From the very first page of Catch-22 the reader gets the distinct impression that they have entered the story at some point beyond the beginning. It’s 1943 at the Twenty-Seventh Air Force Headquarters on a small island off the coast of Italy. Told in the third person, there is no preliminary introduction to the characters, and with a cast of over 30 people, it’s a bit overwhelming and a sheer mystery as to just what significance each of them will have in the lengthy plot.
As the story unfolds, most of the characters are featured in individual chapters depicting events from their personal point of view. While the details of events are often repetitive, the reader becomes aware of each individual’s issues, fears, and objectives. The theme is essentially anti-war, anti-government, and survival of the fittest… or the whoever can scheme, plot, or by obscene coincidence – whittle, claw, or bribe their way to safety, get a promotion, become famous, get rich, avoid direct combat, and stay alive. In essence, the officers are inept and ignorant, self-serving and irrational.
Lieutenant Scheisskopf, an R.O.T.C. grad was happy war broke out because it gave him the opportunity to wear a uniform every day. His specialty (and only responsibility) was conducting parades so he ordered everyone to enter marching competition (in-between flying missions)… thereby impressing his superiors sufficiently to win a promotion to First Lieutenant.
Corporal Whitcomb just wanted to do something spectacular enough to be featured in “The Saturday Evening Post” so he came up with a plan to send special form letters home to families of casualties. Then he devised ways to speed up the death count.
The mysterious Major de Coverley’s duties as his squadron’s executive officer consisted of “pitching horseshoes, kidnapping Italian laborers, and renting apartments for the enlisted men and officers to use on rest leaves, and he excelled at all three” (Pg. 132)
And General Peckem’s philosophy on leadership is, “Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done. I’ve already put in a requisition for two majors, four captains, sixteen lieutenants to give you a hand. While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it.” (Pg. 332)
While the officers buried themselves in insignificant mindless activities, the young men of the Twenty-Seventh Air Force bomber squadron had one goal. To survive. Everyone thought everyone else was crazy; perhaps some of them were. And out of loyalty to their country, most accepted the irrational logic that ruled the camp.
Catch-22 is a black comedy. The trouble with satirical black comedies is the reader has a tendency to think, “Oh well, these characters are just extremely exaggerated caricatures of real people – their pain is not real pain. Their tragedy is only theoretical. Thus, it is not an emotional experience – merely a source of amusement. Unfortunately, the irrational stupidity is borderline slapstick humor that this reader did not find amusing. At one point, I almost quit reading. I didn’t think I could endure one more page of this pointless Kafka-esque drivel. And then miraculously – somewhere around Chapter 19 – the characters became real and the outlook somber. From that point on I was spellbound and began to see that the pain was real and the book was going to have a tragic ending.
The Webster dictionary definition of catch-22 is: “an illogical, unreasonable, or senseless situation – or a rule that denies a solution.” Catch-22 is riddled with “catch-22” situations. Some hysterically funny, some disturbingly sad.
Catch-22 is a great book. The story moves at a rapid pace with startling episodes and an unforeseen outcome… one outrageous incident after another. It carries the powerful message that large bureaucracies tend to feed on inefficiency and greed. And that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This timeless classic is number 7 on the Modern Library list of 100 best novels.
Rated 5 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.