I’ve just finished listening to the Audible reading of Joseph Heller’s famous novel, Catch-22.  The reader Jay O. Sanders is wonderful.  The novel is a work of genius.

Observation of and commentary on bureaucratic army rules and regulations doesn’t take a genius.  It comes with the uniform.  All soldiers and sailors from war immemorial have been acute observers.  They suffer it, they grouse about it, and they become part of it.  Seeing incompetence above they are blind to what they, themselves, push down below.  It takes a genius, however, to encapsulate the slippery, indestructible mass of contradiction and disorder, into the simple, unforgettable concept of Catch 22.

Heller himself reads, at the end of the Audible book, the primary, but not only, example of the catch.

There was only one catch 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. Orr 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. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were 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.

There are many such catches: the belongings of the dead man in Yossarian’s tent which can’t be removed because he had not actually joined the squadron before dying, Major Major who will only allow subordinates into see him when he is not in, or one many will remember, when Yossarian makes an AWOL trip to Rome to find the 12 year old sister of Nately’s whore (as she is referred to constantly.)  He finds the apartment house, once filled with prostitutes, empty.  An old woman screams that big men in white helmets with big sticks (the MPs) had come and cleared them all out.  ‘Why?’  ‘Catch 22!’ she screams.  He is astounded.  How would she have heard of this?  She had asked why they were taking the girls away and they had replied ‘Catch 22.’  What does that have to do with chasing away the girls?

 “Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.”

But along with the elegant conceptual apparatus, Heller treats us to paragraph after paragraph of stunning, and surprising, images, language and observations of human behavior.

Yossarian was warm when the cold weather came and whale shaped clouds blew low through a dingy, slate gray sky, almost without end, like the droning dark iron flocks of B-17 and B-24 bombers from the long range airbases in Italy the day of the invasion of southern France, two months earlier.

or

He wondered mournfully, as Nurse Duckett buffed her nails, about all the people who had died under water.

or

At night when he was trying to sleep, Yossarian would call the roll of all the men, women and children he had ever known, who were now dead.

or

The chaplain had sinned and it was good.  Common sense told him that telling lies and defecting from duty were sins.  On the other hand, everyone knew that sin was evil and that no good could come from evil, but he did feel good.  He felt positively marvelous. Consequently, it followed logically that telling lies and defecting from duty could not be sins.

  The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization and he was exhilarated by his discovery.  It was miraculous!  It was almost no trick at all to turn vice into virtue, and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism and sadism into justice.  And anybody could do it!

Who will ever forget the long running dark gag about Milo Minderbinder building the ‘syndicate’ which no one can object to, or turn against –even when it is bombing the squadron’s own airfields — because everyone is a share holder.  Bold satire to be certain, especially when aimed at the ‘good war.’  But its edges might have been sharpened even a little more, given what is now known about corporate profits [ITT, GM, Ford, for example] and decisions made in war [WW II, for example.]

Humor of course, usually dark. When Doc Danica is reported as dead because his name was on the manifest of an airplane that goes into the side of the hill, the long list of death benefits that accrue to his widow seem to make inconsequential the single fact of his death, and

The husbands of her closest friends began flirting with her.  Mrs Danica was simply delighted with the way things were turning out and had her hair died.

We of course know that Doc Danica is not dead and will soon turn up, puncturing the momentary giddiness of his wife; we grin in anticipation.

Nor is it all comedy. When Kid Sampson is sliced by the propeller of an airplane

There was the briefest, softest, ssst, filtering audibly through the shattering , overwhelming howl of the planes engines and then there were just Kid Sampson’s two pail, skinny legs, still joined by string somehow at the bloody, truncated hips, standing stock still on the raft for what seemed a full minute or two before they toppled over backward finally, into the water, with a faint echoing splash.

 In fact the opening and closing sequences in which Yossarian applies a tourniquet to a comrade’s leg, only to find his insides opened and pouring out under the flac jacket are some of the most vivid, upsetting descriptions of a war wound I have ever read.

Of course, 50 some years after Heller wrote the novel, some things ring louder now than they did then.  Not a woman in the novel is other than a whore, and are so-called constantly.  Even if some of the couplings are described as coming from a need for warmth and tenderness, the over-all sense, and without a comic element in it, is of women as sexual relief for the men, and on the whole, enjoying it themselves.  The last mention of a woman is of a plain, homely girl, who no one had ever made love to, until Arfie rapes her, and then throws her out the window to her death.

The comic relief is that the MPs arrive, sirens blaring, lights flashing.  They rush into the building to arrest, not Arfie, but Yossarian, for being absent without leave.

And even a work of genius can fail the test of time. Twenty hours, thirty five minutes makes it a long read, most of it astounding.  But by the time Yossarian finally decides to refuse to become Col. Cathcart’s and Col. Corn’s ‘best friend’ in order to be sent home after 80 missions and to try instead to duplicate Orr’s rumored voyage to Sweden, I am ready for it to be over.  Satire works by short sharp punches.  The bout could have been a few rounds shorter and time not lost in clinches.