Captain John Yossarian in Catch-22, by Joseph Heller – One of my favorite anti-heroes of all time. I don’t know what Jesus would do, but I know exactly what Yossarian would do, and that is either drink or pretend to be insane. Yossarian is the Bombardier, in the Fighting 256th Squadron during WWII. He is a mischievous ladies man, who has a penchant for walking around naked and many other odd things, like not wearing his uniform at his own medal ceremony. Yossarian increasingly becomes all about self-preservation, as his his tour of duty keeps getting extended. He tries to get discharged on the grounds that he is insane. The psychiatrist, Sanderson, diagnosis him with, “a morbid aversion to dying” (I have that too) but Doc Daneeka tells him he can not possibly be insane because, “there is only one catch and that is Catch-22, which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of danger is the process of a rational mind.” Catch-22 becomes a catch phrase throughout the book, it is invoked as justification for everyone’s actions in any given situation. He becomes increasingly jaded, but does not give up entirely on helping others. Yossarian is the type of guy, who would help you move your couch, maybe not on the day you need it moved, but eventually he’ll come through for you.
Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Adventures of Tom Bombadil, by J.R.R. Tolkien – Tom is an obscure, but interesting character from LOTR. You won’t find him in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy; he is only mentioned in the book. Tom is not a man, in fact, Tolkien does not say what he is precisely, except the oldest living being on Middle Earth. He claims to be older than Tree Beard. When his wife, Goldberry, is asked who he is, she only replies, “He is.” Everything about him is silly, from the way he dresses, to how he speaks in rhymes and sings in a whimsical manner. Even his name suggests he is harmless. I feel like Tolkien got a little lazy there. There are so many other cool names like, Gandalf, Sauron, Lord Elrond…it’s as if he ran out of good names and just said, “fuck it, I’m tired. I’m going with Tom.” He could have least spelled it, Thom. His simple name does not do him justice, because he is a being of extraordinary power. He is the one being in all of Middle Earth, who is unaffected by the ring. When Frodo puts the ring on and disappears, Tom can still see him. Tom flips the ring in the air and it disappears; then he opens his other hand and it reapers. His careless attitude is the reason the ring can not stay with him. The ring is nothing to him; he would probably just leave it by a tree and it would fall into the wrong hands. Tom teaches the hobbits a rhyme to summon him, which they use, when encountering the Barrow-wights, wraith like creatures, who live in burial mounds, creatures who also did not make it into the movies. Most people view Tom as an unnecessary character, who has no place in the story. I like him, because in a book that is very clearly divided between good and evil, Tom represents neutrality. He is unaffected by war, greed and pettiness. Mostly though, he is the embodiment of a nerd fun fact.
Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey – Chief Bromden or “Chief,” to use the stereotype he is known by in the novel, is perhaps the most lovable, yet shrewdest character in literature. In the novel, he is the narrator telling the story of Randle McMurphy, as opposed to the movie version. Chief pretends to be deaf and mute, keeping his head down, pushing a mop up and down the floors and as a result, he is able to observe everything, while no one is observing him. Throughout the novel, Chief is overlooked and underestimated, even though he has one of the most prominent backgrounds there, because he was a football star, war hero and son of a Chief of the Columbia Indians. Chief gains confidence, by McMurphy’s willingness to challenge the system and take on Nurse Ratched, so he reveals to him that he can actually speak and understand. I love Chief for his shrewdness, viewing the institution for what it really is, a combine. Like Chief, we’ve all entertained the idea at one time or other, of lifting something heavy and tossing it out the window, to make our escape out into the world. Sometimes keeping a low profile is the better option, instead of taking something head on, because one ends up in freedom, the other with a lobotomy.
Sir John Falstaff in King Henry IV, by William Shakespeare – He’s a fat, boisterous, cowardly drunk; those are his main hobbies. He’s also a bad influence on Prince Hal, future king of England. He gets Prince Hal to engage in petty crimes with him in the London underground. They hang out at the Boars Head Inn, which is the equivalent of a modern day Motel 6. There he drinks, brags and jokes with Prince Hal, making him forsake all of his duties. Falstaff is loud, but he’s also charismatic, with a zest for life, so Hal falls easily under his spell. When Hal later becomes King, he realizes he has to put his old life behind, which includes John. This is the part of the play, where I find Falstaff most endearing, after he is rejected by King Henry V, when he says to him, “I know thee not, old man.” After that, he becomes a melancholy figure, but I mostly remember him as the cowardly knight, who pretends to be dead on the battlefield, so he doesn’t have to fight, because getting killed with a sword sucks.
Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes – Sancho is just an everyday guy, who becomes the squire to the delusional Don Quixote. He’s perfectly sane, but delights in the delusions of Don Quixote, like fighting windmills that he thinks are dragons. The fact that he knows Don Quixote is delusional, but loves him anyway, makes him a very endearing figure. His name in Spanish means, “paunch.” (Also my middle name) Sancho rides around on a donkey, but Don Quixote thinks it’s a noble squire’s horse. As a joke, he is made a governor, by a Duke and Duchess they encounter of a fictitious island, the island of Barataria. He is a faithful and loyal sidekick, but only to a point, he’s not going to battle anyone, or take a whipping on the bum, in order to lift a curse from Don Quixote’s love, Dulcinea. His proverbs sound like a string of absurdities to his educated master, such as, “you’re worth as much as you have” and “it’s better to have God’s help than to get up early,” but by the end of the novel, he finds them to be wise and true. All of these qualities make Sancho a terrible squire, but a wonderful companion.
