Hyper-cynical anti-war novel “Catch-22” turns 50 next month, and Joseph Heller must be chortling in his grave over how apropos the phrase he coined remains today, from the US jobs crisis to a bottomless war in Afghanistan.
In addition to a fresh edition of the novel, publishers have rolled out new books to coincide with the anniversary, including a major Heller biography and a memoir by his daughter.
The absurdist, often cartoonish story, about a hard-to-kill World War II pilot stationed on a small Mediterranean island and trapped in a perverse bureaucratic cycle, has sold more than 10 million copies and introduced to the English lexicon one of the most penetrating new phrases of the 20th century.
Released at the dawn of the 1960s, “Catch-22” seemed to foretell the ghastly war in Vietnam and prophesied a counter-culture spirit that would dominate the last half of the decade.
Despite its slow pacing and repetitiveness, “remarkably, college students are still reading it,” said Tracy Daugherty, a professor of English at Oregon State University and author of this year’s “Just One Catch,” a major new biography of Heller.
“But the basic situation — an average person caught in a maddening bureaucratic nightmare — still resonates, maybe more than ever as our institutions have only grown more bloated,” he said.
The novel’s catch — “anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy” — has rattled militaries worldwide for decades.
Daugherty said it was the people seeking to enter the US workforce who instantly relate to one of today’s obvious logical impossibilities: to get a job, you need experience, but to get experience you need a job.
“They live with that paradox every day,” he said.
With America’s longest-ever war dragging into its 11th year in Afghanistan, officials sometimes get sucked into the pretzel logic about a conflict that from afar may look like an infinite loop.
On Sept. 16, 2009, ex-soldier and former diplomat Rory Stewart, who walked across Afghanistan in early 2002 in the months after the US invasion, laid out what might well be the primary military Catch-22 scenario of the 21st century.
“You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state, and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban,” Stewart told a US Senate hearing.
Captain Yossarian may or may not be insane, but one thing is clear. The novel’s anti-hero bombardier wants out of a war routine he is convinced will ultimately take his life.
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian explains to his friend Clevinger.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger responds. “Then why are they shooting at me?” “They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger says. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
The black-humor exchange set the novel’s cynical tone, which author and cultural observer Morris Dickstein said “rapidly became the default mindset” of American youth, inspiring movies like “Dr. Strangelove.”
Heller’s novel “mocked heroic ideals as little more than manipulative rhetoric, eviscerated mass organizations as totalitarian institutions that chewed up individual lives [and] treated the army as a system for killing its own men more than the enemy,” Dickstein wrote this month on the “Daily Beast” blog.
Alan Arkin, who played Yossarian in the “Catch-22” movie in 1970, said in a 1996 documentary that he felt “Heller for the first time completely validated the idea of paranoia.”
Heller, who died in 1999 at age 76, had tapped his own World War II experience flying 60 missions as a B-25 bombardier. At first they were largely uneventful, but by the 37th mission, things turned bloody.
“There was a gunner with a big, big wound in his thigh, and I realized then, maybe for the first time, they were really trying to kill me,” Heller said. After that, “I was scared stiff.”
Christopher Buckley, the American satirist who wrote an introduction to this year’s edition, said young US soldiers sometimes took the book to Vietnam — and such acts of defiance are still likely happening today.
“It’s not hard to imagine a brave but frustrated US Marine huddling in his Afghan foxhole, drawing sustenance and companionship from these pages in the midst of fighting an unwinnable war against stone-age fanatics,” Buckley wrote.
The book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, is hosting a New York panel discussion the week after the novel’s Oct. 11 anniversary which will include Buckley and “Catch-22” editor Robert Gottlieb, among others.
“It’s certainly a special book, and we’re glad that 50 years later people are still recognizing that,” Simon & Schuster senior publicist Emer Flounders said.
Heller’s catchphrase almost never came to be. He had first called his book “Catch-18,” but Leon Uris was releasing his novel “Mila 18” that year and a numeric clash had to be avoided.
Heller penned more novels, but none of them came close to matching the influence of his debut.
Daugherty wrote that when Heller was asked “How come you’ve never written a book as good as ‘Catch-22’?” the author shot back: “Who has?”