Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here , by Joseph Heller. Knopf, 259 pages, $24.
By their novels ye shall know them. If not by their novels, then by their memoirs. If not by their memoirs, then by the memoirs of their ex-wives and former agents. What is there to say about the lives of the postwar Jewish comic novelists that is not known already? Norman Mailer is a misogynist. Philip Roth has control issues. As for Saul Bellow, no one did better than Mr. Roth when he fictionalized him as Felix Abravanel in The Ghost Writer , inhabitant of his own “egosphere.”
What about Joseph Heller? He has an ex-wife and a former agent, too. But what is he like? No image affixes itself. The obvious explanation for this is that since the mid-70’s, Mr. Heller has written scattershot fiction. We don’t know who he is because we don’t know what he wants to say. But that shouldn’t matter, since our impression of all these writers was formed in the 60’s. On point of influence, Mr. Heller should win. His was the truly influential work. Catch-22 was structurally innovative with its mix of military procedure and dream logic.
It closed the gap between the Jewish boys’ club and the Barthes, Barthelmes and Pynchons preferred on campus. In seven years, it went from sleeper to political totem to dictionary entry. By the time it did, soldiers in Vietnam carried copies of the paperback in their pockets, and officers watched their backs.
Yossarian became the 20th-century American antihero, and because the culture rebounded to the right, he was our last antihero. This is no small achievement for a single book. Yet through it all Mr. Heller himself has remained slightly out of focus, like the Robin Williams character in Deconstructing Harry .
Now and Then seems determined to fix the problem, to give Mr. Heller resolution. It seems to say: You want my life, now you’ve got it, in close-up. At least the first half of that life, because this book breaks off just before the publication of Catch-22 . Born in 1923, Joey Heller grew up in a lower-class Coney Island Jewish neighborhood, a block away from the famous boardwalk and amusement park. Today we would certainly regard his family situation as difficult. His father died when he was 5, and his mother, who spoke mostly Yiddish, took care of her family by doing sewing and mending work. Getting by was all they did. This was not a touchy-feely family or a touchy-feely time. Mr. Heller recalls that no one told him until his teens that his brother and sister Lee and Sylvia were step-siblings, adopted by his mother from his late father’s first marriage.
All the same, in Mr. Heller’s memory these were good times, too. He was a precocious student and a capable swimmer, and he formed friendships easily, a few of which he still has. The neighborhood was safe and friendly. “There was nothing and no one to fear physically,” he writes (and repeats himself three more times on this). He has none of the sourness that Mr. Roth has toward Newark. Literary critics who have noticed a tendency in Mr. Heller to exaggerate in his physical descriptions of women will be pleased by the following information: Mr. Heller wouldn’t stop feeding until his mother tore her breast away. And when it came time for “the milestone event of my first feel,” he went instinctively for the “buxom” girl. He continues: ” … I felt a female bosom and I learned something-I learned something fast. I learned that once you held a breast in your hand, there wasn’t much you could do with it.” Soon he figured out the next step. Birth of a tit man.
Mr. Heller has been working ever since high school. First he was a messenger, then a file clerk in an insurance office. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the Air Force, not out of burning patriotism but because volunteers got to choose which wing of the military they served in. He flew 50 more or less routine missions out of Corsica. After his discharge, the G.I. Bill paid for a college education at New York University. Then he taught and wrote ad promotion copy at Time magazine, writing stories and the first pages of Catch-22 on the side until fame found him at age 38. Now and Then ends with some miscellaneous observations on that fame. A sequel is promised.
There is no special energy to Now and Then . There are plenty of enjoyable moments, but Mr. Heller has small truck for personal experience. Those familiar with his work will recognize the real-life models for the dead-file-room trysting place in Something Happened ; the traumatic memory of Snowden, the bleeding gunner, in Catch-22; and the professorial backdrop of Good as Gold . Bruce Gold comes from Coney Island, too. But Now and Then doesn’t illuminate Mr. Heller’s fiction in any deeper sense. “Yossarian,” he writes, “is the fulfillment of a wish.” Discussing Catch-22 with an interviewer in 1981, Mr. Heller warned, “I would not have had a book if I’d taken a realistic approach.… I had no particularly interesting story of my own to tell.”
Money is Mr. Heller’s most enduring preoccupation. It is his madeleine, setting his memory in motion. Aunt Esther gave him a dollar at his father’s funeral. Western Union paid him $5 to $6 a week. After the war, his first story publication netted him $25. His first insurance company job paid him $720. Penn State paid him $3,000 to teach. He started at Time at $9,000. Not since Warhol recorded his cab fares have we had a memoir that could also double as a tax diary.
Here’s a remarkable fact about Now and Then . Mr. Heller narrates a childhood in Brooklyn only once mentioning the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then only to point out that Ebbets Field was on his bicycle route for Western Union. This is revealing. Any littérateur writing about Brooklyn knows to chronicle long summer afternoons in Ebbets Field. Ask Pete Hamill, ask Wilfred Sheed, ask Doris Kearns Goodwin. No, Mr. Heller means to be different. He is being willful, willfully nonliterary. He won’t yield to the coercive murmuring of communal nostalgia.
Here’s how Now and Then ends:
“I have much to be pleased with, including myself, and I am. I have wanted to succeed, and I have. I look younger than my years, much younger to people who are young, and I am in reasonably good health. My appetite continues hearty, and is complemented by a sterling digestive system that almost never lets me down. I still have most of a good head of hair and probably I have sufficient income and money to go on living as well as I want to, with enough left over, I feel, to please my few heirs … I am in love with my wife, still find other women appealing, enjoy a good many close friendships, and I have just finished writing this book.
“It will take about a year to be published, and I expect much of what I’ve just said to still be true when it is.”
In No Laughing Matter , the very funny memoir of his 1981 bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome that Mr. Heller co-wrote with his friend Speed Vogel, Mr. Vogel tells a nice story. The playwright Israel Horovitz once went up to Mr. Heller at a wedding and asked after his children. Mr. Heller’s response was “What do you care? Do you think I’m going to ask about yours?”
This memoir makes the same point. We can’t keep Mr. Heller in focus because he doesn’t really want to look at us.