The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 5

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

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

I don’t have a favorite section of this book – the entire thing is an assault, one I love – I just ride the wave when I read it. But I do remember my first time reading the following excerpt, and I remember how, at some point during it, I started to laugh … and I just continued to laugh all the way through. Because Heller keeps going where other writers would stop. He has the comedic sensibility of Andy Kaufman … someone who didn’t even realize there WAS a line that other people did not go over. The joke in the excerpt is that Yossarian goes into the hospital repeatedly because he feels safe there. That’s it. That’s the joke. Yossarian feels SAFE in a place of sickness and death. Heller takes that absurdity and plays on it, in a long long long paragraph that gets funnier and funnier as it goes on … Like, we, the reader, get the point of the joke immediately. The punchline is in the first sentence of the damn paragraph! But Heller’s not going for a punchline. Heller is expanding on something, a concept, a joke – spinning it further and further – until the entire thing reaches a level of ludicrous reality that I still feel, when I read this excerpt: God, I wish I could write like that! It’s fearless – because it’s so stupid. And by “stupid” I mean “awesome”. I have friends (cough David cough Mitchell cough Jackie cough) who take jokes to absurd extremes. It’s like there they are, and they realize that whatever bit they are doing is funny – and so they begin to explore the funniness therein – pushing it – making it bigger – going larger, wider – and the roars of laughter of their friends just pushes them on … until the original joke is completely unrecognizable, all we have now is the ultimate absurdity of the RIFF on that joke. I love people who think in such a manner – and the following excerpt is a perfect example.

EXCERPT FROM Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller

Being in the hospital was better than being over Bologna or flying over Avignon with Huple and Dobbs at the controls and Snowden dying in back.

There were usually not nearly as many sick people inside the hospital as Yossarian saw outside the hospital, and there were generally fewer people inside the hospital who were seriously sick. There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily. People knew a lot more about dying inside the hospital and made a much neater, more orderly job of it. They couldn’t dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn’t keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. There was none of that crude, ugly ostentation about dying that was so common outside the hospital. They did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane.

“I’m cold,” Snowden had whimpered. “I’m cold.”

“There, there,” Yossarian had tried to comfort him. “There, there.”

They didn’t take it on the lam weirdly inside a cloud the way Clevinger had done. They didn’t explode into blood and clotted matter. They didn’t drown or get struck by lightning, mangled by machinery or crushed in landslides. They didn’t get shot to death in hold-ups, strangled to death in rapes, stabbed to death in saloons, bludgeoned to death with axes by parents or children, or die summarily by some other act of God. Nobody choked to death. People bled to death like gentlemen in an operating room or expired without commen in an oxygen tent. There was none of that tricky now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t business so much in vogue outside the hospital, none of that now-I-am-and-now-I-ain’t. There were no famines or floods. Children didn’t suffocate in cradles or iceboxes or fall under trucks. No one was beaten to death. People didn’t stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights out of hotel windows with a whoosh!, accelerating at the rate of thirty-two feet per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry.

All things considered, Yossarian often preferred the hospital, even though it had its faults. The help tended to be officious, the rules, if heeded, restrictive, and the management meddlesome. Since sick people were apt to be present, he could not always depend on a lively young crowd in the same ward with him, and the entertainment was not always good. He was forced to admit that the hospitals had altered steadily for the worse as the war continued and one moved closer to the battlefront, the deterioration in the quality of the guests becoming most marked within the combat zone itself where the effects of booming wartime conditions were apt to make themselves conspicuous immediately. The people got sicker and sicker the deeper he moved into combat, until finally in the hospital that last time there had been the soldier in white, who could not have been any sicker without being dead, and he soon was.

The soldier in white was constructed entirely of gauze, plaster and a thermometer, and the thermometer was merely an adornment left balanced in the empty dark hole in the bandages over his mouth early each morning and late each afternoon by Nurse Cramer and Nurse Duckett right up to the afternoon Nurse Cramer read the thermometer and discovered he was dead. Now that Yossarian looked back, it seemed that Nurse Cramer, rather than the talkative Texan, had murdered the soldier in white; if she had not read the thermometer and reported what she had found, the soldier in white might still by lying there alive exactly as he had been lying there all along, encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze with both strange, rigid legs elevated from the hips and both strange arms strung up perpendicularly, all four bulky limbs in casts, all four strange, useless limbs hoisted up in the air by taut wire cables and fantastically long lead weights suspended darkly above him. Lying there that way might not have been much of a life, but it was all the life he had, and the decision to terminate it, Yossarian felt, should hardly have been Nurse Cramer’s.

The soldier in white was like an unrolled bandage with a hole in it or like a broken block of stone in a harbor with a crooked zinc pipe jutting out. The other patients in the ward, all but the Texan, shrank from him with a tenderhearted aversion from the moment they set eyes on him the morning after the night he had been sneaked in. They gathered soberly in the farthest recess of the ward and gossiped about him in malicious, offended undertones, rebelling against his presence as a ghastly imposition and resenting him malevolently for the nauseating truth of which he was a bright reminder. They shared a common dread that he would begin moaning.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if he does begin moaning,” the dashing young fighter pilot with the golden mustache had grieved forlornly. “It means he’ll moan during the night, too, because he won’t be able to tell time.”

No sound at all came from the solider in white all the time he was there. The ragged round hole over his mouth was deep and jet black and showed no sign of lip, teeth, palate or tongue. The only one who ever came close enough to look was the affable Texan, who came close enough several times a day to chat with him about more votes for the decent folk, opening each conversation with the same unvarying greeting: “What do you say, fella? How you coming along?” The rest of the men avoided them both in their regulation maroon corduroy bathrobes and unraveling flannel pajamas, wondering gloomily who the soldier in white was, why he was there and what he was really like inside.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 5

  1. tracey says:

    /plummeting like dead weights out of hotel windows with a whoosh!, accelerating at the rate of thirty-two feet per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry./

    It’s sick. I cannot stop laughing.

    /What do you say, fella? How you coming along?/

    Hahahahaha! The picture there is too too much.

  2. JFH says:

    Come on! Ya gotta do T. S. Elliot!

  3. red says:

    Tracey – hahahahaha I know!! The Texan being all jocular and jovial with a dude who is obviously a MUMMY. “Hey there, fella …” I’m dying!!!

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