Joseph Heller’s timeless World War II novel Catch-22 first came out in 1961, but I ran across it in 8th grade. 1970 was the year I first started reading real thick small-print adult novels (that year was made for hooking a reader, with The Godfather (and that lady’s troubling but intriguing sexual dysfunction solved by Sonny Corleone as only he could), and the big trio of war novels all arriving in paperback (Slaughterhouse Five, MASH, and the Heller classic). In another post, maybe, I’ll go into the other paperback that rocked my world that year — Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask — but for now, suffice it to say that I became a reader for real in 8th grade.
Of the novels, Catch-22 was my fave. It was absurd, tragic and funny in a way that made sense, and when I bought a copy for my son Nick two weeks ago on his 22nd birthday, then got lost for a while in the first 100 pages before wrapping it, I was surprised by how well I’d remembered the story, still just as gripping as before. Some of its tropes — not just the old famous catch-22, but the one about measuring your age by how close you are to death, the Snowden’s of yesteryear, Milo Minderbinder as a type of the wheeler-dealer con man, etc., — had long been part of my mental library. The book stuck.
Of course, when all the movies based on these books came out, I went, and because the 1970s were the golden age of American films, I became an avid moviegoer as well. MASH and The Godfather were better than the books, but Slaughterhouse Five was best remembered for Valerie Perrine’s nude cameo, and I had my first film watcher hissy-fit, I think, over how little of Catch-22 made it into a 2-hour movie. Yes, Mike Nichols’ film came out the same year I read the novel. I pouted as only a working class country boy redneck with a subscription to The New Yorker can (ask Beth, I actually did subscribe back then).
So anyway, loved the book hated the movie, blah blah. And then last week Hulu released a mini-series Catch-22. At last, the novel would be done justice, all its characters and subplots included! I signed on for free just to watch it. Then, with that 100 pages I’d just re-read in mind, I saw that Amazon Prime had put up the original movie as well. So, what the heck, school’s out, I pulled that up, too. So here all those years later is my last and final review.
The novel still works, boy does it. In the current absurd, cruel, comic, and terrifying world we live in, there may be no better road map. Every character in the book has her/his match on the political stage, and their dilemmas match up, too. So if you haven’t yet, read it. If you read it as a kid like I did, re-read it.
The movies: Let me just say this, my snitty 8th grade know-it-all film critic self was wrong (surprise surprise). The 2-hour Catch-22 is brilliant. Somehow it hits all the novel’s key themes, and does so with a beautifully orchestrated chaos of one liners, flashbacks, fully lived performances (even the cameos), and cool sneaky easter eggs (pay attention to the photograph of FDR on the wall of Major Major’s office). It is in every way at least 100 times better than the slow, by the numbers GQ photo spread that is George Clooney’s Hulu show.
That is all.