Catch-22: A Life Changing Experience

catch22-book

Ever asked what is your favorite book? Mine is Joseph Heller’s brilliant satire Catch-22. Published in 1961, Heller’s novel was prophetic portrayal of the rise of corporate power, greed, and war.  At the time of its publication many were offended, some were confused. (1) This superb anti-war novel changed my life and the way I thought. I wrote about the book and film a while back on another blog and decided to post it here.

”You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

“There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own 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 was 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.”
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.    (Joseph Heller, Catch-22)

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I first read Catch-22 when I was 19 years old. This was in the late ’60s just before being sent to Vietnam. It was the one book I took with me. Sometime during that deployment, I lost the book, but never its spirit.

Author Joseph Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corp in 1942. He was 19 years old. In 1944 Heller found himself in Italy as a B-25 Bombardier. He flew 60 missions. For most of those flights, he encountered little or no enemy fighters or anti-aircraft artillery. He later categorized them as “milk runs.” His military experience and background would come to use later in his epic novel. His anti-hero Yossarian was a Bombardier just like him.

The illogical logic of Heller’s brilliant anti-war satire reveals the insanity of war. Yossarian (Alan Arkin) is an American Bombardier stationed in Italy. He’s convinced everyone wants him dead, not just the Germans, but his own officers. They keep sending him on dangerous missions! To stop flying these insane missions, his higher-ups inform him he needs to complete a certain number of missions. The only problem is when he or any other bombardier come near the magic number of missions required, his commanding officer raises the number of missions required to be rotated out. Yossarian insists the entire world is crazy including him. And if he is insane, he should not be flying these missions; however, the flight surgeon (Jack Gilford) declares that anyone who understands the insanity of the situation cannot be insane! Subsequently, Yossarian must continue to fly more missions. Like with many things in life, there is no escape.

Catch-22, the movie, and the book is a surrealistic trip that captures the absurdity of war, and a bureaucratic society in general, frame for frame, a mix of satire, comedy and tragedy. Though set during World War II the film, released in 1970, captured the spirit of the late 1960s: the Counterculture, the Vietnam War and the Rock Generation. Heller’s novel, published in 1962 was a progressive masterpiece that only gained in popularity, and cult status as the sixties moved on into the later years of the decade. When it was announced Mike Nichols would direct the film version, it was met with high expectations, so high that it almost guaranteed failure. Critics of the day were split. Roger Ebert called it “a disappointment.” He went on, “the movie is essentially a parasite, depending on the novel for its vitality…” On the other side of the coin, Vincent Canby writing in the New York Times said, Catch-22 “is quite simply, the best American film I’ve seen this year.” Either way, the film died at the box-office.

The film captures the anti-war message that was popular at the time and manages to convey the insanity of war, the hopelessness of the soldiers caught in the middle and the narrow-minded vision of the military mentality and its mindless gun-ho patriotic fever.

There was another anti-war film released that same year, Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. a movie that was met with more of a universal reception and was a big hit. Though set during the Korean War, like Catch-22, it echoed Vietnam and its times.

Buck Henry who worked with Nichols on The Graduate was given the impossible task of adapting Heller’s novel to the screen, and many of the scenes are set-pieces. The cast of characters are colorful and portrayed for the most part with an absurdist bent. There’s Milo Minderbender (Jon Voight) who has set up his own business, selling valuable military gear. General Dreedle (Orson Welles) who spits out insane orders and expects them to be carried out exactly as ordered, Captain Nately (Art Garfunkel) who falls in love with a whore and Major Major (Bob Newhart) who will only meet with anyone when he is not there. Other cast members include Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Anthony Perkins, and Martin Sheen.

The film and the book are reminders that war is not glorious or heroic. Yes, men and women do incredibly heroic acts in dangerous situations and sacrifice a lot. Still, we should not glorify war. We should not make it attractive to our youth, to future generations. I know too many people who seem to relish war, in most cases as long as someone else is doing the fighting and sacrificing. They always managed not to go. But they are the first to raise the flag, hug it and yell sacrifice as long as it is not them.

(1) Read about genesis of Catch-22 here.

Interview with author D.H. Schleicher

Then Came Darknesf Front Cover

The Great Depression has been the setting for many novels, notably John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, films (Wild Boys of the Road, There Will Be Blood) and in photographs by artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. It’s a fascinating period that is brought to life in author D. H. Schleicher’s second novel, Then Came Darkness.

