Saturday, February 23, 2008

Joseph Heller

by Joseph Heller
Recommended Age: 17+

Molly Weasley would be so upset with me if she learned that I had recommended this book to you; that's why I'm putting a 17+ rating on it. So, don't read it unless you're "of age," and I won't get in trouble. It is rather Rated R.

I first read it when I was about that age, anyway. And I laughed and laughed and laughed, and then I read parts of it aloud to my Dad and, after he got over his shock, he laughed too. We learned something about each other that day.

You may have heard of a "catch-22." It's the sort of logical loop you get caught in, sort of like "damned if you do, damned if you don't." I've been caught in a few catch-22s in my day. Like the time a college registrar refused to let me register for a class until I had paid a late-registration fee, and the cashier refused to let me pay for it because I wasn't registered. You see, there's a catch. Catch-22.

Catch-22 is what my 12-grade English teacher called an "absurdist" novel. Set in the Mediterranean theatre of World War II, it focuses on a squadron of American bomber crews and, particularly, on a certain fellow of Assyrian descent named Yossarian. Yossarian's personal war is against the people who, he believes, are really trying to kill him: the staff officers in command of the base. As one friend of Yossarian dies after another, and the quota for flights is raised higher and higher so that Yossarian never quite reaches the point where his tour of duty is fulfilled, he increasingly takes refuge in escapist behavior (such as spending time in the hospital pretending to be sick, or going on leave and partying hard).

Meanwhile, Yossarian is surrounded by a brilliant cast of bizarre characters, including one who personifies God (and, meaningfully, disappears without a trace), and another who personifies the devil. There is a hooker turned assassin, an insecure chaplain, an extremely capitalistic mess officer, a General named Scheisskopf, and a Major named Major Major Major, to name but a few.

I have to warn you about a few things, though. First, this book is bitterly, gasp-inducingly funny, but also raunchy beyond all belief. Second, it has some serious things going on in it that will hit you like a mailed fist in the gut. Third, it is told in a manner that you may find confusing, with events scattered all out of chronological order - so it develops not so much in a line, but in a spiral that tightens in on its point gradually. Fourth, the movie (starring Alan Arkin as Yossarian) is almost as incomprehensible as the book, but that owes a lot to the fact that everyone involved in making it was stoned halfway to oblivion. And fifth, before you read any of this aloud to your parents, you might want to ascertain how many profanities they can put up with before they reach for the lighter fluid and fire tongs.

Oh yes, and sixth, some might consider this to be a subversive book, in the sense that it does not exactly preach "duty at all costs" and "courage under fire" sort of things. But it does teach, quite vividly, that war is hell. Other books do that (see virtually anything by C. S. Forester), but few if any do it quite as funnily and naughtily as Catch-22.

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