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My big read

Michael Duffy chooses from the BBC'sBig Read top 100

Catch-22 By Joseph Heller

Until the mid-Fifties, Second World War stories were largely conventional.

Lips were stiff and upper, bravery was unquestioned, loyalty was all. There were blood and guts a-plenty, but they were spilt for a noble cause.

So Catch-22, published in 1955, was doubly shocking. Not only was it cynical about war itself, it was also cynical and, worse, outrageously funny, about the Great American Values for which, apparently, men fought it.

Superficially, it is about a US bomber unit on a small Italian island in 1944. The Germans still hold the industrial north: cue heroism.

But Yossarian, the bomb-aimer who has to lead the other pilots to the flak-protected targets, doesn't want to be a hero. He wants to survive.

This is the tale of how he does so, in an island world in which increasingly, he alone seems sane.

True, if you were crazy you could be excused your flying duties, but as always there's a catch. Catch-22, in fact: if you are sane enough to want not to die, you can't be crazy. So Yossarian goes on flying and his friends continue dying. There's no end in sight, except his own.

It is a bawdy, moral and macabre satire, but it is also gloriously funny.

Its characters, such as Colonel Cathcart, eager to volunteer his men for the most lethal targets, or transport officer Milo Minderbender, for whom the war is one vast commercial enterprise, are quite sufficiently believable. And its set pieces, such as Cathcart's attempts to win promotion by demanding an officers' church parade before each mission ("You mean the enlisted men pray to the same God as we do? And He listens?") are among the greatest comic writing.

Best of all, though, is that nothing changes. The novel is as enjoyable and as uncomfortable today as in 1955, and even more politically incorrect.

Listen to the next pronouncement from the Pentagon or the White House. It could be General Dreedle. Though there's a catch, of course.

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