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Max Orange Logic

I wouldn’t belong to any club that would accept me as a member
-Groucho Marx

I’m not certain on the definition of a successful writer, but when your novel’s title enters the modern lexicon as an independent entity, you’re probably doing OK. Such was Joseph Heller’s experience with Catch-22. The book has been praised as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century, but I’m more impressed with the idea that the phrase will live on forever. I read and discussed Catch-22 in high school – the topic of an oral book report for Stan Buchanan’s English class. Stan played next to Bill Russell on the 1954-55 NCAA Champion San Francisco Dons basketball team, and described himself as the “last of the great pee-wee forwards.” Most people would list this accomplishment as the pinnacle of lifetime achievement, but Stan spoke of walking the streets of Kansas City alone in the wee hours following the championship game, with an oddly empty feeling. The thrill, it seemed, was in the climb and in beating the odds. Now, despite the victory, it was all over. I’m not certain, but I suspect there was some form of catch-22 in Stan’s experience. Fortunately, Buchanan had another specifically idiosyncratic talent: teaching the novel The Great Gatsby. I count winding up in his freshman English class and having him present this book as one of the lucky breaks of my life.

I don’t think my Catch-22 oral report represented the pinnacle of personal achievement for me either, but Stan Buchanan was impressed and told me that I was a smart guy. I was too much of a goofy kid to take the compliment seriously, but I do remember him repeating it to emphasize that it wasn’t the sort of praise that he threw around lightly. I recall small bits from my report, including my mentioning that in order to appreciate the basic premise of the book, one would have to be open to the idea of war being an absurd concept. My Uncle Ned, I suggested, wouldn’t dig the novel. I also mentioned that Joseph Heller spent some time as a screenwriter, working under the name “Max Orange.” This was one of the questions on the test that Buchanan later gave to assure that the class had been paying attention to the various reports: “Who the hell is Max Orange?”

The catch-22 in “Catch-22” is deceptively ingenious. A fighter pilot wants to get out of flying missions, and in order to do so must be declared insane by a military psychologist. The very admission that he wants to stop flying these potentially fatal missions is proof of his sanity, and he’s sent back to fly. While not in the same league as The Great Gatsby, it is a decent book. And the idea that life is filled with catch-22s has come back to me repeatedly over the years. Some of us, it would seem, are better at both spotting and creating them.

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