The amazing CATCH-22 essentially has three overlapping narratives. One shows senior officers who are comically unsympathetic to the interests of their men. Some of these, such as Colonel Cathcart and General Peckem, are careerists who make decisions according to self-interest (or stupidity and self-interest). Others are incompetents, such as Major Major Major Major and General Sheiskopff, whose authority far surpasses their ability. To me, the careerist officers, while satirical, seemed as real as any modern bungling boss, working smugly in the corner office.

Milo Minderbinder, a genius trader and capitalist, is the dominant character in the second narrative. Technically, Milo is the mess officer at Pianosa, where Yossarian is based. But he has parlayed this job into a food supply syndicate and has become a major commercial player throughout the entire war zone. Milo is a profiteer and entrepreneur whose greed distorts, and sometimes overshadows, the war.

With Milo, Heller shows a world of surrealistic capitalism that thrives as the men in the bombers die. But for me, Milo didn't add much. His adventures make twisted sense. Yet they hit only one note and don't really ripen into something more profound. Milo is the least successful part of this superior and complex book.


The third narrative in CATCH-22 shows the men who fly in the bombers. Here, Heller's work is outstanding. There are men who can't shake the presence of death (Yossarian, Dunbar, Hungry Joe, and Dobbs). There are true believers who accept the mission and its risks (Clevinger and Havermeyer). There is a rich kid (Nately), a reckless hotdog (McWatt), and a doomed alcoholic (Chief White Halfoat). And there are the horrible fatalities (Snowden and Kid Sampson), whose deaths are gruesome and arbitrary.

Heller's work with these characters is absolutely first-rate. While they have cartoonish aspects, each is distinct and each has a surprisingly moving story. Heller also writes about their combat missions with you-are-there intensity. Finally, he connects the reader emotionally to the plight of these characters, especially in the final 150 pages, when the power and poignance of his narratives merge and really hit home. Then, you feel the consequences when you learn that, say, Milo has substituted aspirin for morphine in McWatt's plane on the tragic and high-risk mission to Avignon. "There there," murmurs Yossarian. "There there."