Monday, April 12, 2010

Catching "Catch as Catch Can" Catchingly

Joseph Heller might over the long haul of time be remembered -- if he is indeed to be remembered at all by posterity, and I think he will -- as the man who coined the term "catch-22." A lot of people in our present know that he also wrote the novel begetting the term, the eponymous "Catch-22" -- which is to my mind one of America's best loved, best novels ever written. Although, as Heller was completely aware, paltry little circumstances had their role, too, and the novel's ultimate widespread notoriety benefited greatly from its well-timed release in the early '60s, just prior to the outbreak of full-blown quagmire in Vietnam.

Forgetting the fact that it was regrettably timely, it has nevertheless become representative of the new American propensity, on the side of the political left and middle in particular (I hesitate to give right-wingers the same credit, because so much of their consortium tends to follow the rigid, standard-bearing views of ideologues (leftist do too, but not with the same abandon and zest, as I see it)), to raise a skeptical eyebrow at the (not always good) history-changing decisions and decision-making in general of American (and global) administrations, institutions, and power structures of every weave.

(The '60s are remembered for this iconoclastic propensity very well, and as an aside, if you ever read William E. Connolly's stellar essay "American Fundamentalism" you'll get a nice picture of how exactly that period spurred the tangential effect of inspiring the patriarchal conservative's counter-movement, that has to this day played an important role in binding white males of all social classes together in the belief that progressivism (and all its constituent parts) is an affront to their manhood. I will digress no further.)

If "Naked Lunch" was the first in a new wave of postmodern fictional works and its pioneering author William S. Burroughs was subsequently put on trial for obscenity, "Catch-22" served nicely as follow up, questioning the very need of such a trial concerned with "obscenity," and pointedly displaying the farce of institutional censorship in all its ugly, illogical (if often humorous) forms. And the novel continues to make a strong case against the same sorts of unfounded authoritative exercises. An imagined Sarah Palin administration springs immediately to mind, divorced of intellectual curiosity and logic.

Heller never achieved anything so memorable or notable again as "Catch-22," which was his first novel ("Something Happened" is to me a great rival, but still only second). It must be said this is in part due to the fact that "Catch-22" would be difficult for anyone to top. It's always a challenge for me to name any novel as my "favorite" but when pressed "Catch-22" is almost always my default pick. It's just so entirely chock full of everything I want in a novel. Which is why finally getting around to reading Heller's posthumously assembled short story (and more) collection "Catch as Catch Can" was a real treat. It's filled with his early short stories, many of which were not published hitherto "Catch Can"'s release. They describe a young Heller as writer, who himself admitted his tendency to ape the narratives of popular writers of the '30s - '40s era (Hemingway and s'orth), which the narrative certainly conveys a sense of. Still, there is something uniquely Hellerian there, and his idiosyncratic sense of humor that coined a term still finds daylight -- in an unvarnished, nascent way, of course.

Better still are his excerpts from both "Closing Time" (the not-quite-well-received sequel to "Catch-22") and a deleted section from "Catch-22" itself, dealing with a hapless calisthenics instructor and his army training regimen, in the familiarly riotous "Catch-22" way. "Closing Time," meanwhile (which I admit I have not read), must have its moments, because the excerpts, at least in vignette form, retain much of the spirit of the original. The characters seem plausibly to be the aged vestiges of their wartime selves, especially Yossarian. There's a one-act play included as well; it deals with Nately's trial. The essays of Heller nearing the conclusion are also worth your time. All in all, the collection is a good way for anyone familiar with "Catch-22" to further acquaint themselves with the man behind the fiction. I am so happy when books do that!

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