own terror and madness, crawling through malarial rice paddies while pacifying hamlets with napalm and Zippo lighters, the book amounted to existential comfort and the knowledge that they were not alone. (Note, too, that Catch ends with Yossarian setting off AWOL for Sweden, which, before becoming famous for IKEA and girls with dragon tattoos, was a haven for Vietnam-era draft evaders.)
As for Catch's current readers, it's not hard to imagine a brave but frustrated American marine huddling in his Afghan foxhole, drawing sustenance and companionship from these pages in the midst of fighting an unwinnable war against stone-age fanatics.
Daugherty tells how Heller was required to take a barrage of psychological tests for a magazine job. (Fodder, surely, for an episode of Mad Men.) The color cards he was shown conjured in his mind terrible images of gore and amputated limbs. He mentioned to one of his examiners that he was working on a novel. One of them asked, Oh, what's it about? Joe wrote in his memoir forty years later, "That question still makes me squirm."
There's a certain numerology about Catch-22: Yossarian, helpless and furious as the brass keep raising the number of missions he has to fly before he can go home. He's Sisyphus, with attitude. Then there's the title itself, a sort of algorithm expressing the predicament of the soldier up against an implacable, martial bureaucracy. For us civilians, the algorithm describes a more prosaic conundrum, that of standing before the soft-faced functionary telling us that the car cannot be registered until we produce a document that does not exist. Bureaucracy, as Hannah Arendt defined it: the rule of nobody.
From Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Copyright 1955,1961 by Joseph Heller, renewed 1989 by Joseph Heller. Introduction copyright 2011 by Christopher Buckley. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.