Cover of Catch-22. Plain blue cover with little red airman in the corner

About the Book

Title: Catch-22
Published: 1961

Cover Story: Varied
Drinking Buddy:
So Many Characters
MPAA Rating:
R (violence, language, sexual situations)
Talky Talk:
High School Revelation
Bonus Factors:
Bureaucracy, Movie
Anti-Bonus Factor:
Poor Sequel
Bromance Status:
High School Bud


Cover Story: Varied

A book this old has gone through many editions, though most have the little red pilot on the cover. I prefer this model airplane art, though.

Alternative cover of Catch-22, featuring an unassembled model airplane.

This book was originally titled Catch-18, but Heller was forced to changed the name to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’s book, Mila 18.

The Deal:

Captain Yossarian, a World War II bombardier stationed on an island off of Italy, has had one too many close calls and decides to pretend to be crazy so they’ll kick him out of the army. Too late, he realizes no one notices he’s crazy…because everyone around him is crazy. Though Yossarian is arguably nuts, he may be the sanest man in the place.

Drinking Buddy: So Many Characters

Two pints of beer cheersing

When a book has many point of view characters, there’s the risk they’ll become repetitive or start to run together. Not in Catch-22. Everyone was real and distinct. Most of the book is about Yossarian and his schemes to get kicked out of the military. We also concentrate on Lt. Nately, the idealistic, rich young man in love with a local prostitute; Col. Cathcart, Yossarian’s superior officer who keeps raising the number of required combat missions in his quest to become a general; Lt. Milo Minderbinder, who runs an international corporation out of the mess hall; the unfortunately named Major Major who was promoted via a clerical error and has no idea how to handle his sudden authority; and the Chaplain, who just wants to be liked.

In addition there are:

*Generals Peckem and Dreedle, both determined to defeat the horrible enemy in Europe–each other.

*Col. Korn, Cathcart’s flunky

*Doc Daneeka, the squad’s hypochondriac doctor

*Lt. Dunbar, who tries to achieve longevity by deliberately boring himself

*Chief White Halfoat, Doc’s Native American assistant who predicts his own death by pneumonia

*Clevinger, the pseudo-intellectual who is despised by the people he tries to help

*Lt. Orr, Yossarian’s pilot bunkmate who crashes everything he flies

*Luciana, Yossarian’s Italian lover who thinks he’s crazy for wanting to marry her

*Ex-PFC Wintergreen, The lowly mail clerk with dreams of becoming a general

*Major –de Coverly, An officer so revered and awe-inspiring, that no one knows what his job really is

*Cpt. Black, the lazy intelligence officer who forces everyone to sign multiple loyalty oaths daily

*Aarfy, the directionally-challenged navigator

*Hungry Joe, the pervy photographer

*Dobbs, the world’s loudest and most obvious would-be assassin

Incidentally, though Yossarian is the main character, we never learn his first name until the very end of the book.

MPAA Rating: R (violence, language, sexual situations)

This is certainly a high school level book, with Yossarian constantly bedding hookers, recovering from the clap, and being an all-around anti-hero. And there are a few racial and sexual situations that did not age well from the book’s 1961 publication (though they would have been indicative of the World War II era).

This is one of those books that will make you cringe one page, rage against authority on the next, and laugh out loud the whole time.

Talky Talk: High School Revelation

When I read this book as a high school junior, I was gobstruck. This. This was what I had been trying to say. Just because someone is my superior, it does not necessarily mean that they are more intelligent than me. People gain authority, not through good works or talent, but back-room deals and brute force. Rules often make no sense, but people follow them simply because they always have.

Spoiler: In one of the most powerful literary scenes I’ve ever read, Yossarian walks through liberated Rome at night, horrified at the poverty, violence, and hate he witnesses. He decides to look up a local girl he knows, just to experience warmth, only to discover that Aarfy has thrown her out the window to her death.

Yossian is naturally horrified by this, especially when Aarfy justifies the murder by saying he couldn’t have her telling people how he had raped her. Yossarian demands to know why he didn’t just see a prostitute, and Aarfy is offended. He’d never paid for it in his life.

