PRINT October 1994


Catch-22 Redux

ACCORDING TO THE MAD bureaucratic premise of Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22, a bomber pilot—such as the book’s antihero, John Yossarian—might be relieved from active duty by claiming insanity, were it not for the fact that the attempt to avoid further missions itself proved the pilot’s sanity.

Part theater of the absurd, part Phil Silvers sitcom, Catch-22 added a concept to the American vernacular and a word to the dictionary: “a difficult situation or problem whose seemingly alternative solutions are logically invalid.” Scarcely a week goes by when the phrase is not invoked by someone somewhere in the pages of the New York Times; there were 48 such instances in 1993, a few designating the novel or its movie adaptation, far more describing government regulations, hospital procedures, and the war in Bosnia. The most frequent use was in matters of housing, ranging from mortgages and rent laws to co-op boards and homelessness.

The structure of Catch-22 is founded on repetition. The complaint “I see everything twice” is one of Yossarian’s more memorable ploys to get himself grounded. That everything in the novel, jokes included, happens at least twice tends to mitigate the otherwise shocking news that Heller’s forthcoming book, Closing Time (published this month by Simon & Schuster), is the belated sequel to his first novel; Catch-22 already implies its own sequel.

Heller began making notes for what he originally called Catch-18 in 1953. His book was finally published in September 1961, as Catch-22—the title hurriedly changed to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’ Mila 18, a novel of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The response was mixed: “an emotional hodgepodge” (The New York Times Book Review), “a debris of sour jokes” (The New Yorker), “the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years” (The Nation). But the book sold 32,000 copies in the first year.

Catch-22 was inspired by Heller’s own World War II experience as a youthful bombardier in the European theater. As he has often pointed out, though, the novel was filled with cold war and Korean War anachronisms—helicopters, computers, and loyalty oaths, not to mention thinly veiled references to Joseph McCarthy and members of the Eisenhower administration. Nor was Heller’s alter ego Yossarian a familiar GI Joe: “Jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them,” per one superior officer’s complaint, he was a nonconformist and antiorganization man. Like Jack Kerouac in On the Road and Norman Mailer in “The White Negro,” Heller had invented a ’50s hipster.

Rooted in World War II but developed during its aftermath, Catch-22 was published slightly in advance of a parallel and equally long-germinating American scenario: the novel’s first and greatest sequel was to be the war in Vietnam. “I hope it’s persuading hundreds of students to avoid military service,” Heller told The Washington Post Book World in 1969—days before the American flag was planted on the moon.

Both draft-dodgers and grunts could identify with Yossarian—although some SDS militants found him insufficiently correct for failing to frag his superior officers. So compelling was the analogy between novel and event that Heller would not—or could not—publish his second novel until the Vietnam War was all but over.

By the time Catch-22 appeared in a deep-blue paperback edition (only weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis opened, in late October 1962), Columbia had already paid a hefty $150,000 for the movie rights. Newsweek ran an article on the “zany, unclassifiable” object of the so-called Heller Cult: “Not since The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies has a novel been taken up by such a fervid and heterogeneous claque of admirers. . . . David Merrick wants to do a Broadway version. Anthony Quinn, Jack Lemmon, Ben Gazzara, Paul Newman, Eli Wallach, all want to play . . . Yossarian.” (It was Alan Arkin who finally got the job.)

What to do for an encore? Although Heller had been invited to work on another Columbia production, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strange-love, he elected to further massify black humor by providing the pilot for a new TV comedy about the service, McHale’s Navy. Originally broadcast by ABC for four seasons, from 1962 to 1966, this was another, albeit minor, Catch-22 sequel—another turn of the pop-culture dialectic by which, as sitcom-ologist David Marc wrote, World War II became “a bloodless, painless, deathless, male-bonding romp,” as if the cast of the film Guadalcanal Diary had spent “the war waterskiing behind its PT boat.”

Subsequently, as a Hollywood hired hand, Heller contributed to the desecration of New Frontier icons James Bond (Casino Royale, 1967) and Frank Sinatra (Dirty Dingus Magee, 1970) even as Hollywood tried to bring forth its version of Catch-22. Directed by Mike Nichols, filled with forced parallels to the war in Vietnam, and deploying as props the world’s 12th-largest bomber force, the movie finally appeared in 1970. Released with Heller’s endorsement the month after Richard Nixon (primed by two screenings of Patton) expanded the war beyond Vietnam, it was a major money-loser—although it helped the novel set a record for paperback sales during a six-week period. Basically, Nichols’ adaptation was scooped by the obscenity, nudity, splatterific surgery, and jovial nihilism of M∗A∗S∗H. Not only did Robert Altman’s crypto Catch-22 share Heller’s contempt for the officious platitudes of military bureaucracy, the New York Times marveled that this was “the first major American movie to openly ridicule belief in God.”

After establishing Altman as an American auteur, M∗A∗S∗H (and thus Catch-22) found its true home on network TV, just before Nixon’s reelection effectively short-circuited the counterculture that had taken Heller’s novel to its collective bosom. For the next ten seasons, M∗A∗S∗H was the CBS counterculture—reminding everyone of Vietnam by making a weekly spectacle of meaningless war while offering a secular-humanist protest against empty patriotism, official bombast, and military life.

Yossarian was the ’50s antihero of a bestselling ’60s cult novel that happened to take place in the ’40s. M∗A∗S∗H’s Hawkeye (Alan Alda) was his massified successor—benign ’60s survivor in a beloved ’70s sitcom that was conveniently set in the ’50s. M∗A∗S∗H survived the fall of Saigon, and even thrived, by shifting emphasis from the political to the interpersonal. A shrink was added to the cast of characters, and Hawkeye became a paradigm of new male sensitivity—just as Alda himself became a public champion of the Equal Rights Amendment. As Marc points out, Hawkeye/Alda/Yossarian scored second only to John Wayne in one 1977 survey of performer “likability.”

Yossarian was incorrigible. He had been diagnosed as suffering a “persecution complex” because he told an Air Force psychiatrist that people were trying to kill him. In the final episode of M∗A∗S∗H, however, Hawkeye was cured—he survived a psychotic episode, announced his sanity, and presumably returned home to participate in the very ’50s America that drove Heller nuts. A few months later, without M∗A∗S∗H to restrain him, Ronald Reagan conquered Grenada. The long national nightmare was at an end. We were crazy enough to be relieved from active duty, except that now we no longer wanted to be.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice, New York, and contributes this column regularly to Artforum. His book Vulgar Modernism was published last year by Temple University Press.