TIME Magazine, Oct. 27, 1961
Horror & Hilarity. This kind of magnificent illogic whips like a mistral all through the novel, blowing both sequence and motivation into a rubble of farcical shocks and grisly surprises. Catch-22 is held together only by the inescapable fact that Joseph Heller is a superb describer of people and things. Take his portrait of a character called Hungry Joe: "A jumpy, emaciated wretch with a fleshless face of dingy skin and bone and twitching veins squirming subcutaneously in the blackened hollows behind his eyes like severed sections of snake. Hungry Joe ate voraciously, gnawed incessantly at the tips of his fingers, stammered, choked, itched, sweated, salivated and sprang from spot to spot fanatically with an intricate black camera with which he was always trying to take pictures of naked girls." And Heller can fill one page with yammering, visceral horror, can make the next prance with fleecy hilarity. He can, in short, write with a fire not often found in today's muted mood-piece novels.
Heller's Yossarian might have been the creature of a benign Kafka—engagingly bedeviled, drolly pathetic. By feigning madness in ways that only a madman could invent (standing naked in formation to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross, marching backward in parades), Yossarian proclaims his withdrawal from the whole business of the war itself.
Bogs & Abundance. Heller's talent is impressive, but it also is undisciplined, sometimes luring him into bogs of boring repetition. Nearly every episode in Catch-22 is told and retold. With each telling, some new detail, some further revelation is dangled like a carrot for the reader who reads on and on until he feels like "The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice" (the ironic title of one chapter). Heller fights a nip-and-tuck battle with the twin temptations of redundance and abundance, succumbs shamelessly to blatant gag writing until much of his dialogue resembles an old Smith & Dale vaudeville sketch ("Why can't you marry me?" "Because you're crazy." "Why am I crazy?" "Because you want to marry me"). But an overdose of comic non sequitur and an almost experimental formlessness are not enough to extinguish the real fire of Catch-22.