You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 is set during World War II on the fictional Mediterranean island of Pianosa. The central character is a bombardier name Yossarian whose only desire is to get out of flying any more missions. He has survived fifty bombing runs but Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions that the officers must fly. Yossarian is stuck by Catch-22, which says that since he doesn't want to fly any more missions, he is sane enough for duty. He can't be taken off duty unless he asks, and if he asks it means he's still qualified to fly.

Catch-22 is not a novel with a conventional plot. The conflict involves Yossarian's attempts to avoid flying missions so he can stay alive. Yossarian seems to be the only sane person in the novel; the whole system is insane, so compared to everyone else he is the crazy one. When Yossarian decides to go back over a bombing run because he would have miss the first time, and he actually takes out the bridge, Colonel Cathcart can't decide whether to promote him and give him a medal, or to court martial him for getting one of his colleagues shot down.

Yossarian feels guilty for getting his friend killed, and just for surviving when so many pilots have been shot down. He gets checked into the hospital to avoid combat duty, but that only lasts so long before the doctors get on to him. He and the other officers enjoy leave in Rome where they enjoy the company of whores.

The other two characters that take center stage are Milo and the chaplain. Milo is the mess officer, and he develops a plan to create a syndicate to feed the men on the island. He requisitions planes and pilots to fly around the Mediterranean buying and trading food and other supplies. Eventually he goes so far to bomb the American camp itself, but since he was doing it in the name of business and he could show a profit for the syndicate, he doesn't get into trouble. Only Yossarian tries to point out Milo's errors, but even he can't overcome Milo's greed.

The chaplain is the conscience of the story, and his ineffectiveness is symbolic of the weakness of any logic to overcome the insanity. He meets Yossarian in the hospital and the two of them become friends. The chaplain is hampered by his corporal, who uses the chaplain's friendliness against him. The chaplain is also frozen in the face of Colonel Cathcart's selfish vindictiveness.

The novel is woven from its characters. Each of Yossarian's colleagues is unique and colorful, and most die in a spectacular fashion. Each one illustrates a new kind of craziness.

This is a great book. The characters are well drawn and come together to form a colorful palette. The best part of the story is the language and the inventive way the author builds tension with dynamic narration and great dialog. The dialog is some of the best I've ever read, and to me it is reminiscent of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with its surprising twists and turns and they way its crazy logic works. In the end, Yossarian survives, but the question is still raised: as the only sane man in a crazy system, is he the one who's really crazy?

Grade: A


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