STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hey, 50 years ago this week, in 1961, a novel by Joseph Heller went on sale. "Catch-22" begins with an American airman assigned to censor the mail going home from the troops during World War II. Rather than just blacking out the sensitive parts, he starts blacking out passages at random, or entire letters. In the half-century since "Catch-22's" publication, the novel's title has entered the language, a metaphor for bureaucratic absurdity.
But it took a while for the book to catch on, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: In August of 1944, Joseph Heller flew on a mission over the French town of Avignon. Sitting in the Plexiglas nose cone of a B-25 bomber, Heller faced the very real possibility of death for the first time. That mission, says Heller biographer Tracy Daugherty, shaped the way Heller thought about war, a sensibility that permeates his first novel, "Catch-22."
TRACY DAUGHERTY: After that mission over Avignon, Heller really understood that this is not an abstraction. They are out to kill me personally, and he didn't like it.
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DAUGHERTY: And Yossarian doesn't, either.
NEARY: Yossarian is Heller's nimble creation, an everyman soldier who is trying as hard as he can to get out of the war. But the more he tries, the more he's caught in the famous catch. In this scene from the movie based on the novel, the actor Alan Arkin, who played Yossarian, spells it out.
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NEARY: When "Catch-22" was first released, it was not universally well-received. Until then, books about war tended to be serious works, often tragic in tone. Heller's war was a black comedy, filled with orders from above that made no sense and characters who just wanted to stay alive. The novel seemed to offend some reviewers. The New York Times called it an emotional hodgepodge. But other critics took on the book as a cause.
ROBERT BRUSTEIN: It seemed to me like the first genuine post-World War II novel.
NEARY: Robert Brustein reviewed "Catch-22" for The New Republic. He says he was blown away by the book and the way Heller's depictions of war turned the idea of heroism on its head.
BRUSTEIN: He was using a tone that is not normally used when you talk about war, especially wars fought by Americans. I mean, we - you know, the language we use when we refer to our soldiers is our brave, heroic boys and so forth. We don't use language that indicates that they might be slightly insane. And that's what Joe Heller was one of the first brave men to do.
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BRUSTEIN: And he ran into a firestorm, as a result.
NEARY: By the time "Catch-22" came out in paperback, the word of mouth was more positive than negative, and "Catch-22" became a bestseller. But Tracy Daugherty says it was more than just the praise of critics that turned the tide in its favor.
DAUGHERTY: Really, what turned the tide, I think, was that the Vietnam War began to heat up and was more and more in the news. And Heller's book seemed to prophesy what was happening.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Peace now, peace now, peace now, peace now.
NEARY: The young people who took to the streets to protest the war embraced "Catch-22." Heller may have based the novel on his own experiences in World War II, but the voice that emerged captured the tone of a new generation, which had lost its respect for authority and refused to take anything at face value.
DAUGHERTY: In the mid-'60s when what was being stated publicly - particularly about the Vietnam War, but about other social upheavals - what was being stated publicly was clashing so obviously with the images we were seeing on our television screens.
And so I think, in a large sense, the entire culture began to distrust language. And we were being told one thing and seeing another, and there's the paradox. And I think that's the heart of "Catch-22."
NEARY: But it wasn't only young people in anti-war protests and on college campuses who were reading the book.
MARC ANDERSON: Well, I was stationed with the 25 Infantry Division in Kochi, Vietnam, which was about 30, 40 miles southwest of Saigon on the north end of the Delta.
NEARY: Marc Anderson read "Catch-22" while serving in Vietnam. He carried it with him on forays into the jungle and lent to other soldiers who wanted to know what he was reading.
ANDERSON: I would tell people about it, and they'd get a kick out of it. And I'd let them have it for a day or two, and they'd read sections of it. But I think it had a lot of resonance with the Vietnam soldiers - again, because they were drafted. They didn't choose to be there. And it was pretty apparent once you had been there for a little while that this is silly. We're fighting peasants with BB guns with a 500,000-person army.
NEARY: Anderson says "Catch-22" took one of life's worst experiences and made it funny. Heller understood completely what soldiers encounter in war and identified with their frustration about getting caught in a situation over which they have no control. He turned that frustration into his famous Catch-22, an idea which perfectly captures the absurdity of war and the mind-numbing bureaucracy that supports it.
Heller's humor, says Anderson, is what makes the book work.
ANDERSON: It seems to make more clear and more obvious the futility of the war, because Yossarian just made fun of everything about it and everyone in it continuously, non-stop. And he did it in such a way that you just couldn't help but laugh out loud at him. And I think the humor is unique, and I think the humor is what makes the book so powerful.
NEARY: "Catch-22" is a concept everyone can understand. That's why it so quickly became part of the language, a phrase to be called upon when there seems to be no way out of the traps life can set for you, and when humor really is the best response. And that, says Robert Brustein, is why the book has endured.
BRUSTEIN: It's amazing to me that it's 50 years old, because I feel as though it was written yesterday. And I do think it still speaks to us. I think people should start reading it again, and then looking around at our political leaders, and they'll see them in a whole new light.
NEARY: When Joseph Heller was promoting "Catch-22," he was interviewed on NBC's "Today Show" by John Chancellor. As it turned out, Chancellor was such a fan of the book, he had stickers made up that read: Yossarian Lives. Not long afterwards, bumper stickers started popping up all over the place. Fifty years later, the message on those bumper stickers isn't out of date: Yossarian lives, and seems to have quite a few years ahead of him.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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