Schleicher’s work has appeared in Underground Voices, Scratch, The Eunoia Review, Lit Noir, and Wonders in the Dark. He blogs about books, movies, and travel at The Schleicher Spin.

David was gracious enough to take some time out from his busy schedule and for this interview. 

Can you tell us a little what Then Came Darkness is about?

This is always a loaded question – talking about your own work, but I’ll give it a shot.

On the surface level, it’s about the Kydd family struggling to survive in the aftermath of the poor decisions made by the father, Samuel.  He’s brought all kinds of hardships on his wife, Evelyn, and their children, and it culminates in the return of his former business partner Joshua Bloomfield (a greedy, petty, misogynist, racist, revenge-fueled sociopath) who brings darkness and destruction everywhere he goes.

But apart from their family centered stressors, there are these cataclysmic world events weighing down on the family as well – the Great Depression, and the global rumblings that would bring about World War II.  I wanted readers to think about this family, and especially the kids, and wonder, “If they survive Joshua Bloomfield, and the Great Depression…what’s next?”  I wanted that to be part of the suspense.  Tyrus Kydd would be old enough to be drafted towards the end of WWII.  That sense of an always increasing impending doom…that even if they survive this immediate threat…there’s always more darkness creeping around the corner, looming on the horizon, ready to suck them right back into chaos.  I wanted to explore what kind of resilience a person would need in a world like that, and the types of decisions they would be forced to make.

What was your inspiration for the novel?

The Great Depression always fascinated me.  I always wanted to write a period piece that took place during the Great Depression.  Meanwhile, Upstate New York is one of my favorite places on earth, and I knew that I wanted to set a story in those fabled hills, with the Cooperstown area serving as the model for the fictional towns of Fenimore and Milton.  The idea of that dramatic and beautiful setting, and that traumatic milieu (the Great Depression) naturally brought to life the characters that would inhabit the world of Then Came Darkness.

I know you’re a big movie fan. How much influence did film have in the creation of the book?

I try to write in a vivid, cinematic style and I always imagine how my stories would work if they were to be movies.

If one were to boil down the main plot of Then Came Darkness, it could sound like a retread of The Night of the Hunter.  I saw that film for the first time as a child and it haunts me still.  Its influence is clear.

Another film that greatly influenced the style and tone of the novel is There Will Be Blood – that definitive sense of doom and fate and events put into motion by the minds and hands of misguided, greedy men.  I initially imagined Joshua Bloomfield as a broken-down, unsuccessful version of Daniel Plainview.  As I wrote the story he morphed into something a bit different, but that was my initial impression.

Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill was also an inspiration for the similar Depression-era setting and its depiction of the relationship between the two young brothers.

What kind of research did you do to capture the feel of the Depression era?

Every setting in the novel is based on places I have visited and researched.  Also, as I wrote the novel, I was constantly researching things like “what songs or radio programs were popular then?” to add layers to the characters by giving them favorite books, songs, and shows.  I also researched other events that were happening on the periphery that would be of interest to the characters (i.e. Lou Gehrig’s 1936 MVP campaign which was of great interest to Tyrus Kydd).   The heat wave in the novel is also based on the real record-breaking heat wave from that year.

Any real life people who inspired you in developing your characters?

The character of Myra Long has a brief affair with a photographer, and the works of this fictional photographer that are described in the novel are directly inspired by actual photographs taken by renowned Depression-era photographer Walker Evans.

The family dog Sue (a pivotal character) was inspired by a border collie my roommates and I rescued while in college.  She was a great dog but a restless soul, and we eventually had to give her away to someone who owned a farm so she could fulfill her life’s mission to run wild through fields and herd things.

What are your currently reading?

I normally read literary and mainstream fiction (an old Michael Ondaatje book is in my queue right now) but I’ve been on a weird kick lately.  I just finished the sci-fi novel, Artemis, which I didn’t care for, and I’m about 100 pages through the prequel to Dracula that just came out called Dracul, which I’m finding far more entertaining than I thought it would be.  To balance that, I’m also reading the annual Best American Short Stories (chosen by Roxane Gay).

Would you tell us a few of your favorite books?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Light in August by William Faulkner

Jazz by Toni Morrison

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (my favorite writer, I love all of his work)

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje