Joseph Heller's classic anti-war absurdist satire, Catch-22, is filled with unending examples of black humor, and perhaps the prime reason that it works so well is because of the life-threatening setting that exists in the novel. Set against the World War II backdrop of Pianosa, a tiny island off the Italian coast, the American Air Force personnel located there are faced with both the potentially deadly daily bombing runs as well as the utter incompetence of the officers who administer the facilities. Nearly every character in the novel has an eccentric and mentally unstable side except for the main character, John Yossarian, who everyone believes to be crazy. It is just one of the many examples of the unwritten rule called Catch-22--a final-say catch-phrase for virtually any situation that may arise.
Yossarian seems to be the only character who worries that he may be killed because of the never-ending escalation of bombing runs each pilot and crew must endure. Whenever Yossarian, a bombardier, nears the maximum number that will result in his being sent home to safety, his superior officers raise the number. No one but Yossarian seems concerned, however, and the other men continue their daily brushes with death with little fanfare. One by one, most of Yossarian's pals die; others, like the irascible Aarfy and the capitalistic Milo Minderbinder, are immune to danger. Even when Aarfy rapes an Italian woman and throws her out a window to her death, the military police arrest Yossarian instead--for being AWOL. Only Yossarian questions the decision by Milo to bomb his own base--for a tidy profit, of course. Death is inconsequential, and sanity is mistaken for insanity. Such is the profane and uproariously funny world of Heller's novel, one where the humor is black and neverending.