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Joseph Heller

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to, but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."

Long before the late Douglas Adams offered us his own distinctive blend of absurdity in the Hitchhiker "trilogy," the late Joseph Heller had tapped a similar literary vein in his classic novel Catch-22. In the tale of Captain Yossarian's increasingly incongruous attempts to get discharged from the US Army during World War II, along with the motley assortment of bizarre military men who insist on getting in his way - from Major ----- de Coverley to Major Major ("Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three."), the tone of Heller's book clearly evokes comparison to the later intergalactic adventures of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect.

But, with all due respect to M. Adams, this comparison misses an essential difference between the two writers' visions. For, while Adams uses absurdity mostly for absurdity's sake, there is a darker method to Heller's madness. The ridiculousness of Yossarian's frantic plight parallels the illogic of war, a conflict among nations that chews up and spits out the very men that those nations were designed to protect. Whatsmore, as in the writings of Samuel Beckett, the ultimate struggle that Yossarian faces isn't about Col. Cathcart's ever-rising number of missions or Doc Daneeka's refusal to ground him, but the meaninglessness of life itself in the face of inexorable mortality. Behind every page of Catch-22 and every attempt by Yossarian to avoid his fate lurks Snowden's Secret: "Man was matter...Drop him out the window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all." And from Snowden's Secret, as from Catch-22, there is ultimately no escape, for Yossarian or for anyone else.

Absurd and profound, uproarious and unnerving, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is justly remembered as one of the great anti-war novels of all time.

Heller Highwater.

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