Yossarian at Fifty


Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a libertarian favorite, turns 50 this year, so our friends at the Cato Institute have posted an conversation Heller had with Cato's Inquiry magazine in 1979. The occasion for the interview was the publication of Heller's third novel, the enjoyable satire Good as Gold, but the conversation covers his other books as well. Here's an excerpt:

Q: Another thing that interested me was the effect that writing about the Vietnam War had upon you. It seemed apparent in Something Happened that you felt a sense of moral outrage over our role in the war, and in this one Gold seems to boil in rage at some aspect of it. Was it difficult to write about an issue that is so enraging and draining?

HELLER: No, and this is true of Catch-22 as well. When I'm writing, I am only interested in writing. Now when I'm not writing, I confess I can hear something that will make me boil over. A phrase that really gets to me, for instance, would be one of those neoconservative references to Vietnam as a national tragedy, but only because we lost. That thought fills me with ire. To begin with, the person who says it is typically untouched by tragedy; like me, he has not lost a son or a job. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.

Read the whole thing here.

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  1. Catch-22–a great book and a fine film.

    1. Agreed. Catch-22 is brilliant.

      1. “As always occurred when he quarreled over principles in which he believed passionately, he would end up gasping furiously for air and blinking back bitter tears of conviction. There were many principles in which Clevinger believed passionately. He was crazy.”

        1. And, of course. . . .

          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.

          “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

          “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

          1. When I think about it, all the doubling in the book is practically Lynchian. Clevinger is like the reverse Yossarian, there are Pritchard & Wren, Gus and Wes, the C.I.D. investigators and so forth…

            1. How do you feel about ex-PFC Wintergreen?

              1. Ex-PFC Wintergreen is, in a way a reflection of Yossarian, but despite his desire to go AWOL, he needs the Army and the bureaucracy in a way Yossarian doesn’t.

                1. Kind of what I thought. Is it too simplistic to put his character in the category of those who frequently bitch about life in the military but are, alas, lifers?

                  1. Wintergreen also kind of embodies Hagbards SNAFU principle…

    2. Good As Gold is very good as well. Something Happened should never have happened.

      1. I like Something Happened, but if you go into it expecting a Catch-22– or Good as Gold-style laugh riot you’ll be disappointed. The Heller book that I couldn’t finish is God Knows.

        1. Couldn’t finish Catch-22, found it clunky and just boring. Loved both Something Happened and Good as Gold.

    3. I found Catch-22 a little dull for the first 100 pages or so, but once Heller started weaving together the threads into something like a story, it turned into one of my favorite novels.

    4. Yep. I was hooked from the first page and spent every waking moment for a day or so afterward reading it to the end. This would have been about 1968 or 1969, when I was still in high school and only working part time.

      I recall having a grand argument with my mother, who refused her permission to let me see the movie because it was R (or whatever the rating was back then). Of course I just went to the theater with my friend and we found temporary parents to enter with.

      (As an aside, my father–dead by then–had served as a B25 pilot flying from Corsica, although he was later getting overseas than Heller.)

      I could never get into his other books; I’ll try again some day.

    5. I miss Snowden.

      1. Help the bombardier!

  2. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.

    Here here!

    1. Nonsense. Of course it would have been less tragic — just as the Korean War would have been much more tragic if the North had won and overrun the South.

      1. There seems to be a pretty strongly implied [for Americans] in that statement.

    2. Uh, if we had won the Khmer Rouge would not have come to power and slaughtered over a million people. I would call that a HELL of a lot less tragic.

  3. I didn’t realize the term “neoconservative” was that old.

    1. I noticed that as well.

      1. Three’s a trend.

  4. *two conical thumb-spikes up*

  5. Ask Heller about his views on economics and the role of government and ya’ll may not love him as much. He’s pretty much a typical leftist.

    1. If you stop liking authors because you disagree with their politcs or general worldview you don’t have much left to read.

  6. It’s been a long time since I (first) read it, but the description of Major Major’s (I think) father, the stalwartly independent farmer who believed passionately in the need for everybody else to stand on their own two feet without the support of government assistance, struck me as utterly brilliant.

    1. “His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa.”

  7. This interview with Heller is from the 1980s, but actual as hell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHeBr1BsuJw

  8. I’m about halfway through this book right now and my only opinion of it is: DAMN IT’S BORING!

    Sure, there are some interesting parts but I can’t seem to stay awake long enough to get through two chapters sometimes.

    It’s certainly no Brave New World.

    1. Finish the book.

    2. Agree, coundn’t finish it.

      One plot conceit repeated over and over and over and over and over…….again.

      1. I’m halfway through, as well. But in my case I really liked it; it’s just that another shiny object caught my eye and I haven’t gotten back to Catch-22.

        1. I didn’t find it boring at all. I loved the sentences tangled up in knots almost as much as those in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

          1. I’m with The Art.

            1. If you get the audio book, you will never be able to stop listening. That book was truly intended to be heard and not read

              1. Now that’s an interesting notion.

    3. Brave New World is an overrated piece of shit.

      1. I agree, to an extent. But at least it’s short.

  9. That actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it.


  10. “Neo-conservatives have always been in Oceania.”

  11. “In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic.”

    Apparently, Ho Chi Minh’s totalitarian dictatorship taking over the whole of Vietnam was not much of a tragedy for Mr. Heller.

    1. Do you think a totalitarian dictatorship headed by Ngo Dinh Diem would have been preferable?

      1. How much better was the authoritarian government of South Korea in the early 60s than that of South Vietnam?


        1. No dictatorship is wonderful but if you want to make comparisons of their end results let us also compare today’s Vietnam to today’s North Korea.


        2. Not much, admittedly. However, even they were light years ahead of North Korea’s, past or present.

          I wonder if a victorious Diem regime would have invaded Kampuchea with the threat of Chinese invasion hanging over their heads, though.

      2. In the long run? Yes.

  12. neoconservative


    There were neocons in 1979?!?!

    Someone has some explaining to do.

    1. They’re the intellectual heirs of Woodrow Wilson.

      1. Mcnamara?

  13. I never read Catch-22. And after this post, I probably never will. The sole purpose of war is victory, not, merely, to justify the policy. But it is to prove to those who fought, bled, and died that their sacrifice meant something. For soldiers, that is the only goal in war. It is what MacArthur meant when he said “in war, there is no substitute for victory.” For me, people with Mr Heller’s view “impress me as being the scum of the earth.”

    1. My you get what you want and want what you get.

    2. There are plenty of soldiers all of whom have very different goals, like get out of the army and go to school on the GI bill and all the other benefits that go with military service. Quit acting like people in the military are some kind of moral paladins who act out of honor and valor. They’re just as venal as the rest of the earth.

  14. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.


  15. There are these lines that went goes something like,

    General says, “Private, read me my last line.”

    Private says, “Private, read me my last line.”

    I laughed for 20 fucking minutes. Purple faced laughter.

  16. Troy, is your father a millionaire, or a member of the Senate?

  17. Few opponents of the Vietnam War ever cared about anybody but themselves and their country. It was their own moral purity, not the lives lost and suffering caused that moved them.

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