Closing Time (Magill Book Reviews)
CLOSING TIME tells two groups of stories. In one, Yossarian, Sammy Singer, and Lew Rabinowitz, all World War II veterans, reflect upon the past, the war, old age, death, and the chaotic present. The other group satirizes America’s continued obsession with war, especially the technology of weapons, the smug indifference of the rich to those unlike themselves, and the decline of New York City.
Lew, slowly dying of Hodgkin’s disease, remembers how he flaunted his Jewishness in a German prisoner of war camp and survived the Allied bombing of Dresden. Sammy longs for some purpose in his life after the death of his wife. Yossarian works for Milo Minderbinder, the manipulative entrepreneur of CATCH-22, trying to sell the government a nonfunctioning, nonexistent bomber because he has little else to interest him until his younger girlfriend becomes pregnant.
The satire centered around Milo’s bomber also includes an incompetent new president of the United States, known by all as “Little Prick,” who would rather play with video games than lead the nation. The remainder of Heller’s comic abuse comes through the multimillion-dollar wedding of Milo’s bumbling son in the Port Authority Bus Terminal with well-bred actors replacing the usual drug addicts, prostitutes, runaway teenagers, and homeless who inhabit the facility.
Heller’s anger at the decline of his beloved New York, his characters’ nostalgia for the city’s glorious past, and the satire of White House insiders are the most effective sections of CLOSING TIME. Unfortunately, the novel’s disparate parts never cohere into a whole and segments such as dead billionaires in hell seem pointless. The novel has only superficial similarities to CATCH-22 and none of its bite or originality.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor. October 4, 1994, p. 14.
London Review of Books. XVI, October 20, 1994, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 16, 1994, p. 3.
The New York Review of Books. XLI, October 20, 1994, p. 20.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 25, 1994, p. 1.
The New Yorker. LXX, October 10, 1994, p. 104.
Newsweek. CXXIV, October 3, 1994, p. 66.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, August 1, 1994, p. 69.
Time. CXLIV, October 3, 1994, p. 80.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 21, 1994, p. 21.
Closing Time (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Catch-22 (1961), Joseph Heller’s first novel, was a true publishing phenomenon—a serious work of fiction discovered by the reading public rather than the literary establishment. There is a myth that the novel was harshly attacked and misunderstood by all its reviewers; actually, the now-classic absurdist account of American airmen during World War II was appreciated in some publications, but not enough to help it sell well outside New York City until it was published in paperback. Released in softcover, Catch-22 soon found an increasingly enthusiastic public, particularly among young readers, who responded to its antiestablishment theme, especially as the war in Vietnam escalated in an insane way that seemed to mirror Heller’s black comedy.
Catch-22 ends as Yossarian, its protagonist, becomes fed up with his commanding officers, who continually raise the number of bombing missions he must fly. He sets out to escape the war and its pervasive absurdity by running from death, representing the individual’s hopeless yet admirable protest against the mindless forces conspiring to control his life. That gesture seems a perfectly apt way of ending Yossarian’s saga. Yet Heller has chosen to continue, in Closing Time, the account of Yossarian and some of his friends from the war. While Heller’s sixth novel is described by its publisher as a sequel to Catch-22, it has little in common with its predecessor. The earlier work was a hilarious work of passionate anger at the modern world; in contrast, Closing Time, while admirable in certain parts, is a fitfully amusing novel of resigned disgust at an even more unfathomable universe.
Closing Time represents the reflections of Yossarian and two other veterans on their old age. Heller has made Yossarian sixty-eight, trimming a decade from his Catch-22 age to make him believably energetic. Yossarian has allowed himself to drift with the times, focusing his resources on trying to survive, as in the earlier book, to live forever or die in the attempt. Separated from his second wife for a year, this “semi-retired semi-consultant” performs occasional duties for Milo Minderbinder, the most absurd of the Catch-22 characters, whose M & M Enterprises occupies what was once the Time-Life Building in Manhattan.
As Yossarian tells his son Michael, an occasional artist, his postwar dissatisfaction results in part from never having done what he wanted with his life. Dreaming of being a writer, Yossarian works off and on over the years on a play about Charles Dickens and a comic novel about the composer Adrian Leverkuhn from Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948). Instead of writing, Yossarian has abandoned teaching twice for investment banking, public relations, and advertising, “succeeding . . . as a jack-of-all-trades except any encompassing a product that could be seen, touched, utilized, or consumed, a product that occupied space and for which there was need.” He helps Milo try to sell the government a bomber that Milo claims does not work and does not even exist. Yossarian hates himself for never being able to despise the cold, manipulative Minderbinder.
This elderly Yossarian is more easygoing than his younger self but just as alienated. He often compares himself with Gustav Aschenbach, the protagonist of Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925). Though younger than Yossarian, Aschenbach has “run out of interests. . . . He did not know that his true creative life was over and that he and his era were coming to a close, whether he liked it or not.” Yossarian finds himself in a similar dilemma—hence his willingness to work for Milo—and is angry that he seems to be running out of life as well: “I used to wake up each day with a brain full of plans I couldn’t wait to get started on. Now I wake up listless and wonder what I can find to keep me entertained. It happened overnight. One day I was old, just like that. I’ve run out of youth, and I’m barely sixty-nine.” The pregnancy of his much younger girlfriend, Melissa MacIntosh, is his only source of hope.
Sammy Singer, who appears as a minor, unnamed character in Catch-22 (the airman who faints at the sight of the dying Snowden’s wounds) has many parallels with Yossarian, including thwarted ambitions, having gone into teaching, advertising, and public relations instead of writing creatively. Sammy, whose Coney Island Jewish background resembles Heller’s, is a more accepting version of Yossarian, reconciling himself to his work and milieu. Only the suicide of his...
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