Picks and Pans Review: Closing Time

updated 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Joseph Heller

In this sequel to Heller's classic, Catch-22, the lives of ordinary people are controlled by mad generals, a vacant Quayle-ish President and venal death merchants such as Catch-22's Milo Minderbinder (teamed here with Dr. Strangelove). But those lives are good, full and loving.

And ending.

Closing Time is about the death of the world and of decent individuals. Heller treats the former with his trademark black humor but, except for occasional quips, the humor falls flat. Today's world has such excesses and grotesqueries that Heller might as easily be reporting as inventing.

What compels are the ordinary people. Lew Rabinowitz, terminally ill, witnessed the firebombing of Dresden and has long known that "I made no difference. It all would have taken place without me and come out just the same." Even John Yossarian, the hero of both books, stuck at the intersection of the evil and the ordinary, opts for the latter.

To understand the novel, it's no more necessary to be familiar with Catch-22 than with The Divine Comedy or the Ring Cycle. All add resonance to Heller's tale but aren't crucial to grasping that without love, we live in a hell on earth that's about to end—and we live in it even with love. (Simon & Schuster. $24)

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