Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) is one of the most acclaimed novels of the twentieth century. It is a black comedy about life in the military during World War II. It features bombardier John Yossarian, who is trying to survive the military’s inexhaustible supply of bureaucracy and who is frantically trying to do anything to avoid killing and being killed. Heller was able to use his own experiences in the Air Force during World War II to create this character and the novel.
Even though Catch-22 eventually became known as a great novel, it was not originally considered one. When it was first published in 1961, the reviews were tepid and the sales were lackluster. It was not well received at this point at least in part because it presented such a cowardly protagonist at a time when World War II veterans were being lauded for their selfless courage.
Within a few years of the release of the book, as an unpopular war in Southeast Asia was heating up, Heller’s Catch-22 found a new audience eager to enjoy the exploits of Heller’s war-averse protagonist. It was within the framework of this era that Catch-22 was newly discovered, newly examined, and newly credited as one of the century’s best novels.