Yossarian, the protagonist, opens the novel in the hospital, where he is happily feigning illness in order to avoid combat. The outcome of the war is no longer in doubt, and his goal is survival. Indeed, the goal of the army itself seems to be anything but winning the war. The commanders who keep raising the number of missions the men must fly are concerned with their own careers; the bureaucrats who interrupt meals with loyalty oaths are pushing their own departments. Entrepreneurs such as Milo Minderbinder are only interested in making a profit. Heller’s army is a metaphor for the McCarthyism, big business, and big bureaucracy of the Eisenhower 1950’s: a total system with no way out.
The novel’s tricks with chronology give an impression of chaos, but it is carefully structured. Its hysterically humorous skits circle obsessively around the nightmare scene in which Yossarian tries to comfort the dying Snowden. Giving him first aid for a wound in his thigh (the entrepreneurial Milo has sold the morphine), Yossarian learns too late that, hidden inside the flak jacket, Snowden’s guts have been blown out.
Structure is also provided by the steady rise of exemplary figures such as Milo, who makes a tidy profit by renting planes to the Germans to bomb his own men, and the aptly named Scheisskopf, whose mindless devotion to parades leads him from lieutenant to general.
What hope does the novel hold out? At the end, Yossarian is offered the chance to assure his own safety by selling out. Instead, he sets off for neutral Sweden in a rowboat. The humor and the protest, bound together, give CATCH-22 a good claim to the status of our greatest postwar novel.
Karl, Frederick R. American Fiction 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. The judgment of an outstanding critic and biographer on forty years of American novels. Judges Catch-22 as an outstanding product of its time.
Martine, James J. American Novelists. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Heller.
Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22.” Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (August, 1986): 139-152. Detailed discussion of the effect of the novel’s unusual structure on the message it conveys about society.
Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984
Potts, Stephen W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne, 1989. The first single volume devoted exclusively to Catch-22. Discusses most of the major aspects of the novel.
Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. Rev. ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995. For further commentary on the place of Catch-22 in the cultural climate of the 1960’s and its reflection of counterculture attitudes.
Ruas, Charles. Conversations with American Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Contains a section on Heller in part 2 with a detailed interview on his life and intentions that focuses on Catch-22.