The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 6

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

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

A beautiful and deep and funny excerpt. Yossarian emerges from the plane, covered in Snowden- who had died in the back. Yossarian is naked. He pretty much refuses to put his clothes on. He goes about his business naked because he doesn’t “want to wear a uniform any more”. He says he feels fine, reassures the doctor he’s okay … he just needs to be naked. He goes and sits in a tree. Milo, the dude profiteering from the war (and the Milo chapters are among the most cynical and funny in the book – he is willing to bomb his own countrymen in order to get his black market shipments of caviar where they need to go) – Milo comes and finds him in the tree. Milo’s business is falling apart spectacularly. He pushed things too far. Milo is the kind of person who can only flourish during a war. He has flourished to such a degree that he has become the ‘shah of Oran’, parades meet his planes, he is hailed in countries across Europe – he has become a dictator of profit, basically. He LOVES the war. War, as a possible money-maker, is something he understands! It must go on, as long as he profits from it. But things begin to splinter. He misjudged a market – and now he has to unload a ton of stuff on the unwilling squadron. He is now desperate, desperate for delicacies to feed the men. (Thru the whole book, the meals in the commissary tent are described as though they are a 5-star restaurant level – and that’s all Milo’s doing.) Snowden’s funeral is going on below the tree – Yossarian and Milo sit up there and watch. I just love this section. Poor Milo. Trying to understand Yossarian. That’s the device of the book: Yossarian is the only one who seems sane (despite the fact that he is buck naked, up in a tree). Milo is TRULY nuts, but the world treats him like he is sane because, to some degree, he plays by the world’s rules. So Milo (insane) cannot understand why Yossarian (sane) will not put on his uniform. He doesn’t get it. He tries to act like he gets it but he is beyond baffled. This is what happens when the truly insane (most of the world) are confronted with a truly sane person (very rare indeed). The insane think: “What the hell is wrong with THAT guy?”

This is Yossarian’s dilemma, this is the catch-22.

The joke of this somber section is that Yossarian watches the funeral (his thoughts are unknown to us – I mean, we can get a sense of what he thinks from how the narrator describes prayer, and the grave, and the crowd around the grave … it’s not strictly Yossarian’s voice, but we can infer – we know how Yossarian feels about God, even though he is deeply in love with the chaplain.) – but anyway, the joke is that Yossarian watches Snowden’s funeral – and Milo sits beside him and at times it SEEMS like he might be becoming, actually, human … that the spectacle of death below might have actually touched him … but then it always turns out that Milo is referring to something else, something totally unrelated.

EXCERPT FROM Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller

“Please taste this and let me know what you think. I’d like to serve it to the men.”

“What is it?” asked Yossarian, and took a big bite.

“Chocolate-covered cotton.”

Yossarian gagged convulsively and sprayed his big mouthful of chocolate-covered cotton right out into Milo’s face. “Here, take it back!” he shouted angrily. “Jesus Christ! Have you gone crazy? You didn’t even take the goddam seeds out.”

“Give it a chance, will you?” Milo begged. “It can’t be that bad. Is it really that bad?”

“It’s even worse.”

“But I’ve got to make the mess halls feed it to the men.”

“They’ll never be able to swallow it.”

“They’ve got to swallow it,” Milo ordained with dictatorial grandeur, and almost broke his neck when he let go with one arm to wave a righteous finger in the air.

“Come on out here,” Yossarian invited him. “You’ll be much safer, and you can see everything.”

Gripping the bough above with both hands, Milo began inching his way out on the limb sideways with utmost care and apprehension. His face was rigid with tension, and he sighed with relief when he found himself seated securely beside Yossarian. He stroked the tree affectionately. “This is a pretty good tree,” he observed admiringly with proprietary gratitude.

“It’s the tree of life,” Yossarian answered, waggling his toes, “and of knowledge of good and evil, too.”

Milo squinted closely at the bark and branches. “No it isn’t,” he replied. “It’s a chestnut tree. I ought to know. I sell chestnuts.”

“Have it your way.”

They sat in the tree without talking for several seconds, their legs dangling and their hands almost straight up on the bough above, the one completely nude but for a pair of crepe-soled sandals, the other completely dressed in a coarse olive-drab uniform with his tie knotted right. Milo studied Yossarian diffidently through the corner of his eye, hesitating tactfully.

“I want to ask you something,” he said at last. “You don’t have any clothes on. I don’t want to butt in or anything, but I just want to know. Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?”

“I don’t want to.”

