by Joseph Heller
Captain John Yossarian is a bombardier in the 22nd Squadron of the Army Air Forces during World War II, stationed on Tutunosa in the Mediterranean Sea in 1944 (22 + 22). John is in the hospital when the novel opens. He wants out of the war, so he pretends that he had an arm blown off by shrapnel because he knows the hospital can't check his claim (their x-ray machine is broken)
There are all sorts of wacky people in the hospital, as you might expect (c.f. M.A.S.H., "M.A.S.H.," and "After M.A.S.H.") Some of the more colorful characters include the "soldier in white" who is really an empty full-body cast that everyone thinks has someone in it, and a bigoted Texan that everyone but the soldier in white wants to kill.
Back at the base, John has quite a few wacky people in his squadron as you might expect (c.f. Operation Petticoat, "Sergeant Bilko," "America's Funniest Military Videos," and FOX News). They include McWatt (a pilot who is afraid to fly higher than 10 feet off the ground), Natly (who thinks money can buy happiness), Colonel Cathcart (who likes danger, particularly other people's), Orr (who is great at making inventions out of what is at hand and ends up stranded on a desert island with a rich couple, two girls, and a pair of sailors), and Doc Daneeka (who people only remember because he explains what a catch 22 is, which we won't be doing here).
At this point, the novel is still pretty funny. There are all sorts of wacky situations (like when John postpones a mission by replacing the officers' map of Italy with one of Middle Earth), and hardly anyone that you are personally introduced to dies.
Things get ugly pretty quick, though. John feels guilt because he missed bombing a target, and when he asked the crew to go back so he can have a second shot, he hits the target but one of his crewmates dies. Then they go out for bologna, and on the way back some of his friends' planes are hit. Then after a mission to Algernon to get some flour, John has a cup of coffee, and when he goes back for another one he trips and spills hot coffee on a gunner named Snowden, killing him. This last incident -- along with bizarre jokes about hot coffee's effect on "Snow" -- keep coming up for the rest of the novel.
Things don't get any less grim from there. Milo, who works in the mess hall, finds that he can make a lot of money only selling things to black people. McWatt's penchant for flying low causes trouble during a U.S.O. show when he inadvertently decapitates Bob Hope. Kid Sampson gets tired of the war and splits. Nately keeps taking his plane to visit a prostitute (even though she only lived a few hundred yards from camp) and gets shot down to death.
John tells the prostitute about Nately's death, which makes the prostitute so mad (mostly because of how he told her, "Hey! Guess what!") that she attacks him repeatedly and often, sometimes with her fists, sometimes with an aircraft carrier.
This is about all John can take. He wants out of the army, and his superior officers tell him he can go so long as he says nice things about them and turns his back on his friends in the squadron. Since pretty much everyone he likes is dead, John says okay. He leaves the army and goes to Sweden, where he discovers that his friend Orr faked his death. John changes his last name, signs up as a ship's mate, and takes off with Orr on a three-hour tour from which they do not return for many years.
Topics for further research