BOOK REVIEW / Yossarian the insider dealer: 'Closing Time' - Joseph Heller: Simon & Schuster, 14.99 pounds: Joseph Heller has written a sequel to Catch-22. Scott Bradfield wonders why

Scott Bradfield
Saturday 01 October 1994 00:02 BST

THE CATCH, of course, is that there aren't many characters left standing to write a sequel about. By the end of Catch-22 (1961) Kraft, Clavinger, McWatt and Nately have been snuffed out in various combat missions, Hungry Joe's been suffocated in the night by Huple's cat, Dunbar's been 'disappeared' for threatening the lives of his commanding officers, and Kid Sampson has been crudely bisected on the beach by an Allied aircraft. According to Yossarian, who has pledged 'to live forever or die in the attempt', anybody who wants you dead is the 'enemy.' And the enemy isn't just on their side anymore; the enemy is everywhere.

There are no fates actually worse than death in Catch-22, but there are a few that certainly come close. For instance, there's Milo Minderbinder's rapacious M&M Enterprises, serving chocolate-covered cotton balls in the Mess or making profitable deals with the Germans to bomb Allied airfields. Or there's Major Major Major Major's officerial stage-fright, or Doc Daneeka's lapse into bureaucratic zombie-ism, or even the harried Chaplain, placed under house arrest for stealing plum tomatoes and impersonating Washington Irving.

But probably the very worst way to go on living, Yossarian eventually learns, is to be accepted by the bastards who actually run things - the Colonel Karns and Cathcarts, the General Peckems and Dreedles. At the conclusion of Catch-22, Yossarian is offered a promotion and an honourable discharge, but only if he accepts this one little 'catch.' 'Like us,' Colonel Korn wheedles. 'Join us. Be our pal. Say nice things about us.'

Given that his only choice is between dying or opting-in, Yossarian radically opts-out of the decision- making process altogether and sets off in the first available yellow raft for Sweden. Like most American fictional heroes, from Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield and Randle Patrick McMurphy, Yossarian flees the world he's always known and sets out for the places he's never been.

It's something of a disappointment, then, to catch up with Yossarian nearly 50 years after the events related in Catch-22 only to learn that one of literature's premier escape-artists has become the ultimate insider-trader.

Washed up on the shores not of Sweden, but of contemporary Manhattan, the greying Yossarian of Closing Time is working on his second divorce, attending Board of Directors meetings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and peddling influence for Milo Minderbinder's defence contracting firm, which is trying to sell the government more over-priced bombers it doesn't need.

Since the Second World War, Yossarian has been an arbitrageur, an investment banker, a public relations consultant, and a freelance writer (one of the running 'jokes' of this book is that Yossarian's always planning to submit another story to the New Yorker, even though they're always summarily rejecting him). He still runs after women, he confesses to his doctor, 'but not too hard'.

Now that Yossarian's on the inside, it's not so easy to laugh along with him at how crazy the world has got. The central 'gag' of this novel, for example, is Yossarian's comic intention of staging an exorbitant wedding ceremony for New York's wealthiest elite at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which is infested with bag-people, women being customarily raped in corridors, and people Yossarian refers to as 'aspiring child prostitutes'.

When the wedding is held, in the novel's final pages, and after millions have been spent on oysters, haberdashery and sanitary engineers, one public-relations spokesperson exclaims: 'This was the kind of event that makes one proud to be homeless in New York.' He's not homeless, of course, and that's the joke. But it's hard to tell who will laugh at it, and whose side, exactly, they're on.

Closing Time stinks of a sentimental liberal piety which at times seems to be masquerading as moral philosophy. Yossarian repeatedly bemoans the craziness and sadness of the world, and what a mess everything is, and how awful that we're all going to die etc, but underneath it all aren't we just glad to be alive? So let's dance, and drink, and make love, and blah blah blah, like Zorba the Greek dancing his heart out at Studio 54 and snorting designer


Because Closing Time can generate no comic momentum of its own, characters are always recollecting, in very stilted dialogue, major highlights from Catch-22. Consider the following exchange between Yossarian and Sam Singer:

' 'You remember Snowden, then, Howard Snowden? On that mission to Avignon?'

'Sam, could I ever forget? I would have used up all the morphine in the first-aid kit when I saw him in such pain. That fucking Milo. (Milo had replaced the morphine supplies with stock certificates for M&M Enterprises.) I cursed him a lot. Now I work with him.'

'Did I really black out that much?'

'It looked that way to me.'

'That seems funny now. You were covered with so much blood. And then all that other stuff. He just kept moaning. He was cold, wasn't he?'

'Yes, he said he was cold. And dying. I was covered with everything, Sammy, and then with my own vomit too.'

'And then you took off your clothes and wouldn't put them on again for a while.'

'I was sick of uniforms.'

'I saw you sitting in a tree at the funeral, naked . . . I saw Milo climb up to you too, with his chocolate- covered cotton. . .' '

There is an awful lot of this sort of stuff. It goes on for hundreds of pages, like a Really Advanced Master Class in how not to write


Where Snowden's death in Catch- 22 recirculated hypnotically as a memory of the intimate blood everybody's afraid of losing, in Closing Time former events are ceaselessly recounted in order to remind people that a much better book was once written by the same author.

(Photograph omitted)

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