Catching Up With Joseph Heller In author's sixth novel, characters from the first face their final years

September 25, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Correspondent

East Hampton, N.Y. -- Say it ain't so, Joe.

Surely that was the instinctive reaction of many fans of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" when it was announced last year that he was writing a sequel to his beloved first novel. With more than 10 million copies in print since it was published in 1961, "Catch-22" for many readers redefined how they viewed war novels. Their feelings about his mordant, wildly satirical novel have always been passionate.

Did Hemingway write "The Sun Also Sets?" Did Melville break down and give us "Free Moby Dick"? They knew enough to leave a classic alone. But now "Catch-22" would be infected with the insidious contemporary virus of serial-itis.Yossarian, Milo and the rest of the deliciously absurd cast of "Catch-22" would be reprised for something called "Closing Time."

"I know how people feel about 'Catch-22,' " Mr. Heller says. Some people may not want to give this new book a chance. But if they do, they'll find it is a very strong and unusual book."

Unquestionably, "Closing Time" is the literary event of 1994. With a considerable first printing of 200,000, the book hit bookstores last week and is bound to be dissected, discussed and, by some, dismissed. Comparisons to "Catch-22" will be easy to make since Simon & Schuster is also releasing a new hardback version of the first book, with an updated introduction written by Mr. Heller. Already, one early reviewer in Publishers Weekly has announced his disappointment with "Closing Time," concluding, "In the end, despite flashes of the old wit and fire, this is a tired, dispirited and dispiriting novel."

But, as Mr. Heller says, he's anticipating a backlash, some second-guessing. He's been holding court with the media for the past month, meeting reporters from around the world at his comfortable home in this extremely high-tone resort in far eastern Long Island. There's a guest house and a heated pool on rolling grounds that are dotted with trees, but, he assures a visitor, "It's a very modest house by East Hampton standards."

He looks good for 71 -- tanned, close to 6 feet tall, robust with

just a hint of a paunch (he swims regularly for exercise). A decade ago, he contracted a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. It took him years to recover, a painful process described in his only nonfiction book, "No Laughing Matter." He came out of the experience with a renewed appreciation for life, and also a mate: Valerie, his second wife, was the nurse assigned to aid in his rehabilitation.

There's still a lot of his native Brooklyn in his rumpled, informal manner ("Hi, I'm Joe Heller," he announces as he offers a firm handshake) and his earthy, sometimes rambling speech. He may be one of our esteemed novelists, but he retains enough rough edges to seem less a man of letters than a retired union boss.

Rough edges

Even friends say Mr. Heller is moody or sometimes anti-social -- "For 20 years now, I have managed to overlook his frequent sulkiness, his gluttonous table manners and his tendency to growl 'No' before he even knows what the question is," Barbara Gelb wrote recently in the New York Times Book Review. But he usually goes the extra mile for interviewers, and on this day he's candid and often quite funny. (Asked if he had trouble conveying the multiple tones of "Closing Time," he answers quickly, "It wasn't hard because I don't have a consistent personality."

He's obviously proud of "Closing Time," his sixth novel.

"There's always some curiosity, some anxiety inside me when a new book is coming out," Mr. Heller says as he settles into a bench on the front yard. "But this time it's a lot less. I've got a lot of confidence in 'Closing Time,' based on the reaction from my publishers and from other people who have read it.

"It covers a great deal of ground, a large number of subjects, and moves to a conclusion that some people will find incredible, or fearful, but I think, realistically, is inevitable. We're coming to the end of a lifetime."

For more than two decades, Mr. Heller had resisted writing a sequel to "Catch-22," a dark, comic novel about a squadron of reluctant U.S. bombardiers stationed in Italy near the close of World War II. Then, in the mid-'80s, after first deciding against writing one for his then-publisher, Putnam (and returning, he says, an advance of $2.5 million), he reconsidered.

"I began to realize that a sequel to 'Catch-22' could conceivably coincide with my own life since World War II and where I am now," he says. "Then it began to appeal to me."

The tricky part, he soon realized, was deciding how to pick up where "Catch-22" left off, and where he should continue in "Closing Time."

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