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, “symptom suggestible,” and his depression draws on a public spectacle no one feels much enthusiasm for:
A prick in the White House? It would not be the first time. Another oil tanker had broken up. There was radiation. Garbage. Pesticides, toxic waste, and free enterprise. There were enemies of abortion who wished to inflict the death penalty on everyone who was not pro-life. There was mediocrity in government, and self-interest too. There was trouble in Israel. These were not mere delusions. He was not making them up. Soon they would be cloning human embryos for sale, fun, and replacement parts. Men earned millions producing nothing more substantial than changes in ownership. The cold war was over and there was still no peace on earth. Nothing made sense and neither did everything else.
An old friend tells him, “You used to be funnier,” but the reason for this may be that we’re tired of laughing at a world whose pretensions Yossarian himself helped us long ago to see through for ourselves.
To judge from the military events it mentions, Catch-22 takes place in 1944, when Yossarian is twenty-eight. Since he’s sixty-eight in Closing Time, its date ought to be 1984, and in some ways it does appear to be the Reagan years that are getting him down. But the book claims to describe the 1990s, and this too seems plausible. Money is superabundant except among those who need it; politics and the press and television are as incurably dishonest and vulgar as big business; no social style or attitude seems to imply a decent standard that would be expressive of the “positive other case” Henry James deemed essential for significant irony.
Nor was the younger Yossarian consistently all that funny. In a bravura passage in Catch-22, an encounter with Italian civilians ravaged and brutalized by war leads him beyond compassion to a wish to abolish them:
Yossarian was moved by such intense pity for [a Roman boy’s] poverty that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence because he brought to mind all the pale, sad, sickly children in Italy that same night who needed haircuts and needed shoes and socks…. [A] nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy…and of all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenious and unscrupulous handful. What a lousy earth!
Even though some of Yossarian’s rage here has a theological ring, his reactions in Closing Time to current social maladies sound equally desperate, and his reflection that “the reckless sentimentality of extending concern to a person who needed it” is “not the American way” would easily fit Catch-22. Time may have worn down some of his humor, but he’s scarcely a New Age softie.
To its imaginative credit if not its formal advantage, Closing Time accommodates a directness and depth of feeling that Catch-22 largely excluded. To this end Heller gives us not only the echt Yossarian but, in effect, two other Yossarians, characters who reminisce, in internal monologue (which he himself never gets to use), about their own quite different emotional histories. The first of these doubles is Sammy Singer, who remembers being the tail gunner the day Snowden died flying over Avignon. This is a little awkward—there was indeed a tail gunner in that appalling scene, but he was a nameless, mute walk-on whose role was simply to faint repeatedly as Yossarian tried to keep Snowden alive, and nothing indicated that he or anyone else in Catch-22 was Jewish.
Singer is a gentler Yossarian, more conventional and less witty, but their resemblances are manifold. Singer also benefited from the GI Bill; he too became a college teacher but switched, to the business side of Time magazine, from which he has retired when the book opens. Both wanted to be writers and get published in The New Yorker, and neither succeeded. Their careers closely imitate the author’s, and indeed, when growing up in Coney Island, Singer had a friend called “Joey Heller” who had literary talent, served in the war as a bombardier like Yossarian, and is now a famous novelist.
The other Yossarian double is a life-long friend of Singer’s from the old neighborhood. Lew Rabinowitz grew up not bookish but tough and fearless, smart too but in practical ways; where Sammy’s game was chess, Lew’s was pinochle, which you could make money at. In the war Lew was not a flyer but an infantryman, killing Nazis face to face. While a POW he witnessed (along with “Vonnegut, from Indiana” and a Czech named Schweik) the terrible air raid on Dresden, which even made him feel a little sorry for Germans. Back home, he married, passed up college to work with his father in the scrap business, and in time got rich in lumber, plumbing, and construction.
Unlike his sensitive and liberal pal Singer, Rabinowitz “never really liked anyone I didn’t know personally,” from Hitler to Franklin Roosevelt; but his personal affections, for his family, especially his beloved wife, and for Singer are tenacious. He has resolutely fought off Hodgkin’s disease for twenty-eight years, and in his force of body and will he reflects the part of Yossarian that is aggressive, recalcitrant, illusionless, and a little frightening.
Heller leaves no doubt that we are to think of Yossarian, Singer, and Rabinowitz as a kind of triune. Rather insistently, he gives each of them a son named Michael, each of whom causes great paternal concern. (Singer’s Michael, a stepson, killed himself shortly before his mother died of cancer.) The three men meet only once, late in the book, but their encounter feels like the completion of something, if only of a satisfactory identity for Yossarian. In Catch-22 he seemed created ex nihilo, without family, personal history, or even ethnicity—his claim to be “Assyrian,” Singer sees, isn’t to be trusted. But if his name sounds Armenian, he is surely Jewish, in keeping with Heller’s movement as a novelist from apparently nonsectarian subjects, in Catch-22 and Something Happened, toward the explicitly ethnic Good as Gold and God Knows.
There’s a deepening of mood in Singer’s and Rabinowitz’s musings upon their family origins, their love for their wives, their careers in war and business, the state of the nation, and the approach of death. Neither character is at all comic, and Heller’s readiness to permit them unguarded and dignified self-expression is unexpected and impressive, given Yossarian’s self-protective flippancy whenever seriousness might seem in order.
But Yossarian remains at the center of the triptych, and the primary tone of Closing Time is still satiric, so elaborately so as to sometimes tire one’s patience. There is, for one thing, a plot, or an angry stream of jokes, about the moral imbecility of out politics, present or only recently past. Through G. Noodles Cook, a friend from grad school and PR days and now a Washington insider, Yossarian is drawn into the wobbly orbit of the President, a half-witted young Creationist from Indiana newly elevated from the vice-presidency, whose passion is playing exciting video games like Indianapolis Speedway, Beat the Draft, and Triage. (His code name is “The Little Prick.”) Loosely attached to this sequence, which fades out as the book goes on, is the continuing saga of Chaplain Albert T. Tappman from Catch-22, who to his bewilderment has begun to pass heavy water and is held in isolation by the Feds lest he suddenly go critical right out in public.
