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Catch-22 (and other debut novels that blow my mind)

I just finished re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the umpteenth time. I first read it as a freshman in college. My roommate had to read it for his English lit class, and had left it lying around the room. I picked it up and casusally scanned the first several pages, and I was totally hooked.

Heller’s black humor about the plight of U.S. Army aviators during World War Two really grabbed me, as did the anti-authoritarian message. So was the general misanthropy that was pretty much in line with my own uncomfortable 18-year-old’s realizations about how the world really worked, and the motives (and intelligence) of those in power.

I have recently been on a Catch-22 kick, having started watching the 2019 Hulu series, that broke the story up into six ~50 minute episodes. It started out okay, but as it diverged more and more from the original story, I got more and more upset. By the end of the final episode, I was hurling curses at the screen. In my opinion, they really buggered up the ending (thanks, George Clooney). It was so bad, I had my wife sit through Mike Nichols’ 1970 movie adaptation just so she would have an appreciation for the actual structure of the book – and the ending.

Of course, it would be nearly impossible to catch all of the intricate plot twists and the planeload of characters that Heller includes in the novel. The story’s timeline does not lend itself to screen adaptation, as it jumps from event to event with limited cues. I know that entire graduate school theses have been written regarding the timeline of the novel. I once read the book cover-to-cover three times in a row trying to puzzle it out myself (with limited success).

This was shortly after I had started writing my first novel manuscript (as yet unpublished – maybe later this year?) I was blown away by the fact that Catch-22 was Heller’s debut novel. I knew that I would never be able to match his prose and characterizations, but I figured I could pick up a few pointers. (I probably didn’t.)

That got me to thinking about debut novels, and how some of them – like Catch-22 – were just so mind-meltingly good. Granted, Heller worked on that manuscript for seven or eight years before it was published, and he had the literary education and experience to really hone his authorial chops. Nevertheless, as a debut novel, it’s fantastic.

Which led me to the topic of other unbelievably good debut novels that will always make me feel slightly inadequate as an author. Actually, the list is pretty damn long. And even if they do make me feel like Orr paddling away with his plastic-spoon-sized paddle, these titles continue to inspire me to keep cranking away at the keyboard in the hope that someday I’ll be able to produce something a fraction as good as these authors managed to write out of the gate:

  • The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  • To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  • Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  • Carrie – Stephen King
  • The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  • V. – Thomas Pynchon
  • The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* – Hunter S. Thompson (this one gets an asterisk as it has long been rumored that this was really nonfiction, but classified as a “novel” to provide legal cover for the author’s, um, proclivities)

I could keep going, as well as mentioning others that I should have read, but haven’t yet (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for one). These are the books that keep me writing when it all seems like a foolish endeavor.

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