Joseph Heller: Closing Time. Pocket Books. 555 pages
review by Otto Steinmayer
A lady congratulated the Duke of Wellington on his victory at
Waterloo, saying that a victory must be very glorious. “The greatest
tragedy in the world, Madam,” he replied, “except a defeat.”
He should have known. Forty-thousand people were killed on that one day of battle.
Now we are remembering the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War 2. American men my age are supposed to be affected most by the Vietnam war. No, I didn’t go there; I did see the bodies on TV. But for me WW2 always has loomed as the signal event of horror.
War really screws people up. My father served in
the Pacific, and he got screwed up. He saw lots of dead people. He
killed people, too, with the aid of a naval rifle of 41 cm bore, firing
two-ton high explosive shells and aimed by a primitive computer. Dad
told me about one person he killed. Through the turret rangefinder he
saw a little old lady hanging out the laundry in the middle of the
sector marked for bombardment on Okinawa.
He got killed in the war, too. The effect was a little delayed, and indeed it was himself who pulled the trigger, but the buckshot that scattered his brains all over the snow really might just as well have been Japanese shrapnel, except that I am here.
If this seems a little too intense for you, Reader, I’m sorry for it. My aim here is to illustrate how badly that war after all these years still affects us. History hurts. Also that you may trust that I know the secret Yossarian understood when Snowden spilled his guts in the B-25 over Avignon, that comes comes back to haunt him.
Maybe we could have borne with the devastation a bit better had the myth of the “good war” proved to contain more truth in it. But even before WW2 ended the Americans were looking forward with relish to the Cold War. We have heard in these past few weeks that the Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intended to scare the Russians as much as to force surrender out of Japan.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was the best novel to come out of WW2 and one which treated with great irreverence the cynical business program that much of the war turned out to be. “Black humour” came into literature with Catch-22, to cackle with hilarity in the midst of the most horrible situations.
The “catch” of the title now ranks with the Laws of Parkinson and of Murphy as a classic statement of the perversity of the universe:
…Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to…
The hero of Catch-22 is the bombardier
Yossarian, who in Closing Time we learn got home safely, with
some of his buddies, after flying 70 missions. (Heller himself flew
Closing Time has been reviewed hundreds
of times already, to judge by the blurbs rioting on the pages before
the title. I reckon that many reviewers have already compared the
present novel with Heller’s first, to the disadvantage of Closing
Time, and I hope Heller will pardon me, because I’m going to say
the same thing.
Closing Time is not the breathtaking book
that Catch-22 is. On the other hand, very few other books are
the breathtaking book that Catch-22 is.
If you write, as your first book, a book of great genius, you make yourself a hard act to follow. Heller has always been expected to write up to Catch-22. If Closing Time is no great book, it is not a bad book by any means, and Heller can safely believe himself to have left one immortal novel behind him.
Lucky Yossarian and opportunistic Milo
Minderbinder, fifty years now at home, are fathers of mature children
and rapidly aging. Sammy Singer, in Catch-22 the unnamed tail
gunner who kept fainting when Yossarian kept throwing up tending to the
dying Snowden, also made it back, and in this novel Heller develops him
into a major character. He has lost his wife to cancer. The Closing
Time they escaped in front of bullets is approaching by nature for
Yossarian and all of his generation. They feel it, and with humour or
stoicism they try to make the most of the time left to them.
Heller writes most movingly in those chapters where the characters recall the past, the time before the war and how they got into it, and in reminiscing attempt to give an account of their lives and see the harmony in them.
It seems implausible that Heller himself could
ever have developed the actions and insights of Catch-22
further than he actually did. As the characters feel their individual
lives come near a close, they look at the chaos and squalor about
them—New York’s notorious Port Authority Bus Station stands as a symbol
and exemplar of all this—and suspect that closing time is approaching
for the world in general. Closing Time possesses a plot of
sorts that revolves around high-tech military hardware (Milo
Minderbinder’s Shhhhh! bomber), a scheme to reconstitute the
nation underground (where curiously the government begins to impinge on
Hell), and events leading up to a nuclear apocalypse.
Poor Chaplain Tappman, by a freak of nature, begins pissing deuterium oxide, “heavy water,” and farting tritium, both important ingredients of the hydrogen bomb. What will happen when these combine with the lithium he’s been prescribed for depression? When the government finds out, as they do find out these things, he is kidnapped and imprisoned in an underground virtual reality until he escapes as mysteriously as he was arrested.
Many in this last half of the century have feared or welcomed a solution, even if catastrophic, to the insanity of the age. Heller tries to work up a sense of enthusiasm for such an apocalypse, but his heart isn’t in it. The technology he proffers is simply too silly. By the end of the novel the threatened disaster might have happened, or it might have simply fizzled. As I moralize them, the final scenes of the novel convey the ordinary wisdom that life goes on. Whether Heller fully intended the reader to draw that conclusion, I don’t know. But by the end, the reader comes to feel that the characters have begun to see the absurd nihilism of this bloody age as something laughably trivial. The Scheisskopfs rise from lieutenant to general to Chief of Staff, but decent and wary humanity can, with some luck, survive pretty well, too.
After the terrifying Iliad, Homer brings
us back to earth with the Odyssey. Heller’s Closing Time
follows Catch-22 not for the purpose of finding higher heights
of that novel’s tragedy, but to tie up the loose ends, and allow
Yossarian and his friends a hopeful exit. Heller’s wit and intelligence
shine as brightly here as before. If you loved Catch-22, you’ll
be fond of Closing Time.