SELECTING TEN NOVELS that sum up the era we refer to as “the Sixties” would be a task worthy of a minor Greek demi-deity. And by the Sixties, I am referring to the whole peace-love-do-your-own-thing counterculture: pot and acid and consciousness expansion and free love—lots and lots of free love—and rock & roll and Zap Comix and you know the rest.
Such a list would not even entertain the possibility of including most mainstream novelists, including best-sellers like Saul Bellow, James Michener, Philip Roth, John Updike, or my favorite author, James Clavell.
My first thoughts for such a list would go to science fiction titles that were adopted by countercultural types (for the sake of convenience, we’ll call them “hippies”), especially Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land.
This article originally appeared on my other blog on October 7, 2014. It is posted here now as it fits the theme of this site.
Any such list would have to include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings trilogy (which is actually one novel in three large volumes). If more fantasy books were available, no doubt some would have attracted attention, but until the unprecedented success of the Tolkien books, few American publishers had any fantasy in print.
But there are two so-called mainstream novels that should make anyone’s Top 10 Sixties Novels: Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. 1
Fortunately, four years ago I published a piece on Heller’s book, “Yossarian Lives! (and He’s an Octogenarian).” As it fits the theme of this site, I have appropriated it and moved it here. It is indented between the first image below (the cover of the first edition of the book) and the final image (Yossarian in the cockpit of his plane).
This is the first US edition of Catch-22 by Simon & Schuster (June 1961) is bound in blue cloth with the top edges of the pages stained red. “First Printing” appears on the copyright page. The dust jacket has $5.95 on the bottom of the front flap and the author’s picture on the back with no blurbs.
I forgot Yossarian’s birthday!
I found an article titled “Catch-22: A Paradox Turns 50 And Still Rings True” for NPR Books and thought, “Holy Minderbinder! It’s Yossarian’s birthday and I forgot!” I thought this because I saw the October in the article’s dateline and registered it as for this October of 2014. It is not—it was for 2011, meaning that I did forget Yossarian’s birthday. And Doc Daneeka’s and Orr’s and Aarfy’s and Milo’s. But so what!
If you are over 50—or if you are one of the unusually literate among the seemingly functionally illiterate generations that have been followed us—and you haven’t read Catch-22, you are missing a touchstone of the post-WWII American cultural psyche of the ‘we-are-f*cking-up-badly-but-I-still-give-a-damn’ crowd. 2
Why is Catch-22 a touchstone? The book’s bitter but ironic description of modern war-making specifically—and all other forms of unilateral, authoritarian decision-making generally—describes the hypocrisy and insanity of our times and justifies the paranoia of just about everyone better than any screed ever written by a radical lefty or righty!
This is the first Dell paperback edition of Catch-22 (1962) that I read in the late ’60s. I found it at Back Date Books & Magazines on South Main Street in Wilkes Barre, where paperbacks were 10¢ each or three for a quarter, with or without the cover intact.
There was only one catch
Merriam-Webster defines catch as a noun as “a hidden problem that makes something more complicated or difficult to do.” This is how Heller describes the catch in his story:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.” 3
The novel’s narrative deals with Captain John Yossarian’s attempts to find a way out of the war and back home to normalcy. I am not going to say anything more, except that the importance of the book is not in the plot. 4
If Catch-22 had been made as a black and white film in Europe and came with subtitles, it would have been a critical rave and an art-house fave.
A corollary to the main meaning of catch-22 also found in the book is that “Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.”
In the case of the novel, the “agent” stating the corollary is an MP, so one could apply this corollary to anyone with a police-state mentality, who appear to abound in our society.
All catch-22s exist as a threat to the freedom and dignity of the individual, which should make every catch-22 something to be loathed by everyone, regardless of one’s political bent.
Finally, the book is beautifully written, very funny (if black humorously so), occasionally tragic, and always entertaining and possibly even illuminating!
A must-read to be read now for anyone who has forgotten the spirit of ‘the Sixties’ or just never grokked it! And there are many editions to choose from!
Prior to the Internet, you would have had to have been a collector who haunted specialist used bookstores to see anything but new books or the more common titles as used books. Now, finding various editions of favorite books from different publishers in different counties can be done in a few minutes at your computer!
This is the first UK edition by Jonathan Cape (1962), which sports much more interesting artwork on the dust-jacket.
