Catch-23

Closing Time

by Joseph Heller
Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., $24.00

Thirty-three years ago Catch-22 brought an impudent new tone to American fiction; with considerable help from the Vietnam War and other lunacies, it conveyed a deeply distrustful sense of modern life, even for people who had never read it. Now its belated sequel, Closing Time, takes a look at how Joseph Heller and the rest of us have been getting along in the meanwhile.

Catch-22 may have been too long and repetitive, but the basic joke of its title, summarized in Closing Time as “people with force have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing,” had its wisdom. Catch-22 was brave and essentially truthful in saying what organizations, military or otherwise, do to the minds and values of their members. Though its plot was sometimes far-fetched, its pictures of the way greed and stupidity compound human misery seem today more credible than ever.

Closing Time is its sequel only in a loose way—the books share just a handful of characters, and the occasions are quite different. But the new one has strong links to the earlier book, repeating many of its expressions—like “Gimme eat,” “Everybody has a share,” “I guess we have to, don’t we?” and “I’m cold”—and its imagery, as when Yossarian is seen again at Snowden’s funeral as Lear’s poor, bare, forked animal crouched naked in a tree.

At the opening of Closing Time, John Yossarian is contentedly hospitalized, as he was at the start of Catch-22. He’s still erotically aroused by nurses, but at sixty-eight, with two marriages and four children behind him, he’s not the man he used to be. But he’s still a libertarian, his agnosticism is unshaken, and his personal responsibilities are minimal: “His family life was perfect, he liked to lament. Like Thomas Mann’s Gustav Aschenbach, he had none.” Yet he continues to be more vulnerable than he lets on, and if his conventionally successful older progeny don’t much interest him, his accelerating intimations of his own mortality make him anxious about his youngest son, Michael, who is nearing forty and still not self-supporting. Like other elderly parents, and with no more reason, he assumes that only his continued presence can assure the prosperity or even the survival of his young.

Yossarian père lives in Manhattan, in a “luxury” West End Avenue high-rise with small rooms, low ceilings, and no place to sit in the kitchen. After graduate school on the GI Bill and a stretch as a college English teacher, he went after serious money, in advertising and PR, script writing for movies and politicians, land development and Wall Street. He’s now a semi-retired but highly paid consultant (on ethics) for M & M Enterprises & Associates, the giant conglomerate founded during the war by his old comrades Milo Minderbinder and ex-PFC Winter-green, those dark angels of capitalism.

But worldly success has made Yossarian no happier than he ever was. He remains, as he puts it …

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