The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 4

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

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

The horrifying attack of Bologna hovers over much of this book like a spectre. Heller leaps around in time a bit – we’re before Bologna, we’re after Bologna – it’s like whatever happened there is so horrible that it cannot be told in a straight-up manner. You have to go at it obliquely, work your way up to it, come towards it like a crab, sideways. By avoiding the details, the apprehension grows.

And I remember the first time reading this book – feeling that the section below really stood out for me.

Let me try to put my thoughts into words. There is such a rat-a-tat-tat to the dialogue in the book, nothing ever stops, the jokes come and go, you never get a moment’s rest.

And suddenly: in the middle of all of that: a breath. A deep deep breath.

Catch-22 is also not a book that dwells on nature and all of its beauty. Other authors and other books almost incorporate nature as another character into the stories (Annie Proulx is a great example – but you know, there are many others). Heller doesn’t do that. We don’t hear about the beauty of the sky, or the coldness of the air – or if we do, it’s certainly not dwelled upon. Things are moving way too quickly to notice any of that crap. It’s war, after all.

But … with Bologna approaching … and everyone has a bad feeling about it … and Yossarian is trying to get out of it – even to the point that he demands they turn the plane around and go back to the base … there’s just a malevolent feeling in the air about this particular battle …

and in the middle of all of that: this.

It’s stunning. Ominous. It’s like there are no people left on the earth. Eerie. It’s Yossarian – left with himself and his thoughts. I think this is some of the best writing in the book – and this section really stands out for me. It’s different from all the rest. Something else is going on here.

Fourth excerpt from Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller

Back at the field, the party fizzled out abruptly. An uneasy silence replaced it, and Yossarian was sober and self-conscious as he climbed down from the plane and took his place in the jeep that was already waiting for them. None of the men spoke at all on the drive back through the heavy, mesmerizing quiet blanketing mountains, sea and forests. The feeling of desolation persisted when they turned off the road at the squadron. Yossarian got out of the car last. After a minute, Yossarian and a gentle warm wind were the only things stirring in the haunting tranquillity that hung like a drug over the vacated tents. The squadron stood insensate, bereft of everything human but Doc Daneeka, who roosted dolorously like a shivering turkey buzzard beside the closed door of th emedical tent, his stuffed nose jabbing away in thirsting futility at the hazy sunlight streaming down around him. Yossarian knew Doc Daneeka would not go swimming with him. Doc Daneeka would never go swimming again; a person could swoon or suffer a mild coronary occlusion in an inch or two of water and drown to death, be carried out to sea by an undertow, or made vulnerable to poliomyelitis or meningococcus infection through chilling or overexertion. The thread of Bologna to others had instilled in Doc Daneeka an even more poignant solicitude for his own safety. At night now, he heard burglars.

Through the lavendar gloom clouding the entrance of the operations tent, Yossarian glimpsed Chief White Halfoat, diligently embezzling whiskey rations, forging the signatures of nondrinkers and pouring off the alcohol with which he was poisoning himself into separate bottles rapidly in order to steal as much as he could before Captain Black roused himself with recollection and came hurrying over indolently to steal the rest himself.

The jeep started up again softly. Kid Sampson, Nately and the others wandered apart in a noiseless eddy of motion and were sucked away into the cloying yellow stillness. The jeep vanished with a cough. Yossarian was alone in a ponderous, primeval lull in which everything green looked black and everything else was imbued with the color of pus. The breeze rustled leaves in a dry and diaphanous distance. He was restless, scared and sleepy. The sockets of his eyes felt grimy with exhaustion. Wearily he moved inside the parachute tent with its long table of smoothed wood, a nagging bitch of a doubt burrowing painlessly inside a conscience that felt perfectly clear. He left his flak suit and parachute there and crossed back past the water wagon to the intelligence tent to return his map case to Captain Black, who sat drowsing in his chair with his skinny long legs up on his desk and inquired with indifferent curiosity why Yossarian’s plane had turned back. Yossarian ignored him. He set the map down on the counter and walked out.

