The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 3

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Catch22Heller.jpgThird excerpt from Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller

The manic brilliant LUNATIC energy in the next excerpt is so wonderful to me. Why I love it is: you can obviously read deeper meanings in it, Heller is NOT being subtle – he’s lampooning ideological purity as well as patriotism, and the need that some folks have to be surrounded by identical little clones. (It is interesting that I would write that huge post about the Russian Revolution at the same time I’m doing Catch-22!) So he is obviously spoofing that whole thing – yet somehow, it’s like a magic trick – you don’t catch him spoofing – as far as Heller is concerned, he’s just putting down what happened … and the humor in the excerpt – I mean, it makes me laugh out loud – is a disappearing act at the same time that it is a reveal. By that I mean: it’s there and it’s NOT there at the same time. The book is full of language like that, which is why I think people who love it can go back to it time and time again. Heller makes his points – but he is NEVER a bore, the way so many other authors (and regular people) are when they are intent on “making their points”. He goes for the humor, the absurdity – rather than the jugular. And yet he also karate chops you in the jugular. It’s a beautiful gift he has – to continuously pull something like that off, throughout an entire book! I don’t know how he did it. I just know that I read the following excerpt, and I start to laugh about 4 sentences in, and then just keep laughing til the end – the pictures he brings up in my mind, the images – I can just SEE that commissary and all the craziness of everyone racing around … I LOVE it, I LOVE this kind of humor. Heller is lampooning something that has ruined people’s lives, throughout history. But he does it by making fun of it, by showing the ultimate stupidity of those in power who wish for purity.

But you cannot deny the rage in a line like:

You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?

The tragedy of politics run amok, politics run by mental nitwits, is in that sentence.

I love someone who navigates his way through the lunacy of the world, and sees the tragedy of it – but can only laugh in response. And do so in a way that can make ME laugh! Bless Joseph Heller!

Here’s the excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller

When fellow administrative officers expressed astonishment at Colornel Cathcart’s choice of Major Major, Captain Black muttered that there was something funny going on; when they speculated on the political value of Major Major’s resemblance to Henry Fonda, Captain Black asserted that Major Major really was Henry Fonda; and when they remarked that Major Major was somewhat odd, Captain Black announced that he was a Communist.

“They’re taking over everything,” he declared rebelliously. “Well, you fellows can stand around and let them if you want to, but I’m not going to. I’m going to do something about it. From now on I’m going to make every son of a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath. And I’m not going to let that bastard Major Major sign one even if he wants to.”

Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.

“The important thing is to keep them pledging,” he explained to his cohorts. “It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ means.”

To Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a glorious pain in the ass, since it complicated their task of organizing the crews for each combat mission. Men were tied up all over the squadron signing, pledging and singing, and the missions took hours longer to get under way. Effective emergency action became impossible, but Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren were both too timid to raise any outcry against Captain Black, who scrupulously enforced each day the doctrine of “Continual Reaffirmation” that he had originated, a doctrine designed to trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time they had signed a loyalty oath the day before. It was Captain Black who came with advice to Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren as they pitched about in their bewildering predicament. He came with a delegation and advised them bluntly to m ake each man sign a loyalty oath before allowing him to fly on a combat mission.

“Of course, it’s up to you,” Captain Black pointed out. “Nobody’s trying to pressure you. But everyone else is making them sign loyalty oaths, and it’s going to look mighty funny to the F.B.I. if you two are the only ones who don’t care enough about your country to make them sign loyalty oaths, too. If you want to get a bad reputation, that’s nobody’s business but your own. All we’re trying to do is help.”

Milo was not convinced and absolutely refused to deprive Major Major of food, even if Major Major was a Communist, which Milo secretly doubted. Milo was by nature opposed to any innovation that threatened to disrupt the normal course of affairs. Milo took a firm moral stand and absolutely refused to participate in the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade until Captain Black called upon him with his delegation and requested him to.

“National defense is everybody’s job,” Captain Black replied to Milo’s objection. “And this whole program is voluntary, Milo – don’t forget that. The men don’t have to sign Piltchard and Wren’s loyalty oath if they don’t want to. But we need you to starve them to death if they don’t. It’s just like Catch-22. Don’t you get it? You’re not against Catch-22, are you?”

Doc Daneeka was adamant.

“What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”

“You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.”

“You aren’t letting him sign any.”

“Of course not,” Captain Black explained. “That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade. Look, you don’t have to play ball with us if you don’t want to. But what’s the point of the rest of us working so hard if you’re going to give Major Major medical attention the minute Milo begins starving him to death? I just wonder what they’re going to think up at Group about the man who’s undermining our whole security program. They’ll probably transfer you to the Pacific.”

Doc Daneeka surrendered swiftly. “I’ll go tell Gus and Wes to do whatever you want them to.”

Up at Group, Colonel Cathcart had already begun wondering what was going on.

“It’s that idiot Black off on a patriotism binge,” Colonel Korn reported with a smile. “I think you’d better play ball with him for a while, since you’re the one who promoted Major Major to squadron commander.”

“That was your idea,” Colonel Cathcart accused him petulantly. “I never should have let you talk me into it.”