Milo nodded rapidly like a sparrow pecking. “I see, I see,” he stated quickly with a look of vivid confusion. “I understand perfectly. I heard Appleby and Captain Black say you had gone crazy, and I just wanted to find out.” He hesitated politely again, weighing his next question. “Aren’t you ever going to put your uniform on again?”

“I don’t think so.”

Milo nodded with spurious vim to indicate he still understood and then sat silent, ruminating gravely with troubled misgiving. A scarlet-crested bird shot by below, brushing sure dark wings against a quivering bush. Yossarian and Milo were covered in their bower by tissue-thin tiers of sloping green and largely surrounded by other gray chestnut trees and a silver spruce. The sun was high overhead in a vast sapphire-blue sky beaded with low, isolated, puffy clouds of dry and immaculate white. There was no breeze, and the leaves about them hung motionless. The shade was feathery. Everything was at peace but Milo, who straightened suddenly with a muffled cry and began pointing excitedly.

“Look at that! That’s a funeral going on down there. That looks like the cemetery. Isn’t it?”

Yossarian answered him slowly in a level voice. “They’re buring that kid who got killed in my plane over Avignon the other day. Snowden.”

“What happened to him?” Milo asked in a voice deadened with awe.

“He got killed.”

“That’s terrible,” Milo grieved, and his large brown eyes filled with ears. “That poor kid. It really is terrible.” He bit his trembling lip hard, and his voice rose with emotion when he continued. “And it will get even worse if the mess halls don’t agree to buy my cotton. Yossarian, what’s the matter with them? Don’t they realize it’s their syndicate? Don’t they know they’ve all got a share?”

“Did the dead man in my tent have a share?” Yossarian demanded sarcastically.

“Of course he did,” Milo assured him lavishly. “Everybody in the squadron has a share.”

“He was killed before he even got into the squadron.”

Milo made a deft grimace of tribulation and turned away. “I wish you’d stop picking on me about that dead man in your tent,” he pleaded peevishly. “I told you I didn’t have anything to do with killing him. Is it my fault that I saw this great opportunity to corner the market on Egyptian cotton and got us into all this trouble? Was I supposed to know there was going to be a glut? I didn’t even know what a glut was in those days. An opportunity to corner a market doesn’t come along very often, and I was pretty shrewd to grab the chance when I had it.” Milo gulped back a moan as he saw six uniformed pallbearers lift the plain pine coffin from the ambulance and set it gently down on the ground beside the yawning gash of the freshly dug grave. “And now I can’t get rid of a single penny’s worth,” he mourned.

Yossarian was unmoved by the fustian charade of the burial ceremony, and by Milo’s crushing bereavement. The chaplain’s voice floated up to him through the distance tenuously in an unintelligible, almost inaudible monotone, like a gaseous murmur. Yossarian could make out Major Major by his towering and lanky aloofness and thought he recognized Major Danby mopping his brow with a handkerchief. Major Danby had not stopped shaking since his run-in with General Dreedle. There were strands of enlisted men molded in a curve around the three officers, as inflexible as lumps of wood, and four idle gravediggers in streaked fatigues lounging indifferently on spades near the shocking, incongrous heap of loose copper-red earth. As Yossarian stared, the chaplain elevated his gaze toward Yossarian beatifically, pressed his fingers down over his eyeballs in a manner of affliction, peered upward again toward Yossarian searchingly, and bowed his head, concluding what Yossarian took to be a climactic part of the funeral rite. The four men in fatigues lifted the coffin on slings and lowered it into the grace. Milo shuddered violently.

“I can’t watch it,” he cried, turning away in anguish. “I just can’t sit here and watch while those mess halls let my syndicate die.” He gnashed his teeth and shook his head with bitter woe and resentment. “If they had any loyalty, they would buy my cotton till it hurts so that they can keep right on buying my cotton till it hurts them some more. They would build fires and burn up their underwear and summer uniforms just to create a bigger demand. But they won’t do a thing. Yossarian, try eating the rest of this chocolate-covered cotton for me. Maybe it will taste delicious now.”

Yossarian pushed his hand away. “Give up, Milo. People can’t eat cotton.”

Milo’s face narrowed cunningly. “It isn’t really cotton,” he coaxed. “I was joking. It’s really cottonc andy, delicious cotton candy. Try it and see.”

“Now you’re lying.”

“I never lie!” Milo rejoindered with proud dignity.

“You’re lying now.”

“I only lie when it’s necessary,” Milo explained defensively, averting his eyes for a moment and blinking his lashes winningly. “This stuff is better than cotton candy, really it is. It’s made out of real cotton. Yossarian, you’ve got to help me make the men eat it. Egyptian cotton is the finest cotton in the world.”