Vladimir & Estragon in Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett – This is probably the best play I ever read about nothing. In this theater of the absurd, Vladimir & Estragon are hobos, who are waiting on a man with one name, Godot, but they can’t quite remember the time and place they are supposed to meet him. It is not clear exactly who Godot is, given the use of one name and a vague description as to time and place, I like to think Godot is their pot dealer, but the more popular interpretation is that Godot is God. Estragon seems to spend most of his time trying to pull off his boots that are hurting his feet, because they don’t fit properly. Out of the two, Estragon is the bigger doofus and everything has to be constantly explained to him. At one point, Estragon gets so bored, he suggests hanging themselves, but they can’t be bothered with getting a rope or finding a suitable tree and Vladimir is worried about getting an erection, as said in this weird exchange. Vladimir: What do we do now while we are waiting? Estragon: What about hanging ourselves? V: It’d give us an erection. E: Let’s hang ourselves immediately! Vladimir is more philosophical and Estragon is caught up in the mundane. I love Estragon, because he’s like a pet goldfish with a short memory, swimming around in circles and always shouting, “nothing to be done.” Beckett doesn’t bother giving these characters a backstory or even a physical description and you find them more intriguing because of it.
Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole – Ignatius Reilly is the biggest jackass ever produced in literature. He’s sometimes a lovable jackass, but definitely always a hilarious one. Ignatius is a fat, pompous, egotistical, belching, lazy slob with bad hygiene. He lives in New Orleans in a dilapidated house, with his mother and the two have a contentious relationship. “Mother doesn’t cook. She burns.” Ignatius is always complaining about the, “closing of his valve,” and he uses it as an excuse to get out of doing things. He’s delusional, yet idealistic and has a disdain for anything modern. His favorite thing is to go to the movies, mostly to complain about how indecent they are, which is really just a cover-up, for the fact that he fines them titillating. He creates havoc and chaos wherever he goes, which is mostly spurred by his desire to outdo his rival, Myrna Minkoff, a girl he met in college, whom he regularly corresponds with. He has a stint of meaningless jobs, as a file clerk and a hot dog vendor. He’s so extremely narcissistic, that I can almost admire his lack of shame and complete disregard of what other people think. I am never good at thinking up insults on the spot, but Ignatius is always spot on. “Go and dangle your withered parts over the toilet.” He’s appalling and always reads a situation wrong, but just occasionally, his analysis is correct. “You can always tell employees of the government, by the vacancy which occupies the space, where other people have faces.” Words that were never more relevant than they are now.
Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy – Binx Bolling, (great porn name) whose real name is John, is a character that goes to the movies obsessively. He finds more meaning in movies and books than he does in real life. I first read this novel in college and could really identify with Binx, because I had a sort of detached view of the world and no real sense of self. The movie moments seemed more authentic than the real life moments and as a cinephile, I can often relate most things that happen to me, to a scene in a movie. Binx goes on a spiritual journey in order to escape what he calls the, “everydayness.” He gets involved with his first cousin, (this was back before match.com) Kate feels exactly like Binx, that her life is a malaise of meaningless events. At first I felt like he was just going through an identity crisis, but you find out later there is some real suffering there. He was wounded in Korea and possibly suffered from PTSD. His brother died when he was eight years old. What I love most about Binx, is that he’s a self-deprecating daydreamer.
Bartleby in Bartleby, the Scrivener, a short story by Herman Melville – In case you’re wondering what the hell a ‘Scrivener’ is, it’s basically a scribe or copyist and in Bartleby’s case, he copies legal documents. At first Bartleby is the ideal employee, he does a large volume of work with no complaints, until one day, inexplicably when asked to copy something, he says like a god damn baller, “I would prefer not to.” This made me giggle the first time I heard him say it, because instead of getting fired on the spot, the lawyer simply gives the task to another employee. Bartleby starts doing less and less work, until finally he is just staring at the wall, or out a window all day. One day the lawyer comes to the office on the weekend to find that Bartleby is living there. The astounding part, is that the lawyer is sympathetic and so passive, that rather than fire him, call the police and have him removed, he relocates his own office, leaving Bartleby there with new tenants, who want him out. The new tenants aren’t as sympathetic and the police come to haul him off to prison. I feel like Bartleby is a lost soul, who is depressed and has lost the will to live. He is self-isolated and doesn’t adhere to social norms. I think that already having a gloomy disposition, the repetition of doing the same thing day in and day out, pushed him into a deep depression. Melville gives very little detail about Bartleby. The other employees just have one word nicknames and he doesn’t even bother giving the name of the lawyer, which makes it seem like they are defined by their jobs, rather than who they are. They don’t have an identity. Bartleby is the quintessential drone, the cog in the machine that can not be differentiated from the other cogs.
Kilgore Trout in Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Timequake and Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – Also, the ghost of Kilgore’s son is the narrator in Galapagos. Trout is a wonderfully weird character, who varies from story to story, but typically he is an unsuccessful science fiction author, whose work is largely published as filler material in pornographic magazines. Usually no one outside the main characters have ever heard of him, yet oddly, he’s always being invited to speak at lectures and attend festivals. He is always there to witness the dramatic events in the lives of others. In some of Vonnegut’s novels, he’s a father figure and mentor and in others, he’s an outright cad. I love Trout, because of his name and because he dismisses the grotesque, distorted, banal and perverted, all with a shoulder shrug. Trout is a dead pan comic, who is chalk full of uninspiring truisms like, “You were sick and now you’re well again and there’s work to do.” In reading these novels, you wonder if Trout is just an inside joke of Vonneguts’, like some kind of Andy Kaufman performance piece. Kilgore is irascible, reclusive, sarcastic and sometimes a sympathetic character. Most of all, Kilgore Trout is Kurt Vonnegut personified; he’s a great storyteller, who makes you laugh, by just raising an eyebrow.
There is nothing funnier than telling Kurt Vonnegut, that you’re going to stop payment on his check.