Autumn is not expected to be this pleasant--neither the autumn of the year, nor the autumn of life.
But here is Joseph Heller, legendarily cranky novelist, basking at 71 in autumn sun on the patio of his summery home outside East Hampton, the tony Long Island beach town. His thick froth of white hair shines. His tan skin glows. He is just back from Europe and a happy welcome for the book some thought he should not write.
Called "Closing Time" (Simon & Schuster, 1994), it is subtitled "The Sequel to 'Catch-22.' " In Germany and England, he says with a chuckle, "They think it's a masterpiece.
"I'm gonna give you things that might make headlines," Heller says. "A woman came here to interview me--she's well-known in England, she writes for the Guardian magazine. She begins the interview by saying, 'How does it feel to have written three of the great novels of the century?' "
He explains: The interviewer meant "Catch-22," the classic set during World War II; "Something Happened," a dark dissection of life in the corporate middle class, and "Closing Time."
The new novel finds Yossarian, the embattled hero of "Catch-22," at the end of his life, looking back. He is joined by Air Force buddies including Milo Minderbinder and Chaplain Tappmann, by a retired magazine executive named Sammy Singer (another "Catch-22" vet, it seems, but nameless in that book), and by ghosts such as Snowden, the radio-gunner whose cold death dapples the first book and the memories of those who have read it.
Beyond "Catch-22" and its aging cast, "Closing Time" refers to a postwar, anti-war pantheon including Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" and Thomas Mann's "Doktor Faustus." The story juggles elegy and comedy, cancer and comic apocalypse. It descends from Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal to the sub-basements of the White House and the circles of hell.
"Closing Time" recalls the suffocating offices of "Something Happened," the Jewish identity crises that permeate Heller's "Good as Gold" and "God Knows," the musings on art and economics in his "Picture This," and even "No Laughing Matter," his nonfiction chronicle of recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing nerve disease.
It is the sequel to Heller's entire career.
Over the years, asked why he never wrote another book as big as "Catch-22," Heller has riposted, "Who else has?" That bravado had to wither a bit in the late 1980s, when he agreed to write a "Catch-22" sequel. It would be book two in a two-book, $4-million deal with G.P. Putnam's Sons. The deal resulted in "Picture This" (1988), a critical and commercial disappointment, then, the next year, in cancellation.
Heller had started his sequel by then, but no publisher would pick it up. He says: "It was hard only because an agent and I had grandiose ideas of how much money it should and could command." He found a new agent, the well-connected Amanda (Binky) Urban; Urban found the sequel a home at Simon & Schuster, original publisher of "Catch-22." Heller calls the advance payment "relatively small" but fair, something under $375,000.
Things slid further downhill once the "Closing Time" manuscript was submitted last February. Word-of-mouth was downright hostile. Few magazines sought advance profiles of Heller. Rumor had it that no one wanted periodical rights. (In the end, Playboy and the Forward, the small Jewish weekly, ran excerpts.)
A preview feature in New York magazine called the book overambitious, offering quotes--some anonymous, some attributed--that questioned even Heller's right to write. Reviewers took up the gauntlet of comparison under such headlines as "Catch-00," "Kvetch 22," "Catch-22 2" and, more than once, "Catch-23." Many cited a passage where Heller skewers the cliched use of the phrase "Catch-22"; most missed the punch line, reading Heller himself as stale. (In the Los Angeles Times, William Broyles Jr. concluded: "He fails. But not from lack of trying.")
"I didn't realize until I read the reviews of this book--especially those that were unfavorable--in what high esteem 'Catch-22' is held by nearly everybody," Heller says. "I didn't know the intensity or the extent of the admiration they had for the book, and, from the book, for the author."
By October, the official month of publication, the tide turned. "Closing Time," Heller says, "got better reviews from what I would call 'prestige' publications than any of my other novels: the Sunday New York Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune."
With some reservations, "prestige" reviewers praised the project: a reflection on the world Heller has known and, to some extent, on the way the world knows him. Long lyrical passages, told in first person by Sammy Singer and his old friend Lew Rabinowitz, evoke Depression-era Brooklyn and a World War II shatteringly different from that in "Catch-22."