Thursday, June 12, 2008

JES's Celebrate Reading Pick: CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller

Today, we welcome JES as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

Guest Blogger bio: JES (John E. Simpson) is a database analyst living in Florida with his wife and two cats. He's published six books (a mystery and five reference books on Internet technology) and is grappling with the third draft of a new novel, Merry-Go-Round. John maintains a blog, Running After My Hat. This is the fourth blog he's started since 1999; maybe this one will keep. :)

For two weeks in that summer of 1963, the book (when not being read) lay on the table next to my Dad's favorite reading chair. The cover was predominantly blue, on a white background. In the foreground danced a cartoonish, oddly fractured silhouette in red of what appeared to be a policeman or soldier.

Even before I had a chance to heft it in my 12-year-old hands, I somehow sensed the book might come to mean something more to me than most of the books -- mostly historical fiction ("A Landmark Book"), joke books and such -- which I'd read to that point. Why? Because Dad was so caught up in it. He read a lot, but seldom got really gripped by a book. And I couldn't remember, ever, his laughing out loud at mere words on a page. (I had heard him laugh sometimes while flipping through a paperback of photographs of statues, mostly naked, for which Dean Martin had supplied "funny" captions, mostly racy. But with all the pictures, to my seventh-grade snob's mind it didn't really count as a book.) The same was true on the next page he read. And the page after that... The spine of that (to me) fat hardback seemed stitched together not with string but with Dad's soft chuckles, his wry shakes of the head.

I wondered: what kind of book was this? Even the title made no sense: CATCH-22. It sounded vaguely onomatopoeic, like the clattering of the ratchets in one of Dad's wrenches. And the title? Forget it. It meant nothing.

One afternoon before it had to go back to the library, I picked it up. With a furtive glance over my shoulder and with great care not to lose Dad's bookmarked page, I began to read:

"It was love at first sight.

"The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

"Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn't quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn't become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them..."

Again: What kind of book WAS this? It wasn't anything like the Landmark Books, or TOM SAWYER, or any one (let alone all) of the Tom Swift, Jr. tales. It wasn't anything like anything I'd read before. Who was this Yossarian? (And what the heck kind of name was that, anyway?) Who was the chaplain? How could a man fall in love with a man, let alone madly? (Okay, I was a little naive.) And that third paragraph made my head spin, but in an oddly pleasurable way -- the way the first bite of a wad of cotton candy buzzed and popped on the roof of my mouth.

I read a few more pages, thrilled. And then I put the book back on the table.

But it stayed in my mind, you bet, and when Dad finished it I asked if I could read it myself. He said sure. I just had to carry it up the street to our small-town public library (just a couple of blocks away), hand the book to the lady behind the counter, and -- giving her my library card -- tell her I wanted to renew it in my name.

What a shock was in store for me: the librarian wouldn't let me borrow the book. It came from the "adult" section, and to the adult section it would return, until the next adult showed up and handed over the secret adulthood-confirming credentials and passwords. In the meantime, she noticed that I'd taken out numerous books by Roy Chapman Andrews and Quentin Reynolds; perhaps I'd like this new Landmark Book...?

I was mortified. But for one of the few times in my life, I didn't keep the mortification to myself. I told my parents, who had noticed my empty-handed return to the house.

My parents weren't college-educated -- Dad was a mechanic, Mom a secretary -- but they were smart and, and (at some level they possibly couldn't or certainly wouldn't have verbalized) they knew just what kind of kids they wanted their kids to be.

At least one phone call to the library followed, out of my earshot. Perhaps a special visit ensued as well, without me. But suddenly, I had this wonderful thing in my hand -- an adult library card. I was a nerdy James Bond, granted a license to read -- regardless of a book's arbitrary library shelving.

By now, you know what book I first borrowed from the Forbidden Lode.

CATCH-22 and I have woven paths through each other's world maybe a dozen times since then. During those four decades I have grown accustomed (almost) to meeting people who never "got" it, and sometimes I've been in the position of actively defending it in one respect or another.

