I first read Catch 22 about 20 years ago. I took a well-loved paperback off of a shelf in my dad’s home. The margins of its yellowed pages were crammed with his notes. I still have that book. It is being held together with duct tape and will power. What I remember most about that first reading is that I felt simultaneously inspired and demoralized by it. It was, it IS, an amazing book. The story, the characters, the prose… the combination of it all was enough to break my heart. When I think that Heller wrote this book as an undergrad, it depresses the hell out of me. I was reading that book at the same age Heller was when he wrote it. I could barely cook myself dinner. I still had to have my mom call me and wake me up so I wouldn’t sleep through final exams. How could a kid my age write something this insightful and mature? And why for the love of everything couldn’t I?
What is it that makes this book so unbelievably great? Is it that Heller uses words like sibilant and Saturnalia without skipping a beat? Or is it the way that he plays with the timeline so that the order of events is muddled and yet the narrative stays clear? Or is it the characters that are both so absurd and so true to life? Or is it maybe the fact that I feel like I am there, really there, experiencing with Yossarian and Dunbar and the rest those long periods of boredom colored only by summer camp like shenanigans until they are interrupted by terrifying episodes that remind us (as if we could forget) that there is a war going on? Is it that this book about World War II written in 1961 feels like it could have been written yesterday about any group of soldiers anywhere? It is all of that and so much more.
I can not bear the thought of the pages of my dad’s paperback crumbling under my touch, so the book stayed in its spot on the shelf and instead I listened to the audio recording narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Sanders is the perfect narrator for this book. His expressive intonations are just… perfect. Did I already say that? Well, sue me, but it’s true. He strikes just the right notes of desperate hilarity and exasperated terror. His Doc Daneeka is spot on. Really. He sounds like the characters sounded in my head. And that is high praise coming from someone who had to make some serious mental adjustments to Roy Dotrice’s ah-maaaz-ing narration of the Game of Thrones series. In fact, the only qualm I have with this audio recording of Catch 22 is the seemingly random insertions of military music. I wouldn’t mind the music, but I feel like I am missing something about why it is placed where it is. The music plays spontaneously in the middle of chapters and at some moments of significance, but not others. I couldn’t make sense of it, so I did my best to ignore it.
So, obviously I think that everyone who has never read this book should read it (or listen to it) and those that have read it should reread it, but to the Catch 22 virgins I will issue a warning. This book is hilarious until it isn’t. It is weird and funny and the inherent unfairness of life is surreal and comical until it stops being even a little funny and then it’s Kafka on a bad trip but still so artful and eloquent and soulfully true that you want to slow down and read every word one letter at a time to try to soak up all of their meanings. Keep your thesaurus handy (sibilant means making a hissing sound, by the way) and enjoy.