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Yossarian, 30 Years Later : 'Catch 22' defined a generation's view of war. Now Heller reaches beyond war to tackle death : CLOSING TIME, By Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster: $24; 464 pp.)

October 16, 1994|Bill Broyles | William Broyles Jr. is the author of "Brothers in Arms" and the co-creator of "China Beach."

In 1962, Joseph Heller took war to the surreal limits of its twisted, death-obsessed logic. "Catch-22's" hero, the bombardier Yossarian, wanted only to get back home, back to where he would be safe; he wanted the war to end, he wanted out.

After surviving his own near-fatal illness and now past 70, Joseph Heller doesn't find home so safe anymore, and he can't let the war end. It's the only thing that makes sense. The war isn't absurd any more, it's the world that has gone mad.

In "Closing Time," Yossarian's contemporary journey through "normal" life gets the full Heller comic treatment, which has by now worn thin. But what redeems this novel is Heller's retelling of "Catch 22" (and, for good measure, that other darkly comic World War II classic, Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five"). This time Heller tells the war straight. When he isn't trying to be funny he renders it with piteous, realistic, at times stunning, power.

Having once decided that realism was inadequate to convey the absurdity of war, Heller has now, as death comes in its normal, quotidian way, realized that the final absurdity is life itself. "Nowhere in his lifetime, Yossarian was bound often to remember, not in wartime Rome or Pianosa or even in blasted Naples or Sicily, had he been spectator to such atrocious squalor as he saw mounting up all around him."

The main characters of "Closing Time" all survived the war, so it has become a strangely comforting refuge for them: the moment they defeated death. But "Closing Time" smells more like death than "Catch 22" ever did. It's not the smell of cordite, but of urine-soaked sidewalks and the disinfectant of hospital corridors. Like "Death in Venice," "Closing Time" is an old man's story.

The characters keep giving parting advice to their wives and children: Read Camus, buy real estate. But it's not clear that anyone listens. Their children are clueless, the world is a wasteland. Everything is less now. Coney Island is a hellacious slum. The towers of Rockefeller Center seem smaller. The heroes of the past, the kids who went off to defeat Hitler, are shriveling away. Their era is coming to an end. As old men often do, Heller makes his own impending end synonymous with the end of the world.

"Closing Time" interweaves two journeys. Yossarian is obsessed with dying. He happens to be in perfect health, which is the bad news, since that means he can only get worse. He becomes a wisecracking, priapic, hypochondriac Siegfried on a mythic/comic descent-- 'my Rhine journey"--into hell, which is located both in and beneath the Port Authority Bus Terminal (the PABT). Compared to the PABT, with its crack-heads promising vile acts for cash, the hell underground is a pretty nice place, complete with rides from the Coney Island of Heller's youth.

The plot of this journey is loosely constructed around Yossarian organizing a society wedding at the PABT for Milo Minderbinder's daughter and helping Milo sell the "M&ME&A Sub-Supersonic Invisible and Noiseless Defensive Second-Strike Offensive Attack Bomber." "It won't work. Right M2?" Yossarian asks Milo's son. "We guarantee it." Well, it doesn't quite turn out that way.

His journey takes Yossarian across the River Styx (the old Coney Island Tunnel of Love) into the Land of the Dead, where he meets everyone from Gen. Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project to Sylvia Plath. From time to time he wonders whatever happened to Little Sammy Singer, the unnamed tail gunner from "Catch 22" who kept passing out over Avignon while Yossarian was trying in vain to save the life of Snowden, the mortally wounded waist gunner. As it happens, Singer thinks about Yossarian all the time. They haven't seen each other since the war, and in "Closing Time" their lives finally converge.

The second journey in the book is that of Little Sammy and his boyhood friend Lew Rabinowitz, who was in the infantry in Europe. For Lew, the war meant being a POW in Dresden, a tough Jew confronting his Nazi guards in German. Here he is coming out of the bunker after the bombing of Dresden:

"In the morning when they led us up outside into the rain, everyone else was dead. They were dead in the street, burned black into stubs and turned brown by the ash still dropping from the layers of smoke going up everywhere. They were dead in the blackened houses in which the wood had all burned and dead in the cellars. The churches were gone and the opera house had tilted over and fallen in the square . . . all around us, as far as we could see, everyone was dead, men, women, and children, every parrot, cat, dog and canary."

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