Not Quite Caught Up
by Pam Balluck
"Catch-22" has been a cultural catchphrase since Joseph Heller’s novel was released, during my infancy, to a reading public referred to as “post-war” (the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War), though America was already in Vietnam. Nearly a decade later, in my adolescence (with the U.S. still in Vietnam), the film adaptation starring Alan Arkin wasn’t exactly a hit, next to Patton and M*A*S*H, but Heller’s WWII bombardier and Catch-22 regained momentum, and they continue to influence us in the 21st century. Catch-22 is here to stay as part of our lexicon, our vernacular--what to call a dilemma in which the solution to one problem senselessly causes or insolubly frustrates the solution to another, and you can’t win for losing.
I was an English graduate student in my early 40s negotiating the composition of my reading list for doctoral exams at the University of Utah when I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d been using this expression--Catch-22--most of my life (was even crazy about a guy with a dog named Yossarian in the ’80s) yet had never read the book. I bought a new paperback of Heller’s novel, but it somehow got elbowed off my exams list and onto the stack of unread books teetering at my bedside. When I finally plucked it out for pleasure, I pushed my way through only nine of its 42 chapters, stopping on page 113. I admit this with shame; I used to pride myself on the fact that I wouldn’t put a novel down for good until the end.
But Catch-22 is a very black comedy about war, and I--in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency--just didn’t have the patience or sense of humor for the insane reasoning Yossarian is subjected to.
I owe Catch-22 a full reading. For now, I’m not up to it. It’s not that I’ve dumped the book, per se. I’ve called a time-out. (It’s not you, Catch-22, you classic number-one bestseller, it’s me!)
Apparently, my conscience won’t leave this alone. On my last two road trips from Salt Lake City--to and from California; to and from Montana--I had the audiobook version with me but opted to listen to other books instead and returned the CDs of Catch-22 to the library at trips’ ends. Maybe it’s because I still feel invested in 113 pages of dog-ears, highlighted passages, and margin notes. Maybe it’s because, near the end of Obama’s first term, we’re still digging into and still pulling out of Bush’s infuriating wars.
At home, the spine of Heller’s novel still stares at me from the shelf, daring me to find my way back to it...and when I do, to start over, if not fresh, on page one.
Pam Balluck was born in New York, raised in California and Montana, and lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches writing at the University of Utah. Her creative writing has appeared in such publications as Western Humanities Review, The Southeast Review, Quarter After Eight, Square Lake, Jabberwock Review, Pank, Barrow Street, Night Train, Avery Anthology, Freight Stories, and is forthcoming in Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories and Prime Mincer. A version of this article, "Not Quite Caught Up in Catch-22" first appeared in the Bookshelf section of the Summer 2007 Continuum, in which the editors of Quarterly West discuss "books they've picked up and put down (sometimes more than once), and why they intend to get to that last page...one of these days."