The Making of Catch-22


More to the point, it was Algren’s review of Catch-22 (as the novel was retitled when it was published 50 years ago) that gave Heller the biggest boost he ever got. It’s often quoted by scholars. Here, for example, is John Aldridge in the Michigan Quarterly Review, in 1987, pointing out that Algren:

…made what became perhaps the most famous pronouncement on a literary subject to be uttered since John O’Hara announced, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review back in 1950, that Hemingway was “the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare.” Algren, with far greater precision, called Catch-22 “not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel to come out of anywhere in years.”

That was just part of Algren’s claim, which appeared in the Nov. 4, 1961, edition of The Nation, in a review titled ‘The Catch.” Here, in context, is what he wrote . . .

Indeed, Catch-22 is an amazing work, and perhaps not read enough or regarded highly enough today. Whenever I hear talk of the evils of “hysterical realism” (although it seems that this term is much less-used these days than a few years ago) I always wonder why no one denounces Catch-22. Surely it is hysterical realism at its most hysterical, but it is also much too good a book for anyone to trifle with.

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It’s a fair question to wonder why CATCH-22 isn’t indicted with others in the hysterical realism claim. I think the reason my be the more overt satirical nature of CATCH-22, which doesn’t pretend to be based in our world. In fact, it might be better thought of as “realist hysteria”

Can I just say that Catch-22 is an embarrassingly bad book? It is so closely tied to the counter-culture, and is so intimately of a piece with its awkward age, namely, the sixties, that in twenty years or so, when the Boomers begin to die out, it will no longer have a target to aim at in anyone’s memories. It will be nothing more than a barely readable extended joke. It’s a neat idea, to be sure, a war orchestrated by con men, etc., but it is so set in its mock-subjective, reflexively liberal, counter-cultural stance that unlike something like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the nineteenth century, or the complete works of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in recent times, it will be only of historical interest soon enough. But then, it never did have any literary interest at all…

I couldn’t agree with you more P. Catch-22 is a book that feels entirely dated by the waning influence of the counter-cultural trends of the 60’s. Catch-22 seems like a book that you ‘remember’ more than a book you read, and that only if you are in a certain generational timeframe. One generation’s mythology never transfers well to another.

Sorry, I meant, ‘not unlike,’ rather than just unlike. All of the works I listed will be/are irrelevant for any concerns not historical/sociological.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is certainly no Wuthering Heights, nor does Naked Lunch ever approach anything close to the power of Endgame. The former are period-bound curiosities; the latter are literature. Catch-22 fits with the former, I assure you.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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