Good as Gold

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

This is Joseph Heller’s third novel. His first, Catch-22, a blackly ironic depiction of the airman’s lot in World War II, has achieved the status of a modern classic. Faced with that kind of success in his initial effort with fiction, Heller then published Something Happened, a straightforwardly told and often depressingly realistic depiction of modern family life. After Catch-22, this was not what Heller’s wider readership was expecting, and so the work has received a mixed, generally lukewarm response. In Good as Gold, Heller returns to the vision of Catch-22, that life is basically a black comedy in which logic and rationality have little to do with the outcome of things, and in which appearance matters far more than substance. Our hopes, dreams, and desires are prisoners of an order which is outrageous, yet we are trapped beyond escape. If Good as Gold occasionally seems a thin book, it is not because of any fault in the clarity of Heller’s vision, but perhaps because he himself senses the inherent futility of his central character’s situation.

Since, in Good as Gold, Heller transfers the central vision of Catch-22 from its original World War II setting to post-Watergate Washington, it might be helpful to review briefly the central irony of Heller’s first novel. Set on an island off the coast of Europe during the war, Catch-22 involves a number of members of a bomber squadron who fly frequent missions against Nazi Germany. Every mission is fraught with the danger of being killed, yet the bomber crews are supposed to have regular periods of rest after a set number of missions. Their commanding officer, however, tries to curry favor with his superiors through constantly raising the number of missions each man must fly before he is eligible for his leave. The consequences for the morale and mental health of the bomber crews are devastating, to say the least. There is, however, one way out; if a man is certified to be insane, he may be granted his leave at any time. Unfortunately, there is a catch, Catch-22; the only way a man may be declared insane is to request the diagnosis, but to make such a request is a sign of sanity. And so the missions go on.

Instantly recognized as an apt description of the nature of military life, Catch-22 found a wide readership, especially during the Vietnam War. For many nonmilitary people, the basic situation in Catch-22 has seemed equally applicable to civilian life, especially in regard to the functioning of large bureaucracies such as major corporations or governments. What Heller has done in Good as Gold is to make this vision explicit, on two levels. On the one hand, Gold, the central character, finds a whole series of Catch-22 situations facing him as he seeks employment in the federal government. On the other hand, he finds a similar problem arising in the context of his own extended family. Good as Gold does represent one advance over Catch-22, however, in its exploration of causality. In...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)