Catch-22 Revisited: A very short review

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.

I Hear America Singing (the Blues)

An appreciation of Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line

On April Fool’s Day 1996, my bride of exactly one day and I climbed into my little Ford Probe in upstate New York and headed west on a yearlong honeymoon, gigging as traveling occupational therapists.  We lived in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Raleigh, North Carolina for 3-4 month engagements at nursing homes.  On weekends we explored the surrounding area and in between gigs for weeks at a time we meandered across the American landscape and back again.  What we learned on that long sojourn changed us and has stayed with us ever since.  We drove and hiked and swam and flew and marveled at and studied this whole wide continent.  In our work, we got to know people of every ethnic and racial background, people who were indigent and people who were wealthy, all of them broken and seeking healing at our hands.  On our travels, we saw more of the same, but also began to imagine the landscape itself as a fantastically varied and torn, sometimes even ruined, expanse.  But one that seemed, let me be maudlin here for a minute, to have a heartbeat and a soulful yearning to heal itself, to explain us in some way, to shape itself into a whole where we might fit. 

Here’s an example.  We were headed back East, crossing the broad and unpeopled plains of Wyoming, and arrived late one night in a town called Green River.  The next morning I woke up, stepped outside my door at the back of the hotel, and nearly fell over in the shadow of a looming moonscape we hadn’t known was there.  This sort of thing happened over and over on our yearlong journey.  The continent’s shocking presence insisting we attend.  I say all this as an introduction to the photographer who made this picture. 

Joshua Dudley Greer – Green River, Wyoming
in his book of photographs Somewhere Along the Line

I saw it today in a review of his new book, and instantly zoomed back to that moment in the back of that hotel, coffee spilling from my cup. 

Joshua Dudley Greer, the review says, spent a year doing what we did, minus the therapy gigs but plus a genius eye for the beautiful, harsh and puzzling truths one finds along the highways of America.  You can see more of his pictures just by Googling, but I’d recommend you do what I just did, and purchase his book Somewhere Along the Line.  Every picture, as Rod Stewart sang, tells a story, but these do way more than that.  They speak directly to that troubling, inspiring experience Chris and I shared on our yearlong honeymoon.  They throw you up against the landscape, the individuals who – like us – try to make sense of it, make use of it, find themselves in it.  They hit hard at the ways we’ve uglified it, yet they sing of the ways it resists degradation, at how it shapes what we do and who we are, despite ourselves.

I’m rambling, and I apologize for that.  Clearly, I have a lot of work to do in coming to grips with this trip taken nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Greer’s photographs can help, I think.  Not as nostalgic travelogue, but as a Whitmanic yawp that says it’s all still out here, it’s all still just as profound and insistent as you found it.  What have we done to ourselves, to our land; what is it doing to us?  Come see.  You’ll be better for it.

By the way, the moving Washington Post review by Kenneth Dickerman that turned me on to this book is here.