(A common complaint is along the lines of, "It's just too hard to read something that never stops laughing." I tell these people that if they haven't read at least through Chapter 39, "The Eternal City," they really can't say that about CATCH-22. There are many not-quite-funny moments earlier, but "The Eternal City" is Heller's chapter-long interlude saying, "Hey, you, yes YOU! Wake up! You think this is FUNNY, damn it?")

A favorite CATCH-22 moment occurred when I was teaching high-school English in the '70s. We had to teach some works from The Canon, of course, but the department made room for teachers' "pet" titles as well. Luckily, I taught juniors, and the focus for juniors -- that year, at that high school -- was American Lit.

I stood in the book room, looking at the shelves of paperbacks and trying to get excited about any of them.

No way, no freaking way, was I going to teach CATCHER IN THE RYE. Almost every other junior-level teacher for ten years had chosen CATCHER as their out-there title, and the books themselves showed it: graffiti was all over the inside pages, pages fluttered to the floor when you picked one up and thumbed through it. As though symbolically, the once blood-red covers were now dull, their edges gray and fuzzed, and they were held in place with Scotch tape.

I never did find out who in the department had ordered CATCH-22, but obviously no one in the school had ever taught it. The paperbacks were pristine (you could have shaved with their covers). And my mind boiled with the possibility of doing for at least one 16-year-old what Joseph Heller (and my parents) had done for me: blown wide-open my understanding of what a book could do.

So this, then, was my early-adulthood CATCH-22 story:

It was third period, one of my English 3A classes, and we were discussing the book. Suddenly one student, whose first name was Louise, literally stood up at her desk. Understand that this was 1976, and Louise was a 15- or 16-year-old honors student in a wealthy suburban high school who had probably never before simply stood up at her seat, gripping the edge of the desktop with white-knuckled fingers, interrupting a teacher with anything, much less remonstration and outrage. Of course, she'd never read anything like CATCH-22, either.

"Mr. Simpson," Louise said, her voice straining, the veins in her neck and forehead throbbing, "I have no idea what you are trying to do to us but I will figure it out IF IT TAKES ME ALL YEAR!"

(That memory still makes me laugh.)

Fast-forward to spring, 1997. By now I am long gone from New Jersey and comfortably, as much as possible for someone accustomed to four seasons a year, ensconced in North Florida. I've re-read CATCH-22 several times by now, but haven't taught school in 20 years. Now I'm a computer programmer, who's written and published one book (a mystery). And I'm trying to figure out this whole writing thing.

To that end, Toni (The Missus) -- at the time, a grad creative-writing student at Florida State -- and I have formed a writer's group with a few friends. ALL of us are trying to figure out this whole writing thing.

This spring, one of these people -- our friend Andrea -- is named a panelist for an upcoming special conference, several days long, co-sponsored by the FSU English and History departments. "War Stories," it will be called. And it will revolve not around the panelists or indeed anyone else, but around three very special guests whose experiences with war (and stories) are vast and incredible: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; William Styron; and Joseph Heller.

So Andrea says to Toni, "I have two tickets to a cocktail reception and dinner with the three of them. Would you like to come with me?"

Toni looks at Andrea like she's nuts. "Are you kidding?" she says. "The nicest favor you could do for me is invite JOHN. Joseph Heller is GOD to John!"

Long story short (I'll write this up at length sometime, on some other occasion and in some other venue): yeah, I met Heller. He busted out laughing at the story of the about-to-have-his-mind-blown 12-year-old all those years ago. He was a true gentleman and a real charmer, and funny as hell. (In my memory, it is his soft laughter which stitches the evening together.)

And that night Heller, Vonnegut, and Styron sat up late drinking, and closed the bar at the hotel where they stayed during the conference... after spending a hilarious, thought-provoking, entirely instantaneous four hours at a table with no one but Andrea, Toni, and me.

CATCH-22: for me, love at first sight indeed.


Linda said...

Ah... thank you. What a superb post. And so lucky for you to meet not only Heller, but the others. What a perfect bookend to your other anecdotes.

I love CATCH-22. Especially The Eternal City, where everything startes to get luverly dark the way I like my reads. I've read it twice in the past year; my writing instructor recommended it to me when he noted one of my novel chapters reminded him of that crazy horrific traipse through Rome.