Catch-22 as a movie
In 1970, Paramount Pictures turned the successful novel into an unsuccessful movie: Catch-22 was produced by John Calley and Martin Ransohoff and was directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay by Buck Henry.
It starred Alan Arkin as Yossarian and included Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight, and Orson Welles, along with youngsters Bob Balaban, Charles Gordin, and Martin Sheen. Plus there’s one of the era’s the sexiest actresses, Paula Prentiss.
By “unsuccessful” above I mean that it did not light the fire of many critics and was a box-office disaster, losing millions for Paramount. Its reputation as a cinematic disaster has followed it for almost fifty years.
But for some of us, Catch-22 was one of the best films of 1970, a year full of fine films. It was an astounding adaptation of portions of the book. The movie did capture the bleak, black humor and the often surreal situations. While the cast was uniformly excellent, Jon Voight shone as Milo Minderbinder, especially his boyishly enthusiastic explanation of his deal with the Germans to bomb one another’s camps to save time and money.
“Catch-22 was not regarded as a great success with the contemporary  public or critics. The film appeared as Americans were becoming resentful of the bitter and ugly experience of the Vietnam War, leading moviegoers to quit seeing [most] war movies of all kinds. 5
Despite the film’s commercial and critical failures, it was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography and retained a cult following. A modern reassessment has made the film a cult favorite; it presently holds an 88% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.” (Wikipedia)
As one of the few who saw the movie in the theaters in 1970, I enjoyed it and recommended it to others. If memory serves me well (as it still usually does), a very favorable review appeared in Rolling Stone that said something along the line of “If this film had been made in Europe, in black and white, and came with subtitles, it would be a critical rave and an art-house fave.”
This is the first UK paperback edition of Catch-22 from Corgi Books (1964). It features a cover that immediately brought to my imagination Hitler and Nazis and the SS and swastikas. Effective, Yah? Nein?
Another blessing from the Internet
So, is Catch-22 representative of the era we refer to as the sixties? Hell yes! It’s far more representative than a lot of the comic books that are turning up as over-produced, over-hyped movies that people salivate over. It’s far more representative than a lot of the lame rock albums that are mentioned as “classics” from the era.
I am saying this as someone who loves ’60s rock and writes paeans to their glory in my other blogs.
I am saying this as someone who loves comic books and bought them all back then.
I am saying that as one of the few who saw the movie in the theaters in 1970, I enjoyed it then, I have enjoyed rewatching it since, and I am still recommending it to others—and that includes you!Holy Minderbinder! It was the 50th anniversary of the publication of CATCH-22 and I forgot! Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: Alan Arkin as Everyman Yossarian displaying his attitude towards his superior officers who keep increasing the number of combat missions he has to fly before they let him go home.
1 I would understand anyone wanting to consider other mainstream titles—I keep looking at John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy and several Kurt Vonnegut novels.
2 You know who you are: the ‘I-can’t-read-or-write-cursive-or-sit-through-a-whole-book-and-don’t-give-a-damn’ crowd foisted upon us by an underfunded school system, a lost civilization, and deranged politicians who seem hell-bent on creating the necessity for an ever greater welfare society while damning welfare simultaneously.
This latter crowd is similar to, but not necessarily synonymous with, such groups as those termed ‘librulls’ and ‘progressives’ and ‘sixties leftovers.’ They are not to be confused with the conservative ‘everybody-else-is-f*cking-up-badly-but-I-still-give-a-damn’ crowd, between which there are more similarities than their leaders want us to be aware of. But that’s another story.
3 Since the example is specific to the plot of Heller’s novel, here is a more generalized definition of the ‘logic’ behind Heller’s concept for practical, everyday usage:
“A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules. Catch-22s often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over because to fight the rule is to accept it.
Another example is a situation in which someone is in need of something that can only be had by not being in need of it. One connotation of the term is that the creators of the catch-22 have created arbitrary rules in order to justify and conceal their own abuse of power.” (Wikipedia).
4 Of course, as so many veterans of the European and Pacific theaters of operation discovered when they did return home in 1946, their ‘normalcy’ wasn’t everyone else’s ‘normal’ anymore.
5 Critic Lucia Bozzola wrote, “Paramount spent a great deal of money on Catch-22, but it wound up getting trumped by another 1970 anti-war farce, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.”
This is a later edition from Corgi Books (1970?) features Yossarian as a latter-day Stands With Fist. But something is missing—like maybe an extended middle finger.