“And a very good idea it was, too,” retorted Colonel Korn, “since it eliminated that superfluous major that’s been giving you such an awful black eye as an administrator. Don’t worry, this will probably run its course soon. The best thing to do now is send Captain Black a letter of total support and hope he drops dead before he does too much damage.” Colonel Korn was struck with a whimsical thought. “I wonder! You don’t suppose that imbecile will try to turn Major Major out of his trailer, do you?”

“The next thing we’ve got to do is turn that bastard Major Major out of his trailer,” Captain Black decided. “I’d like to turn his wife and kids out into the woods, too. But we can’t. He has no wife and kids. So we’ll just have to make do with what we have and turn him out. Who’s in charge of the tents?”

“He is.”

“You see?” cried Captain Black. “They’re taking over everything! Well, I’m not going to stand for it. I’ll take this matter right to Major —— de Coverley himself if I have to. I’ll have Milo speak to him about it the minute he gets back from Rome.”

Captain Black had boundless faith in the wisdom, power and justice of Major —— de Coverley, even though he had never spoken to him before and still found himself without the courage to do so. He deputized Milo to speak to Major —— de Coverley for him and stormed out impatiently as he waited for the tall executive officer to return. Along with everyone else in the squadron, he lived in profound awe and reverence of the majestic, white-haired major with the craggy face and Jehovan bearing, who came back from Rome finally with an inuured eye inside a new celluloid eye patch and smashed his whole Glorious Crusade to bits with a single stroke.

Milo carefully said nothing when Major —— de Coverley stepped into the mess hall with his fierce and austere dignity the day he returned and found his way blocked by a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths. At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there. The hubub began to subside slowly as Major —— de Coverley paused in the doorway with a frown of puzzled disapproval, as though viewing something bizarre. He started forward in a straight line, and the wall of officers before him parted like the Red Sea. Glancing neither left nor right, he strode indomitably up to the steam counter and, in a clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant with ancient eminence and authority, said:

“Gimme eat.”

Instead of eat, Corporal Snark gave Major —— de Coverley a loyalty oath to sign. Major —— de Coverley swept it away with mighty displeasure the moment he recognized what it was, his good eye flaring up blindingly with fiery disdain and his enormous old corrugated face darkening in mountainous wrath.

“Gimme eat, I said,” he ordered loudly in harsh tones that rumbled ominously through the silent tent like claps of distant thunder.

Corporal Snark turned pale and began to tremble. He glanced toward Milo pleadingly for guidance. For several terrible seconds there was not a sound. Then Milo nodded.

“Give him eat,” he said.

Corporal Snark began giving Major —— de Coverley eat. Major —— de Coverley turned from the counter with his tray full and came to a stop. His eyes fell on the groups of other officers gazing at him in mute appeal, and, with righteous belligerence, he roared:

“Give everybody eat!”

“Give everybody eat!” Milo echoed with joyful relief, and the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade came to an end.

Captain Black was deeply disillusioned by this treacherous stab in the back from someone in high place upon whom he had relied so confidently for support. Major —— de Coverley had let him down.

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me a bit,” he responded cheerfully to everyone who came to him with sympathy. “We completed our task. Our purpose was to make everyone we don’t like afraid and to alert people to the danger of Major Major, and we certainly succeeded at that. Since we weren’t going to let him sign loyalty oaths anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether we have them or not.”

Seeing everyone in the squadron he didn’t like afraid once again throughout the appalling, interminable Great Big Siege of Bologna reminded Colonel Black nostalgically of the good old days of his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade when he hh ad been a man of real consequence, and when even big shots like Milo Minderbinder, Doc Daneeka and Piltchard and Wren had trembled at his approach and groveled at his feet.

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11 Responses to The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 3

  1. tracey says:

    His writing is genius. I mean, truly — LITERALLY — dizzying genius.

  2. red says:

    Isn’t he so great, tracey??

  3. JFH says:

    Have you ever read his memior about a period of his life when he contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome? He mentions in that book how he had a standing date to go out to dinner for Chinese food, with Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo and some other guy at least every week.

    What I wouldn’t give to listen in on those conversation. Think about it! Puzo, Heller and Brooks, heck I’d love to listen to just one of ’em but all three in one place!

  4. Stevie says:

    I was just reading about S.J.Perelman, the brilliant humorist, and saw this: “Perelman was indirectly responsible for the success of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. When first published, this novel received lukewarm reviews and indifferent sales. A few months later, Perelman was interviewed for a national publication. The interviewer asked Perelman if he had read anything funny lately. Perelman—a man not noted for generosity with his praise—went to considerable lengths to commend Catch-22. After the interview was published, sales of Heller’s novel skyrocketed.”

    Yea, Perelman!

  5. red says:

    Wow!! It is always amazing to me … what kind words from someone important can do. Like Brooks Atkinson raving about Glass Menagerie in Chicago … when no one was coming. He took up the clarion call and would not let up – until finally folks like Katharine Hepburn were flying to Chicago to see this miraculous new play.

    The play was miraculous already – but without an audience – you got nothing.

    Bless those people who can use their power so wisely and so well!!

  6. Stevie says:

    Indeed. I think of you like that, Sheila! Certainly you’ve pointed the way to a plethora of great things I never would have discovered on my own. Blessed are the torchbearers :)

  7. red says:

    Stevie, hon, that’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

    Thank you SO much!!

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