Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: Closing Time by Joseph Heller (1994)

Heller's first novel, Catch-22 (1961), is easily one of my favorite books of all time, so the existence of a sequel was both exciting and worrisome.  Closing Time, written more than thirty years after its predecessor, features an elderly Yossarian, who has survived the war, gone on to start a family and, eventually, work as the conscience of M & M enterprises, a major conglomerate run by Milo Minderbinder and ex-Private Wintergreen.  The life of Yossarian and his companions make up about half the volume of the novel, the other half is written as a first person account of two other WWII vets, Sammy Singer and Lew Rabinowitz, working class Jews from Coney Island who moved up after the war.  Their stories are much more grounded than Yossarian's, whose life gets crazy again when Chaplain Tappman finds him. (Tappman, it turns out, has started naturally passing heavy water, a nuclear compound.) Sammy and Lew are tangentially connected to Yossarian, and to be honest, I preferred their sections to those centered on the Catch-22 characters.  The best word I can use to describe Yossarian in 1994 is 'weary.'  He's an old man now; a virile, sardonic old man, but an old man nonetheless.

This is a book about anti-climax, about Heller's generation, the young men who went to war, saw and endured great and terrible things, then came back to a country that was economically booming and with the benefit of the G.I. bill, many of whom grew up poor then made good, raised families, and were now starting to die of old age.  In Catch-22, death was cataclysmic and unexpected, in Closing Time it's a slow, inevitable wasting away.  The problem with the Yossarian segments is that they are often incomplete attempts to recapture the Yossarian of Catch-22. At one point, he paraphrases Camus to his son, saying that the only freedom we truly have is the freedom to say 'no.'  But this Yossarian isn't the kind that would refuse a medal by appearing to the pinning ceremony naked; this Yossarian says no, then does it anyway.  While I can appreciate the contrast between the Singer/Rabinowitz sections, showing how vast a gulf separates the lives of these men from the defense contractors and politicians and billionaires Yossarian deals with, it harms the Yossarian sections.  Yossarian away from the war is like Ahab away from the sea.

There are a couple other aspects of the novel that need mentioning.  The structure seemed very messy, especially compared to Catch-22, which is meticulously organized, whereas Closing Time meanders.  There's also a strange supernatural element to this novel, that I'm still not sure how I feel about.  It most reminds me of the heaven scenes in Vonnegut's Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970).

But while it has many faults, Closing Time is worth reading.  Heller is one of those authors cursed with a debut novel that was not only a masterpiece, but a commercial success.  Unlike, say, William Golding, whose first novel (The Lord of the Flies) is certainly his most famous, but went on to win a Nobel, Heller never managed to recapture the success of Catch-22.  And Yossarian in Closing Time has had to come to terms with the limits of his success, the realization that there isn't much more he can accomplish.  Yossarian frequently talks about author William Saroyan, regretting obscurity falling on the man's life and works, and it is all too easy to see in these passages Heller's struggles with his own legacy. Too often Yossarian et. al. seem like wraiths of their former selves, but, as unpleasant as it is to see our literary heroes withered, that may very well be the point.   Despite how the novel ends, this is a book about old age and the inevitable anti-climax that entails.

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