BACK in 1961, as part of an ambitious publicity campaign mounted to launch Joseph Heller's satirical first novel, ``Catch-22,'' his publishers sent a copy to England's premier satirical novelist, Evelyn Waugh.
``I am sorry the book fascinates you so much,'' Waugh wrote in response to the publicist's enthusing letter. ``It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half.'' Still more perceptively - and mischievously - he noted, ``You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches - often repetitious - totally without structure.'' But, he went on to concede, ``Much of the dialogue is funny.''
To my mind, Waugh's elegantly succinct appraisal seems even more appropriate with the passage of time, and not only to ``Catch-22,'' but to much of Heller's subsequent work. His latest book, ``Closing Time,'' billed as ``The Sequel to Catch-22,'' is no exception. Thirty-three years later, most readers have probably grown inured to any ``indelicacy,'' but the prolixity, formlessness, and lack of fully developed characters and coherent story line are still there and still hard to take. Yet parts of the book are indeed funny, and Heller's caustic vision compels a certain degree of attention.
``Closing Time'' reintroduces some of the leading characters from ``Catch-22,'' now in or near their retirement years. Clever Sammy Singer, the bright Jewish boy from Coney Island, is a widower, retired from his job at Time magazine. Milo Minderbinder, the conniving mess officer, has become a vastly wealthy arms purveyor. The redoubtable and outrageous John Yossarian, also grown rich from wheeling and dealing, spends his twilight years worrying how ordinary people - like the pretty nurse he meets during a stay at the hospital or his own aging ne'er-do-well son Michael - will manage to survive in an economy where pension plans are a thing of the past and only the very rich seem to get any richer.
Also on hand are the Herculean, Lew Wallace, laid low by chemotherapy, and hapless chaplain Albert Tappman, who has been receiving a great deal of unwanted top-secret scrutiny from the military-industrial complex ever since his medical checkup revealed him to be passing heavy water (the kind used in building atomic weapons).
As ``Catch-22'' satirized the absurdities of war, from self-contradictory military regulations to the grimmer horrors of needless slaughter, ``Closing Time'' takes aim at the absurdities of the late capitalist world at peace, albeit a peace devoid of genuine prosperity. While poverty and homelessness proliferate, influence peddlers and scheming insiders pocket millions for producing nothing. Corruption has become a way of life and government a sorry joke.
The new president is a mindless dolt obsessed with video games, who comes into office after ``the resignation of his predecessor in a vexation of spiritual fatigue resulting from the need to explain continually why he had chosen such a person as his vice presidential running mate to begin with.'' No Supreme Court justice wants to swear him in: Rather than do so, a female justice elects to resign, citing ``an overwhelming yearning to return to the field she loved most: housework.''
Heller's central metaphor for the economic/cultural/spiritual state of the union takes the form of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, where the destitute and desperate congregate in washrooms and stairwells, selling their broken bodies for a quick fix. In a rather brilliant stroke of satiric invention, Heller has Yossarian jokingly propose the bus terminal as the venue for an upcoming society wedding - only to find his wild suggestion being taken seriously.
In the book's apocalyptic last scenes, the squalid terminal is transformed into an extravagant palace of conspicuous consumption, with oceans of champagne and caviar, multiple dance bands, and talented actors hired to impersonate the real-life panhandlers and prostitutes who've been whisked away for the grand occasion. The miseries of society's have-nots have been repackaged as marketable cheap thrills.
Less successful, because far less inventive, are the many tedious scenes featuring the efforts of two competing arms merchants to sell the federal government incredibly expensive, probably useless, weapons systems. Repetition and self-parody also mar the overlapping reminiscences and ruminations of the aging ``Catch-22'' veterans, who are wont to rehash anecdotes from the earlier novel or grumble about how much things have changed since then.
Somewhere between the inspired inventions and the tired recyclings, Heller provides an assortment of deft comic effects, including a slimy, silver-haired Washington lawyer who has made a career of being all things to all men, and a detective agency that serves as a front for a real estate operation (instead of the other way around). But there's not much of a thread to tie these diverse targets together.
Thoughtful Sammy Singer ponders what is perhaps the book's central question as he looks back on his youthful days in the Army during World War II:
``As my mother might say, in Yiddish: On Monday one third of the nation was ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. And on Thursday there were ten million people in the military making more than most had been able to earn before .... Suddenly there was enough for everything.... `For war there is always enough. It's peace that's too expensive.' ''
Apart from this, no one in ``Closing Time'' appears to have a clue as to what is wrong with the world: neither the greedy exploiters like Milo Minderbinder, nor the more shocked and compassionate souls like Singer and Yossarian.
And, a more serious flaw, the author himself never quite manages to present - or even imply - a cogent critique of the greedy, uncaring society he's delineated. Easy targets are bombarded in hit-or-miss fashion with the literary equivalent of grapeshot. In a sense somewhat different from the one intended by Evelyn Waugh, Heller's latest book suffers from ``indelicacy'' - not on account of any unusual sexual or scatological excesses, but rather because it lacks the necessary finesse.