In Joseph Heller's two best novels, Catch 22 and Something Happened, the narrative circles obsessively around a repressed memory that it is the stories' business finally to confront. We feel the tremors of its eventual eruption in each book even as the narrator frantically distracts us with slapstick improvisation. In his newest novel, Closing Time, Heller brings back the (anti-) hero of Catch 22, John Yossarian, and once again something horrific is building beneath his life and those of his generation and their century as they all draw to a close.
But this time it is not a brute fact lodged in memory, the something that draws its power simply from having happened. It is instead something that is going to happen-we're going to die-and it draws its power from-well-how we feel about that. The problem is that we may not all feel the same way about our approaching death, as we cannot fail to do about Howie Snowden bleeding to death on the floor of the bomber in Catch 22. We cannot really imagine our death. On the other hand, try as we might, we cannot help imagining Snowden. It comes down to a question of authority, the authority of an author's claim on our imagination. There is less of it in Closing Time.
It reaches for such authority by reading into the passing of the World War II generation a paranoid apocalypse in the manner of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Yossarian's life goes into and out of a kind of virtual reality involving a Dantesque underworld entered through the false back of a basement tool locker in the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal. Beneath this underworld runs an underground railroad meant to provide indefinite protection for the elite of the military/industrial/political complex chosen by triage to survive the coming nuclear holocaust. As catalyst for that holocaust we are given a mentally challenged president known to us only by his affectionate nickname, the Little Prick, who is enthralled by the video games that fill a room just off the Oval Office, especially the game called Triage which enables him eventually to trip the wire on the conclusive Big Bang.
Heller's underworld has some fetching attributes. It is managed by George C. Tilyou, the Coney Island entrepreneur who ran the Steeplechase amusement park before World War 1. Tilyou died before any of the novel's protagonists was born, but the remembered stories about him and his slowly sinking house with the family name on the front step qualify him as a jolly major domo of hell, a man whose love for his fellows sincerely expressed itself in fleecing them. Now, below the sub-sub-basement of the bus terminal, he rejoices in having taken it with him, for his house and eventually his whole amusement park sank down around him. Rockefeller and Morgan come by and panhandle miserably for his wealth, having learned too late that their more conventional philanthropy could not sanctify their plunder or secure their grasp on it.
Other aspects of Heller's grand scheme are less successful. Two characters from Catch 22, Milo Minderbinder and ex-Pfc. Wintergreen, are strawmen representatives of the military-industrial complex, peddling a nonexistent clone of the Stealth bomber to a succession of big-brass boobies with names like Colonel Pickering and Major Bowes. Much of this is the sort of thing that killed vaudeville and is now killing "Saturday Night Live."
Against these gathering forces of death, Yossarian asserts his allegiance to life in a way that is by now a reflex of the Norman Mailer generation: he has an affair with and impregnates a younger woman, a nurse whom he meets in a hospitalization of doubtful purpose at the opening of the novel. Thank heavens, I thought as I read, that I belong to the only sex capable of such late and surprising assertions. But, as the euphoria ebbed, I had to admit that Yossarian's amatory exertions were more than faintly repulsive.
So the novel is disappointing where it hurts the most, in its central organizing idea. Why, after all, does Yossarian's generation get to take the whole world down with it? Well, it doesn't, really, and yet the veterans of World War II do have a special claim on us as they pass from our sight. This claim is more convincingly urged by the long first-person narratives of two characters who, we learn, moved invisibly on the periphery of events in Catch-22.
Lew Rabinowitz and Sammy Singer are non-neurotics whose stories reveal their limitations and, at the same time, allow us to see around and beyond them. This is harder to do with normal people, and Heller brings it off beautifully. Rabinowitz is an aggressive giant, the son of a Coney Island junk dealer, an instinctively successful businessman who lacked the patience for the college education offered him by the G.I. Bill, and who never comprehended as we do his own delicacy of feeling. Singer, a writer of promotional and ad copy for Times, is, by his own account, a bit of a pedant given to correcting Rabinowitz's grammar. Heller sometimes allows Singer's prose style to stiffen in a way that is entirely in character and that gives an unexpected dignity and pathos to passages like those that describe his wife's last illness.
Rabinowitz and Singer basically get more respect from their author than Yossarian and the characters who figure in his story. The two new characters tell us stories embued with an unforced humor and with the sort of gravity that attends good people as they come to terms with their mortality. And this goes for their wives as well, for both men make good and entirely credible marriages that last a lifetime. Yossarian should have been so lucky.
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