Waxing Press

Book Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Ian WissmanComment

A danger of reading books on your lunch break at work is the risk of being shaken and roughed up by the text while in full view of colleagues and office cohabitants alike. Such was the case with Catch-22 when I had to hide tears toward its end, while eating lunch at my desk. I knew Catch-22 simply as a black comedy that would probably usher in a number of chortles and guffaws, but I guess I just wasn’t prepared for how emotionally devastating the book would be, too. Perhaps that’s the catch with its great, morbid black comedy: you can’t so easily escape the horror of the world at war.

The blunt force of Joseph Heller’s comedy gushed over me, delighting every turn of the page as I learned more about Yossarian and his compatriots. Not far in, though, I was struck by the actual absence of the war here, which made me feel a little cold, as if Heller was using WW2 as a pasteboard backdrop in a low-budget play—well-written, but perhaps missing the mark. But then I learned the true impact of Heller’s use of the war. In scenes of utter horror about loss and death in the face of a faceless enemy, the blackly comic moments boil and simmer into a fetid stew of war’s violence and the sobering quality of reality as Heller renders scenes of men dying is stark fashion. The penultimate chapter, perhaps, is the most devastating moment in the book, cashing in on the swell of emotional rigor built by how subtly Heller had employed the dread of war. Even when these scenes are commixed with the staccato’d, goofy dialogue, it takes on new depth of understanding when in juxtaposition with gory details. The comedy turns out to be a mask that falls apart as soon as you look into the eyes of what lurks behind.

It’s also important to read this book as it augurs the masterful work of Pynchon, Vonnegut, and more in his wake. Heller set the tone of post-WW2 ironic fiction, creating a roadmap that only became deeper and more expansive as many clamored to employ their inspiration after reading Catch-22. I don’t think the significance of this book can be overstated when it comes to postmodern fiction. Reading it is like finding the source material to your favorite works; a missing link. The lineage of literary ancestry.

This was one of those books that I’ve had on my shelf for the better part of a decade, waiting to be read. Somehow, it was always elided by other books. Fortunately, I’ve now made the correction and consumed my first Heller—but surely not my last. A truly stunning work of fiction that rewards its reader with a broad range of deeply affecting emotions. I refuse to accept that anyone could read the entire book unaffected.