33 years later, a 'Catch-22' sequel

February 16, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Thirty-three years after completing "Catch-22," the novel whose title became an enduring part of the lexicon and whose bitter satire helped change America's view of war, Joseph Heller has written a sequel that promises to reveal what has ZTC become of characters like Yossarian and Milo Minderbinder.

Last week, Mr. Heller delivered the completed manuscript of the book, "Closing Time," to his publisher, Simon & Schuster; it should be on sale in the fall.

The new novel is more a follow-up to "Catch-22" than it is a conventional sequel, Mr. Heller said in an interview. It doesn't pick up directly where "Catch-22" left off, somewhere in the Mediterranean in the last months of World War II, but instead is set in New York in the present.

Milo Minderbinder, the calculating mess officer and black-market manipulator, has metamorphosed into a defense contractor and mega-mogul who has a building named after him at Rockefeller Center.

Yossarian, the cynical bombardier who spent World War II trying to get out of flying any more missions, has married twice, worked as a teacher, an advertising executive and a failed screenwriter, and finally become a business and public relations consultant.

"The book and its title come directly from my stage in my career and my stage in life," said Mr. Heller, speaking by telephone from his house in East Hampton, N.Y. "It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to write about some of the characters of 'Catch-22,' blend them in with a number of new characters and infuse it with my new experiences since World War II."

It is highly unusual for an author, after so many years, to write a sequel to a novel that has become an undisputed classic. In the last several years, a number of authors have attempted sequels to the works of others long dead -- "Gone With the Wind," "Rebecca" and "Pride and Prejudice" -- often drawing critical derision along with substantial sales.

Mr. Heller's editor, Michael Korda, said he was opposed to that sort of thing.

"I'm against exploitational sequels where you say, 'Let's hire somebody to write a book saying what happens to Natasha after 'War and Peace,' " said Mr. Korda. "But this is obviously different. And it's an autobiographical continuation. Just the way that Yossarian was recognizably Joe Heller in 'Catch-22,' Yossarian is recognizably Joe Heller today."

Of course, as much as Mr. Heller might deny it, the success of "Catch-22" puts an extraordinary burden on this new book. For one thing, readers might have their own ideas about the characters' future -- or they might prefer them the way they were before, frozen in time and place.

"There's a vast group of people of all ages for whom Catch-22 is one of the most significant books of their lives, and they're going to be very interested in how Joe has dealt with his characters," said Robert Gottlieb, the former editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopfe, who, as a young editor at Simon & Schuster in 1961, edited "Catch-22."

"It put down the conventional view of war," Mr. Korda said. "It represented for critics and reviewers and the public a passage to a much more radical view of the Second World War, and in a sense that presaged people's opinions about Vietnam."

Although "Catch-22" never made it onto the New York Times best-seller list, it has sold more than 10 million copies in paperback and hardcover.

The book's title also became synonymous with Mobius-strip government regulation, bureaucracy so convoluted as to be self-contradictory.

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