Back in his own tent, he squirmed out of his parachute harness and then out of his clothes. Orr was in Rome, due back that same afternoon from the rest leave he had won by ditching his plane in the waters off Genoa. Nately would already be packing to replace him, entranced to find himself still alive and undoubtedly impatient to resume his wasted and heartbreaking courtship of his prostitute in Rome. When Yossarian was undressed, he sat down on his cot to rest. He felt much better as soon as he was naked. He never felt comfortable in clothes. In a little while he put fresh undershorts back on and set out for the beach in his moccasins, a khaki-colored bath towel draped over his shoulders.

The path from the squadron led him around a mysterious gun emplacement in the woods; two of the three enlisted men stationed there lay sleeping on the circle of sand bags and the third sat eating a purple pomegranate, biting off large mouthfuls between his churning jaws and spewing the ground roughage out away from him into the bushes. When he bit, red juice ran out of his mouth. Yossarian padded ahead into the forest again, caressing his bare, tingling belly adoringly from time to time as though to reassure himself it was all still there. He rolled a piece of lint out of his navel. Along the ground suddenly, on both sides of the path, he saw dozens of new mushrooms the rain had spawned poking their nodular fingers up through the clammy earth like lifeless stalks of flesh, sprouting in such necrotic profusion everywhere he looked that they seemed to be proliferating right before his eyes. There were thousands of them swarming as far back into the underbrush as he could see, and they appeared to swell in size and multiply in number as he spied them. He hurried away from them with a shiver of eerie alarm and did not slacken his pace until the soil crumbled to dry sand beneath his feet and they had been left behind. He glanced back apprehensively, half expecting to find the limp white things crawling after him in sightless pursuit or snaking up through the treetops in a writhing and ungovernable mutative mass.

The beach was deserted. The only sounds were hushed ones, the bloated gurgle of the stream, the respirating hum of the tall grass and shrubs behind him, the apathetic moaning of the dumb, translucent waves. The surf was always small, the water clear and cool. Yossarian left his things on the sand and moved through the knee-high waves until he was completely immersed. On the other side of the sea, a bumpy sliver of dark land lay wrapped in mist, almost invisible. He swam languorously out to the raft, held on a moment, and swam languourously back to where he could stand on the sand bar. He submerged himself head first into the green water several times until he felt clean and wide-awake and then stretched himself out face down in the sand and slept until the planes returning from Bologna were almost overhead and the great, cumulative rumble of their many engines came crashing through his slumber in an earth-shattering roar.

He woke up blinking with a slight pain in his head and opened his eyes upon a world boiling in chaos in which everything was in proper order. He gasped in utter amazement at the fantastic sight of the twelve flights of planes organized calmly into exact formation. The scene was too unexpected to be true. There were no planes spurting ahead with wounded, none lagging behind with damage. No distress flares smoked in the sky. No ship was missing but his own. For an instant he was paralyzed with a sensation of madness. Then he understood, and almost wept at the irony. The explanation was simple: clouds had covered the target before the planes could bomb it, and the mission to Bologna was still to be flown.

He was wrong. There had been no clouds. Bologna had been bombed. Bologna was a milk run. There had been no flak there at all.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 4

  1. DAW says:

    I never thought of this before, but this really is a marvellous description of what a certain type of vague, uncertain guilt feels like. There’s a strange sense of isolation from the world. I have felt a shadow of this on occasion when I’ve taken a floating holiday from work: “a nagging bitch of a doubt burrowing painlessly inside a conscience that felt perfectly clear.”

  2. Alex Buchan says:

    I did a google search for “the haunting tranquillity that hung like a drug over the vacated tents” as this is one of the most descriptive and powerful lines in any novel I’ve read. I have to wait a few more years before I can read the book again..

  3. sheila says:

    Alex – that is such a great line. It’s been a couple of years since I read the book, although I do open it up randomly from time to time to read certain favorite passages. One of my favorites.

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