Book Article

Can a Sequel be an Equal?

Risky Literary Reruns

Hollywood loves sequels, but not so the literary world. ''What's being done in the movies is exploiting a success, which is easy. But few major authors write sequels,'' says Michael Korda, Joseph Heller's editor on Closing Time, one of the few exceptions to the rule.

What made Heller return to Catch-22 after 33 years was the challenge. ''It seemed to me risky, intriguing, and amusing to pick up these characters after so long and depict them today,'' he says.

''Most writers finish a work and consider the door closed,'' says Judith Jones, editor of John Updike's acclaimed Rabbit series. But some authors do find reasons to return to familiar ground. Updike planned Harry Angstrom's once-a-decade resuscitation as a chronicle of American life. In three novels, Philip Roth returned to his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. William Faulkner's novels from Yoknapatawpha County and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn contain spillovers that create a rich history. And Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II tell a story that was too long for one play.

But then, ''Henry IV, Part II is not as good as Henry IV, Part I,'' says Heller, illustrating the higher standards by which sequels are often judged.

The fear of criticism has kept some writers at bay for decades. After 60 years, Henry Roth brought back Call It Sleep last January with Mercy of a Rude Stream. There are rumors that Ralph Ellison, who died last May, wrote a sequel to his only novel, Invisible Man, which his widow may publish posthumously. And there is speculation that recluse J.D. Salinger, who hasn't published since 1965, may have left a follow-up to Catcher in the Rye to be published after he dies.

Thus far, reviews for Closing Time have been mixed: The New York Times used the term powerful in one article and boring in another. But since Yossarian survives Closing Time, there's always room for a third try.

Originally posted Oct 14, 1994 Published in issue #244 Oct 14, 1994 Order article reprints