Yossarian is ready to strangle Aarfy, but really only feels pity when he hears MPs thundering up the stairs. Aarfy will surely go to prison, if not the gallows. The MPs barge in…and arrest Yossarian for being AWOL.

I had to take a walk after reading that scene.

Bonus Factor: Bureaucracy

Gary Cole as Bill Lumbergh in 'Office Space'

This book inspired the term ‘Catch-22’, a situation where one cannot win, ie, you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. In the book, Catch-22 refers to a military regulation. Among other things, it states that if a soldier is mentally ill, he must be removed from combat duty. But if a soldier requests to be relieved from duty, then he must be sane (fear in the face of danger is a sign of a rational mind), and therefore must be returned to the front.

Other paradoxes in the book include the Dead Man in Yossarian’s Tent: Lt. Mudd was killed on a mission before he’d officially checked in with the squadron, and the Army refuses to admit that he existed, causing a spiraling paperwork nightmare. Meanwhile, Doc Daneeka is mistakenly listed as having been on a flight that crashed. He is declared dead, his wife is notified, and and he is mourned by his colleagues, despite the fact that he is still very much alive. 

Milo, the mess officer, creates an international business cartel, going so far as to contract with the Nazis to bomb his own squadron, all in the name of capitalism.

There’s a soldier in the hospital so swathed in bandages that no one knows anything about him. They don’t even realize he died until a nurse takes his temperature and discovers he doesn’t have one. Yossarian feels it wasn’t the nurse’s decision to make, declaring him dead like that.

In another hospital scene (the running joke is Yossarian fakes a liver ailment to get out of combat), a family has traveled to Italy to see their dying boy. He dies before they arrive, so the doctors send Yossarian in his place. The family just accepts him as their dying son, and that they’d apparently forgotten his name was Yossarian.

Heller was careful to make sure that while the book was absurd, he never included anything impossible. And when ex-PFC Wintergreen, with his access to the mail and his mimeograph machine, basically controls the entire European theater of operations, well…it could happen.

Bonus Factor: Movie

Movie Poster of the 1970 movie 'Catch-22.' Shirtless Alan Arkin stands in front of a wrecked airplaine

The 1970 movie, starring Alan Arkin, Art Garfunkel, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, and Orson Wells is one of the few films that really capture the essence of a good book. However, they do leave out some classic scenes, such as Clevinger’s trial. I have yet to see the new miniseries, with George Clooney as Colonel Cathcart.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Poor Sequel

Cover of Closing Time, mostly blue with a tiny red man with a cane

Picture it: 1994. I’m a poor college freshman who just received word that there is going to be a sequel to my favorite book of all time. I can’t wait. We’ll finally find out if Yossarian escaped from Italy. And learn what happened to the Chaplain, Milo, and Wintergreen. Could life get any better?

I actually went out and bought the issue of Playboy where they interviewed Heller about the new book (Yes. I’m the only teenager who actually bought that magazine for the articles). I saved my pennies and reserved my expensive hardcover copy so I wouldn’t have to wait to read it. With trembling hands, I dove in…

It sucked. It sucked hard. It sucked harder than a vacuum. Instead of the stick-it-to-the-man, down-with-the-system legacy I was expecting, we read about an elderly Heller Yossarian griping about being old. The book took a weird turn into science fiction, and a huge hunk of the novel was dedicated to jokes about former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle. Yep. Dan Quayle jokes.

The book, like many sequels, was crap. Actually, not much of Heller’s other works, with the possible exceptions of Good as Gold and  God Knows were any good. If you ever want to know what a long term coma feels like, pick up Something Happened (spoiler alert: nothing happens).

Bromance Status: High School Bud

I’ve befriended many books in my time, but none like you. The love is still there, bro.

Literary Matchmaking:

Literary Matchmaking

Johnny Got His Gun

Another great insanity of war novel.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received neither money nor ‘shares’ for writing this review.


Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.