Tappman’s plight interests Milo Minderbinder, what with heavy water selling for $30,000 a gram, but M & M has bigger deals on the table. Its aerospace division has developed an undetectable “Shhhhh!” bomber, which even Milo and Wintergreen admit is worthless. Still, it promises handsome profits, for the firm and for the Air Force procurement people, who expect their usual cut, and anyway it’s probably no more worthless than the “B-Ware” plane of the competition, Strangelove Associates.
As befits someone whose first novel sold ten million copies, Heller seems knowledgeable about financial matters. He distrusts everything about the military-industrial complex, but the topic begins to peter out after a while, and the satire tends to dwindle into one-liners, like Noodles Cook’s great career decision—“If I’m going to be trivial, inconsequential, and deceitful,…then I might as well be in government”—which echoes Huck Finn’s “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!”
What holds a rather hyperactive and scrappy book together and gives its wildest flights some focus is the recurring image of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, not far from Yossarian’s apartment. He knows the building and its management and security people well, having once rescued his hapless son from false arrest there for farebeating. When he jokingly suggests the terminal to some high-society friends as a fine place for an “original” sort of wedding, they take him up on it, and preparations begin for the very public uniting of old money and new, in the persons of a blue-blooded heiress and Minderbinder’s unimpressive son, known for convenience as “M2.”
As fantasy sweeps away such scraps of realism as remain, it emerges that the bus terminal is something more than a transit hub and a hostel for New York’s homeless. It is an even more hellish place for lost souls than its actual squalor suggests; beneath it lie not only forgotten bomb shelters but circle upon circle of the famous and infamous dead. Down there George C. Tilyou, developer of the Coney Island amusement park and dead for eighty years, presides as the Devil’s viceroy, having taken his rides and attractions and also his money with him. In this rather cozy Inferno are the dead stars of modern history and legend: Proust, Hemingway, and Dickens rub shoulders with John D. Rockefeller (who, having left his riches to charity, has to cadge dimes from Tilyou), Gustav Aschenbach, Marilyn Monroe, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Yossarian’s parents, while around them, in Yossarian’s imagination, heroic monuments like RCA, Time, IBM, and Western Union shrink and die.
Heller evidently means the Port Authority to be an Unreal City, a place like the London of The Waste Land or the Dunciad, where the living, the dead, and the fictitious mingle in grotesque, ominous encounters. Here one fears that he and Yossarian may have been reading too much. The weight of the literary allusions grows oppressive. Yossarian goes so far as to imagine himself as a sort of non-Aryan Siegfried whose Rhine Journey leads toward a Twilight of the Gods beneath Eighth Avenue.
But lesser things can happen in the bus terminal, fortunately. The Minderbinder-Maxon wedding, probably the most lavish affair in fiction since “The Masque of the Red Death,” gets some twenty-five pages of close, loving detail. The homeless are carted off to suburban shelters so that they can be impersonated by actors certified as college-educated and well bred. Four thousand pounds of top-grade caviar are laid on for only 3,500 guests so that the excess may ostentatiously be given to the less fortunate. Though the President is unable to tear himself away from his games, the First Lady is observed collecting autographs from the celebrity crowd.
The Great Hall, the Temple of Dendur, the Engelhard Court, and the Blumenthal Patio are moved bodily into the terminal, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum for multi-million dollar fees. As the processional, the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, begins, the bride and her retinue (with Miss Universe as maid of honor) levitate into view on the up escalators on the Ninth Avenue side and advance toward Eighth as far as Walgreen’s drugstore, before turning north to the altar in the Temple of Dendur; there “the cardinal, a Reform rabbi, and six other prelates from different faiths” perform multicultural services, to the “Liebesnacht” duet from Tristan.
Heller’s assault on nouvelle society and its acolytes is the imaginative climax of the book. The formal ending that follows, a nuclear holocaust set off when The Little Prick pushes the wrong button in his play room, seems dated and rather lame; Dr. Strange-love even takes command in the deep shelters of the Port Authority, which turn out to be forty-two miles deep. And Yossarian’s final choice of love and honor over self-preservation, by returning above ground to his mistress and their unborn child, fits neither with his character nor with the mood of the final scene, in which Singer reads Death in Venice in a jetliner over the Pacific, while the plane’s radio system fails and the moon turns red.
As they say in show business, “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” and the mixture of apocalypse and persiflage toward the close of Closing Time suggests some indecisiveness about what might seem funny nowadays. The punning title and the ambiguities of “terminal” point to a sad but useful idea with which the elderly sometimes entertain themselves—that even if the world should persist after one leaves it, a world without oneself would not be worth living in anyhow. This solipsistic notion, happily, is opposed by a sounder one that’s also not peculiar to Heller, that the real world is going to hell and someone should ask why. But Closing Time doesn’t sort out these attitudes.
As we undeniably approach the end of something—if not the world itself, then a century, a millennium, all social coherence as Heller’s generation understood it—individual death acquires broader possibilities as metaphor. A heightened sense of your own mortality, and Heller’s is nothing if not heightened, can make eschatological anxiety more intelligible, if not more endurable. If Closing Time has trouble managing its very mixed moods, it does complete Catch-22 suitably by finally destroying the world that has always caused Yossarian such moral anguish; and it shows no more interest than its predecessor in making bad things seem bearable. For that, and for often being very funny, it deserves respect and attention.
October 20, 1994