Anyway, thanks... your review made my morning. Peace, Linda

Gina Black said...

CATCH-22 is required reading at my house during the summer of the 16th year. I can't imagine anyone having to take on the adult world without its wisdom and humor.

Bernita said...

A major major major good book.

Froog said...

Yes, wonderful to be able to meet a hero after so many years - and have him more than live up to those long-cherished expectations.

I don't want to challenge your assessment too strongly - I loved the book too on first encountering it (though that wasn't until my mid or late teens): it's a fantastic concept, and there's some wonderful writing in it; and I have a particular weakness for black comedy - but, well, I did feel overall that it just went on a bit too long and got rather self-indulgent.

I really, really love Mike Nichols' film version of it (more sacrilege, perhaps, to idolaters of the book?) - an utterly brilliant (and shockingly underrated) movie on every level. It is, I think, quite simply the best literary adaptation I've ever seen, all the more so as it is such a seemingly "unfilmable" novel. Its visual rendering of the most vital elements of the story is stunningly effective; and its canny excision of the more peripheral or repetitive elements makes the core narrative stronger. It's a travesty that the screenwriter, Buck Henry, didn't get an Oscar, nor even a nomination for this.

I hesitate to say this to the book's No. 1 fan (indeed, I hesitate to say this at all, about any movie, because I'm doubtful that a movie can ever adequately capture the essence of a great book, and I think in most cases it shouldn't even be attempted), but I think it may just be an improvement on the book.

JES tells us he is used to responding to such heresies. I hope I haven't unleashed a whirlwind on myself!

JES said...

Thanks so much for the comments!

Froog: Not to worry. I do love the book, but not blindly. I've always believe that SOMETHING HAPPENED, Heller's second novel, was the best of his books, as a book. (At the very least, I wish I'd written a chapter in a book of my own called "I Get the Willies." :)

It's been a long time since I've seen the film. But because of that very "unfilmability" I was always predisposed to cut it some slack. Plus Mike Nichols is a genius. Plus every bit of the casting was superb -- Arkin as Yossarian! Benjamin as the Chaplain! Welles as Dreedle! Prentiss as Nurse Duckett! Newhart as Major Major! [Aside to Bernita: I *just* got that cross-reference in your comment. Duh!]

Thanks again to all.

Lisa said...

This post had me riveted from the start. Your anecdote of that transition from childhood reading to adult books is powerful as is the picture of that sixteen year old student leaping to her feet.

I still cannot quite process the idea of an evening with Heller, Styron and Vonnegut. It, in itself sounds like a fiction!

Thank you for writing this. I've bookmarked it.

Froog said...

Film geek moment: Richard Benjamin was the adjutant, JES; Anthony Perkins was Chaplain Tappman.

Conduit said...

Great article, well written, with a nice personal touch.

I had a crack at Catch-22 when I was about 14 or 15. I got it out of the school library because I'd seen the movie. I have to confess, I didn't get it, and gave up about half-way through. But there are many things (books, movies, music, food) I didn't get when I was a kid that I learned to appreciate in later years. I'm thinking I shoul give Catch-22 another go.

JES said...

Froog: Cor. Good catch.

And oh, the irony: I'd toggled over to IMDB to confirm that Art Garfunkel -- who I remembered as being in the cast -- did in fact play Nately, and not someone else. If I'd looked up the movie's entire cast instead of a specific character...

The Interwebs giveth and they taketh away.

writtenwyrdd said...

I remember Catch 22 fondly. I read it in Jr. High School and loved it. Such a boatload of odd characters.

jennadol said...

JES - What a beautifully written piece. I've never read Catch 22, not even a page - had no idea it was funny - but certainly will now. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm smiling while I read this. Wow. You took me back to my experience with Catch-22. Like yourself I was youngish...15, when one of my 'egg-head' buddies shoved the book in my hand and said: 'Read this.' I was transported. To this day I have not read anything where, sometimes in the same sentence, you would be laughing your head off and by the end of that sentence you were crying. Never read anything like it. Truly one of the great books. And thank you for your wonderful story.

Anonymous said...

A stunning piece of writing.

I maintain that 'The Eternal City' is the greatest chapter ever written in literary history.