It's a rare book whose title becomes part of peoples' everyday speech. But that's what happened with Catch-22, Joseph Heller's surreal satire about an Air Force squadron based in North Africa during the final stages of World War II. The book had barely been in print for two years when people began to refer to situations and circumstances -- those times when the world seems to say "gotcha" -- as being a catch-22.
The novel Catch-22, though, has proven to be more than just a handy way of describing one of the more bedeviling aspects of modern life. Fifty years after its initial publication, it is being celebrated as a cultural milestone with a special edition printing that recognizes Heller's achievement as one of the great American novels, an enduring work of art.
Jon Eller, a professor of English and senior textual editor at the Institute of American Thought at IUPUI, has had a significant hand in the anniversary edition that was published by Simon & Schuster in June. Eller, who first read Catch-22 as a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1969, is a literary detective, a scholar whose specialty is uncovering the often tangled stories hidden behind the publication books that wind up becoming known and taught as literature.
Eller contributed an original historical essay for the new Catch-22 volume and selected an array of accompanying essays by such writers as Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Norman Mailer and Anthony Burgess. Eller's section of the book also includes an essay by Joseph Heller, as well as copies of manuscript pages, photos and examples of advertisements that helped make the book, Heller's first novel, a runaway success.
Eller recently talked to NUVO about the 50th edition of Catch-22 at his sub-basement office in the Institute of American Thought at IUPUI.
NUVO: How did you come to be involved with the 50th anniversary edition of Catch-22?
Jon Eller: I was a major in the Air Force in 1986, and I was teaching at the Air Force Academy. We hosted a 25th anniversary celebration of Catch-22. Joseph Heller came out for a series of events, including a screening of Mike Nichols' 1970 film. We had a great week with him.
As it happened, I had been sent to Brandeis University to go through Heller's papers, which he had given to Brandeis. I found a couple of chapters, which were deleted from Catch-22. One of those chapters Heller published as a short story in Playboy. But the other chapter he had literally lost track of. I pointed this out to him and he wound up publishing it in Playboy, as well.
I stayed in touch with him because he was fascinated by the kind of work a textual scholar goes through covering the history of a text –- how it's translated from a writer's manuscript into typescript into submission to a publisher, then, once purchased, through the press work stages of galleys, page proofs and publication. All the crazy things that can happen to a book during that process. That led me, in the early 1990s, to publish a monograph on Catch-22, which Heller actually revised and corrected for me.
NUVO: What was Joseph Heller like?
Eller: He was a very genial man, a brilliant writer, a public figure who was totally at ease in an academic environment. He had been a college instructor and had graduate degrees in English, so he was comfortable talking about his novels as literature. He had also been an advertising writer on Madison Avenue, so he knew how to help people market his book and he got along very well with his editors, his publishers and his agents. He was easy to talk to and easy to get along with.
NUVO: Why should we still care about Catch-22?
Eller: The book is important because it's brilliant satire. It's harsh, which is meant to make people aware -- to teach and to elevate in one sense – but also to present a mirror to the dark forces. We should remember Catch-22 because as long and complicated as it is in some places – some people would say it's overwritten – it really hits the point of the darker side of the American dream and shows how important, in any free society, the dissenter is.
The person who would be an anti-hero is often more virtuous than the person who goes along with the company line. Heller is not really writing about the Air Force. He's not really writing about World War II. He's writing in a more universal sense about any kind of corporate structure where the technology, the science, the power base is so involved with its own goals and aims that it loses sight of the moral high ground.
It's a book you have to take time to read carefully. Everyone in the novel is crazy. But the story pulls you through –- the humor, the brilliance of the situations, the lunacy of it all. It's also a big book, depending on the edition, it's over 450 pages. The plot is complex. Joseph Heller maintained a very large desk blotter grid of characters and events, just to keep it all straight as he was working on the final drafts.
NUVO: What was your first encounter with the book like?
Eller: The challenge for me as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, where your time is structured around a 28-hour day, where sleep is optional, was to literally find the time to read the book through. In spite of the challenges. I think most of us made the time to read the novel because it was important –- not just as hilarious relief from military training, a way to lampoon authority figures -– but as a think piece. It's a book that makes you think about the values of all points of view in any organization –- military, civilian, corporate or academic.
NUVO: How would you assess Catch-22's impact on the culture?
Eller: Heller said he felt the Vietnam War lurking somewhere in the future, but couldn't know it was coming. In that sense, this novel, along with other novels of the late '50s, really foreshadowed the high gear that public dissent would rise to during the 1960s. Let me quote Heller here: "Without being aware of it, I was part of a near movement in fiction. While I was writing Catch-22, J.P. Donleavy was writing The Ginger Man. Kerouac was writing On the Road. Ken Kesey was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Pynchon was writing V and Vonnegut was writing Cat's Cradle. I don't think any one of us even knew any of the others. Certainly, I didn't know them. Whatever forces were at work shaping the trend in art were affecting not just me, but all of us."