Monday, November 7, 2011

Catch-22 Week: A Novel With Character(s)

Among other things, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a long parade of characters.  I don't have an exact count but I'm guessing it's something close to a Osmond Family Thanksgiving guest list.

At times, it resembles--intentionally, I'm sure--a vaudeville stage show with wisecracking acts running in from the wings to take center stage for a few minutes before the next comedian bolts in to take the spotlight.  This makes sense, given the fact that the young Joseph Heller was a frequent vacationer in the Catskills of upstate New York, the Borscht Belt comedy circuit for yuk-em-ups like Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, Buddy Hackett and Mel Brooks (who became Heller's lifelong friend).  Slapstick reigns supreme throughout Catch-22 and it's easy to trace the lines from Heller's novel all the way back to the Catskills resorts.

Austin Pendleton (Col. Moodus) and Orson Welles (Gen. Dreedle) in Mike Nichols' film version of Catch-22

Catch-22 is structured around people more than it is linear plot.  Most of the characters get their own chapters which are, by their nature, episodic and little more than 10-page vignettes.  Very, very funny vignettes, I might add.  You can't not love the way Heller serves his characters to us on platters of jiggling Jell-O.

For the first-time reader, however, it can be disconcerting and a little confusing.  Never fear, I'm here to introduce you to a few of the main players.  Here we go:

At the middle of the center of the vortex, there is Yossarian, the bombardier who is convinced "somebody was always hatching a plot to kill him," either directly (by shooting at his plane) or indirectly (by forcing him to fly missions).  He was "a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not.  He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt."  Though he often pleads insanity in his vain attempts to get a Section 8, his is the voice of sanity (at least from our perspective) throughout the novel.  If Heller has an alter ego in the novel, Yossarian is it.

There's Milo Minderbinder, mess officer and war profiteer: "Milo was Sir Major Milo Minderbinder in Malta....Milo had been knighted, commissioned a major in Royal Welsh Fusiliers and named assistant Governor General of Malta because he had brought the egg trade there....Milo was Vice-Shah of Oran. Milo was not only the Vice-Shah of Oran, as it turned out, but also the Caliph of Baghdad, the Imam of Damascus and the Sheik of Araby. Milo was the corn god, the rain god and the rice god."  Milo represents the black heart of capitalism, at one point calling in a bomb-strike on his own camp because he stands to make a profit with the Germans.

There's Havermeyer who likes peanut brittle and lives by himself in a two-man tent where he shoots field mice with a .45.

There's Colonel Cathcart, the group commander and the bane of his men's existence:  "Maybe sixty missions were too many for the men to fly, Colonel Cathcart reasoned, if Yossarian objected to flying them, but he then remembered that forcing his men to fly more missions than everyone else was the most tangible achievement he had going for him....perhaps sixty combat missions were not nearly enough and that he ought to increase the number at once to seventy, eighty, a hundred, or even two hundred, three hundred, or six thousand!"

There's Major Major Major Major, "the long and bony squadron commander, who looked a little bit like Henry Fonda in distress" and who dove out his office window every time someone in his squadron came to talk to him (usually about reducing the number of missions).  "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."

There's General P. P. Peckem, "a general with whom neatness definitely counted."

There's Doc Daneeka who "brooded over his health continually" and had "mournful pouches under both eyes."

There's Chaplain Tappman, an Anabaptist from Kenosha, Wisconsin and the object of affection in the novel's first sentence ("It was love at first sight"): "...the chaplain was almost good-looking, with a pleasant, sensitive face as pale and brittle as sandstone."

There's Hungry Joe who "was a jumpy, emaciated wretch with a fleshless face of dingy skin and bone and twitching veins squirming subcutaneously in the blackened hollows behind his eyes like severed sections of snake."  He claims to be a Life photographer and is always trying to get women to disrobe so he can make them famous (in fact, he was a Life shutterbug before the war, but nobody believes him).

There's Huple, a fifteen-year-old pilot who lied about his age to get into the Army and who shares a tent with Hungry Joe.  He has a cat that likes to sleep on Hungry Joe's face, nearly suffocating him every night.

There's Chief White Halfoat, "a handsome, swarthy Indian from Oklahoma with a heavy, hard-boned face and tousled black hair, a half-blooded Creek from Enid who, for occult reasons of his own, had made up his mind to die of pneumonia.  He was a glowering, vengeful, disillusioned Indian who hated foreigners with names like Cathcart, Korn, Black and Havermeyer and wished they'd all go back to where their lousy ancestors had come from."

There's Captain Flume, the public relations officer who lives in self-imposed exile in the forest outside the base after Chief White Halfoat threatens to slit his throat from ear to ear.  The chaplain runs into him one day while walking in the woods: "A pair of captain's bars ulcerated with rust hung on the man's ragged shirt collar.  He had a hairy, tar-black mole on the underside of one nostril and a heavy rough mustache the color of poplar bark."

There's Major ______  de Coverley, "an ominous, incomprehensive presence."  It's not until page 212 that Heller lets us know why there's a blank space in his name: "Everyone was afraid of him, and no one knew why.  No one even knew Major _____ de Coverley's first name, because no one had ever had the temerity to ask him."  His only official duties are pitching horseshoes, renting apartments for the soldiers on R&R, and kidnapping Italian workers.

There's Captain Aardvark ("Aarfy" to those who know him): B-25 navigator, social climber, rapist, and murderer.  Without a doubt, the most unlikeable character in the novel.

There's General Dreedle, the wing commander: "a blunt, chunky, barrel-chested man in his early fifties.  His nose was squat and red, and he had lumpy white, bunched-up eyelids circling his small gray eyes like haloes of bacon fat."

There's Colonel Moodus, General Dreedle's inept son-in-law.  It's no accident his name sounds like "Doofus."

And there's more where they came from.  I haven't even mentioned the Soldier Who Sees Everything Twice, the C.I.D. man who catches pneumonia, the Texan from Texas "who looked like someone in Technicolor," Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, and the Dead Man in Yossarian's Tent (his name is Mudd).  And more, so many more.

While not all the members of Catch-22's population are fully-formed or successfully-realized on the order of, say, a Charles Dickens novel, Heller is wildly successful at establishing not just literary figures, but personas who manage to come to life off the page in very real fashion.  Yossarian and Milo Minderbinder, for instance, have pop-culture significance well beyond the boundaries of the novel.  Heller's imagination has spun creations who make us laugh in just the short space of a few well-chosen descriptive words.

I should also say I'm also a little pissed Heller stole some of the great character names.  Colonel Korn, for instance.  Or, goddamn it, Major Major.

On the other hand, I'm still holding out hope I can use Major Woody* sometime in a story.

*The real name of an officer I once served with.  Imagine his dread when, as a captain, he was facing promotion....and then his unutterable relief at making lieutenant colonel.

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