Critical Mass readers will know we are now in our fourth year of “NBCC Reads.” This survey allows us to draw on the bookish expertise of our membership, along with former NBCC winners and finalists. This spring's question: What's your favorite comic novel? was inspired by this past year's awards in fiction– NBCC fiction award winner Jennifer Egan's at-times hilarious A Visit from the Goon Squad (which also won this year's Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times book award in fiction) and Irish writer Paul Murray's darkly comic Skippy Dies, an NBCC fiction finalist. We heard from more than 100 of you (thanks!). We do not tabulate votes or rank the titles under discussion. Instead, we simply give an idea of the authors or particular titles that seem to be tickling out collective fancy. Here's the first of the series, and the most noted comic novel of the lot, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, first published in 1961. (We're including worthy second choices here, as well.) We'll be posting further responses and “Long Tail” entries in the weeks to come.
“Catch-22 gets my vote hands down!,” wrote New Orleans-based NBCC autobiography finalist Joshua Clark [pictured here]. “The hilarity stings my soul and sucks away my breath every time I open it and reread a passage. Too often comedy in novels is an empty bubble that bursts upon further inspection, but by somehow mingling heartbreak into all the insanity, Joseph Heller built a mountain that only grows and flowers over time.
“The scene when the Colonel is questioning Metcalfe in a makeshift military court is one of the greatest ever:
“Well, Metcalf, suppose you try keeping that stupid mouth of yours shut, and maybe that's the way you'll learn how. Now, where were we? Read me back the last line.”
” 'Read me back the last line,' ” read back the corporal who could take shorthand.
” Not my last line, stupid!” the colonel shouted. “Somebody else's.”
” 'Read me back the last line,' ” read back the corporal.
” That's my last line again!” shrieked the colonel, turning purple with anger.
” Oh, no, sir,” corrected the corporal. “That's my last line. I read it to you just a moment ago. Don't you remember, sir? It was only a moment ago.”
Honor Moore, a New Yorker and NBCC autobiography finalist, is also a Catch-22 fan:
“Catch-22 was the first contemporary novel I ever read that was funny + nothing in the way of fiction I've read since has pulled a laugh from so deep down,” she wrote.
Others who named Catch-22 as their favorite included these:
Ron Antonucci, head of programming for the Cleveland Public Library:
“The classic comic novel: Catch–22. High comedy, so sadly on target that the laughs always hurt just a bit too much…”
Antonucci's second choice: “Terribly outdated, but still has two or three scenes that know me out every time: Handling Sin, by Michael Malone.”
“For me, the best comic novels use comedy for very serious purposes (think DR. STRANGELOVE in film). Catch-22, Joseph Heller's modern classic, captures the madness and necessity of WWII in a way unavailable to non-comic novels.” Levin also liked White Noise: “We think of Don DeLillo for his dark, serious, ominous themes. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, White Noise parodies academia to expose in part its insufficiencies in the face of environmental disaster, death, and the emptiness of mass consumerism.”
“Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is far and away the funniest novel written, but really, it's only funny if you've actually been in the service. Somehow that shared understanding of the level of absurdity to which the military regiments and compartmentalizes your life merely seems satiric to a reader with no military background. It is NOT satire; it is the way the military really IS.
“John Irving's Hotel New Hampshire (my second choice) has places in it funnier than anything ever written in English.”
“I'll vote for Joseph Heller's Catch-22, but I want to put in a word for Robert Benchley's oeuvre– for those who like ancient texts.”
“Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I didn't appreciate it when I was a mere college student in the early 1960s. But when I was an Army draftee a few years later, I thought it was the best novel I'd ever read.”