“But it’s indigestible,” Yossarian emphasized. “It will make them sick, don’t you understand? Why don’t you try living on it yourself if you don’t believe me.”

“I did try,” admitted Milo gloomily. “And it made me sick.”

The graveyard was yellow as hay and green as cooked cabbage. In a little while the chaplain stepped back, and the beige crescent of human forms began to break up sluggishly, like flotsam. The men drifted without haste or sound to the vehicles parked along the side of the bumpy dirt road. With their heads down disconsolately, the chaplain, Major Major and Major Danby moved toward their jeeps in an ostracized group, each holding himself friendlessly several feet away from the other two.

“It’s all over,” observed Yossarian.

“It’s the end,” Milo agreed despondently. “There’s no hope left. And all because I left them free to make their own decisions. That should teach me a lesson about discipline the next time I try something like this.”

“Why don’t you sell your cotton to the government?” Yossarian suggested casually as he watched the four men in streaked fatigues shoveling heaping bladefuls of the copper-red earth back down inside the grave.

Milo vetoed the idea brusquely. “It’s a matter of principle,” he explained firmly. “The governement has no business in business, and I would be the last person in the world to ever try to involve the government in a business of mine. But the business of government is business,” he remembered alertly, and continued with elation. “Calvin Coolidge said that, and Calvin Coolidge was a President, so it must be true. And the government does have the responsibility of buying all the Egyptian cotton I’ve got that no one else wants so that I can make a profit, doesn’t it?” Milo’s face clouded almost as abruptly, and his spirits descended into a state of sad anxiety. “But how will I get the government to do it?”

“Bribe it,” Yossarian said.

“Bribe it!” Milo was outraged and almost lost his balance and broke his neck again. “Shame on you!” he scolded severely, breathing virtuous fire down and upward into his rusty mustache through his billowing nostrils and prim lips. “Bribery is against the law, and you know it. But it’s not against the law to make a profit, is it? So it can’t be against the law for me to bribe someone in order to make a fair profit, can it? No, of course not!” He fell to brooding again, with a meek, almost pitiable distress. “But how will I know who to bribe?”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” Yossarian comforted him with a toneless snicker as the engines of the jeeps and ambulance fractured the drowsy silence and the vehicles in the rear began driving away backward. “You make the bribe big enough and they’ll find you. Just make sure you do everything right out in the open. Let everyone know exactly what you want and how much you’re willing to pay for it. The first time you act guilty or ashamed, you might get into trouble.”

“I wish you’d come with me,” Milo remarked. “I won’t feel safe among people who take bribes. They’re no better than a bunch of crooks.”

“You’ll be all right,” Yossarian assured him with confidence. “If you run into trouble, just tell everybody that the security of the country requires a strong domestic Egyptian-cotton speculating industry.”

“It does,” Milo informed him solemnly. “A strong Egyptian-cotton speculating industry means a much stronger America.”

“Of course it does. And if that doesn’t work, point out the great number of American families that depend on it for income.”

“A great many American families do depend on it for income.”

“You see?” said Yossarian. “You’re much better at it than I am. You almost make it sound true.”

“It is true,” Milo exclaimed with a strong trace of the old hauteur.

“That’s what I mean. You do it with just the right amount of conviction.”

“You’re sure you won’t come with me?”

Yossarian shook his head.

Milo was impatient to get started. He stuffed the remainder of the chocolate-covered cotton ball into his shirt pocket and edged his way back gingerly along the branch to the smooth gray trunk. He threw his arms about the trunk in a generous and awkward embrace and began shinnying down, the sides of his leather-soled shoes slipping constantly so that it seemed many times he would fall and injure himself. Halfway down, he changed his mind and climbed back up. Bits of tree bark stuck to his mustache, and his straining face was flushed with exertion.

“I wish you’d put your uniform on instead of going around naked that way,” he confided pensively before he climbed back down again and hurried away. “You might start a trend, and then I’ll never get rid of all this goldarned cotton.”

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2 Responses to The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller) Excerpt 6

  1. Paul says:

    Great excerpt – the parts with Milo are some of my favorites. The funniest thing I remember from the sequel was finding out that Yossarian was now independantly wealthy from his share in Milo’s syndicate. In fact, I think that’s really all that I remember from the sequel – it just seemed so fitting!

  2. DAW says:

    Who is the most despicable character of the book? There are so many obvious choices. Captain Black is odious, Havermeyer loathsome, and Peckem and Korn are cartoon villains. But in the end the ones that really chilled me were Milo and Aarfy because they first appear to be merely buffoons, but in the end they are capable of just about anything.

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