There's no such thing as the Great American Novel, of course. That's just a useful fiction, a framing device for thinking about which novels matter to you and which don't. But if there were a Great American Novel, my contenders would include Huckleberry Finn, Native Son, Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and Catch-22. I'd put all of them in a boxing ring and then bribe the referee to give Catch-22 the benefit of the doubt. (I know, I know—no ladies in the ring, which seems chauvinistic. But if there were a generalized Great American Writer fight—short stories, etc.—I'd put my money on Dorothy Parker and Flannery O'Connor.)
Catch-22 isn't the biggest or prettiest novel in the bunch. But it may be the toughest—its cruel and ingenious internal logic allows it to drop lines like "He wandered back in a heartbroken daze, his sensitive face eloquent with grief" and "Few people died unnecessarily" as punch lines. Catch-22 is a series of jokes so thoroughly wounding and true, you'll want to cry. And it's 50 years old this month.
The novel was published in 1961 (though its author, Joseph Heller, started writing it in 1953) and concentrates on a bunch of American bombardiers stationed on an island off the west coast of Italy during WWII. But saying Catch-22 is a novel about bunch of WWII bombardiers is like saying Huckleberry Finn is a story about two guys on a rafting trip. Catch-22 is about everything. It's about selfishness and sanctimony, the perverse logic of capitalism, nurses and chaplains, parades and murder, heroism and cowardice, love and lust—all the stuff that matters. It's a 450-page masterpiece of episodic curlicues that vacillate through time, each chapter between 5 and 15 pages long.
The novel's hero—if you can call him that—is a tall, muscular, and disconcertingly honest Armenian American bombardier named Yossarian who wants to stop flying missions and dropping bombs on strangers while they shoot at him with antiaircraft guns. He finds the entire proposition stupid and dangerous. He'd rather breathe air, fondle ladies, and get drunk than kill strangers while they try to kill him back. His friends say he's crazy, which could be grounds for getting out of the military. But as long as he's sane enough to not want to fight in a war, he can't claim to be so crazy that he can't fight in a war. That is Catch-22, the title that has become a cliché. (To its credit—any writer who invents a phrase that becomes a cliché during his own lifetime gets a medal.) When Catch-22 is first explained to him, Yossarian sees it clearly "in all its spinning reasonableness."
But as he lives in his Mediterranean-island military home—and bombs Italy and gets laid in Rome—he realizes that his reasonableness is other people's insanity. He scampers into the hospital as often as possible so he can do nothing (in his circumstance, doing nothing is the most moral thing) and keeps pestering his superiors with his own brand of spinning reasonableness. They aren't having it. In one of his conversations, a certain Major Sanderson says:
"I have very bad news for you. Are you man enough to take it?"
"God, no!" screamed Yossarian. "I'll go right to pieces."
Major Sanderson flew instantly into a rage. "Can't you even do one thing right?... You're immature. You've been unable to adjust to the idea of war."
"You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you're at war and might get your head blown off any second."
"I more than resent it, sir. I'm absolutely incensed."
Heller takes the opportunity to write long, rambling digressions about people's wives, doctors, favorite prostitutes; people up and down the military chain of command; and anyone else who popped into his head. There's a man named Wintergreen who goes AWOL at every opportunity and is busted down to the lowest rank every time he's caught—he works in the mailroom and controls the entire European theater of WWII by deciding which letters to pass on to his superiors, which to trash, and which to forge responses to. There's Milo, the chummy, sociopathic capitalist in charge of the base's mess hall, who buys eggs for 7 cents, sells them for 5 cents, and still makes a profit. (The explanation is long, but it works mathematically. He also bombs and strafes his own base on behalf of the Germans for the benefit of the Americans—that explanation is also long, insane, and completely logical.) There's Major Major Major Major, whose name is the result of an unfortunately sadistic father:
Major Major's father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major's father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa.
The great thing about Great American Novels (even though they don't exist) is watching writers struggle, grow, and punch themselves in the face as they work through their material. Great American Novels aren't slick, pretty, and perfect—they are rough and instructive. In Huckleberry Finn, we watch Mark Twain grappling (sometimes painfully) with the racism he learned as a child and pushing past it. In Native Son, we watch Richard Wright grapple with the psychological pressure-cooker of living as an African American in the 1930s. And in Catch-22, we watch Joseph Heller wrestle with what it means to be an American—any kind of American—in our most violent century. After diving into that ocean, he comes back with a disturbing answer: "No one is innocent. You're all damned."
Happy birthday, you relentless old fucker.
This article has been updated since its original publication.