Wednesday, August 15, 2012
The book of my adolescence.
(Mitt Romney, as you might expect, is something of an Etch-a-Sketch when it comes to his favorite books. In 2007, during his presidential run, he said his favorite book was Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. During the current candidacy, he says he loves the Twilight books.)
When I was an adolescent, the book I loved was Catch-22. It is the only book I read from cover to cover and then started over at the beginning immediately. As I have made clear, right now I am reading the novels of Patrick O'Brian obsessively, but between voyages with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, I have been reading books by other authors, so I thought I'd give Joseph Heller another read after nearly forty years away from it.
Truth to tell, it doesn't hold up very well for me.
It was interesting to read the essays that are included in the 50th anniversary edition. Heller admits that the book is really much more about Korea and the America of the 1950s than it is about World War II. Norman Mailer writes a critical essay, saying he put it down several times with no intention of completing it, but finally came back to it and considers it one of the best works of all his contemporaries.
Like Mailer, I almost didn't finish the book this time. The world Yossarian inhabits is a Kafkaesque nightmare with every man for himself and God against all. I get enough of that in real life. There are some vague sex scenes, which I'm sure I enjoyed as a sixteen year old virgin, but as a man in his fifties who has had sex, they didn't do that much for me. There are other funny books I've read that can make me laugh even on multiple readings, notably Thurber and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who was a close personal friend of Heller's after both of them became successful. Heller's stuff didn't quite tickle my funny bone this time.
I didn't hate the book and I could see why I loved it as a teenager, but I very much doubt I'll be reading it a fourth time. Now I am back on the happy Surprise with Aubrey and Maturin, with brave, reliable Barret Bonden and disagreeably comic Preserved Killick. They are much better company than the wretched crew of officers flying planes out of Pianosa, forced to fly more and more missions by the vicious colonels Cathcart and Korn.