Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here

Overview

From the author of two of our most legendary novels, Catch-22 and Something
Happened
, comes a slyly funny, vastly revelatory memoir that is at once a loving evocation of a lost America and an exploration of the frontier where life turns into literature.

Now and Then follows Joseph Heller from his fatherless childhood on the boardwalks of Depression-era Coney Island, where he grew up amid the rumble of the Cyclone and the tantalizing aroma of ...

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Overview

From the author of two of our most legendary novels, Catch-22 and Something
Happened
, comes a slyly funny, vastly revelatory memoir that is at once a loving evocation of a lost America and an exploration of the frontier where life turns into literature.

Now and Then follows Joseph Heller from his fatherless childhood on the boardwalks of Depression-era Coney Island, where he grew up amid the rumble of the Cyclone and the tantalizing aroma of Mrs. Shatzkin's knishes. It offers a dizzying bombardier's-eye view of the sky over wartime Italy, where Heller encountered the characters and incidents he would later translate into Catch-22.
It depicts a writer coming to terms with both rejection and celebrity. Here, in short, is a life filled with incident and insight, recollected with  subversive humor, exquisite timing, and a fine appreciation for the absurd.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Lovely, the best writing Heller has done since the book that made him famous.... A joy." —Washington Post Book World

"Mouthwatering, elegantly written, lovingly detailed." —The New York Times Book Review
  
"A lovely, moving, affirming, celebratory work of courage, clarity, insight and joy."—The Sun [Baltimore]

Michiko Kakutani
A third of the way through his new memoir, ''Now and Then,'' Joseph Heller relates a story that helps explain why he has excelled at writing such antic black comedies as ''Catch 22'' and ''God Knows'' -- and why, as this volume demonstrates, his forte isn't autobiographical nonfiction. . . . It's not just that ''Now and Then'' provides few opportunities for Mr. Heller to show off his zany, improvisational humor; it's that the book feels emotionally detached. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Heller (Catch-22) is always worth reading, but this not-quite-chronological memoirmostly concerning his youthseems a bit deceiving. Though the book is not presented as the first volume of an autobiography, at about page 195 Heller offhandedly promises a sequel, thus leaving for another volume discussion of his post-Catch-22 writings, plus much of his adult personal life, some of which was covered in the memoir No Laughing Matter (written with Speed Vogel). That said, Heller, who was born in 1923, writes with affection and wit of his Coney Island youth in a Jewish community that was poor, nurturing and mostly supportive except for ingrained silence about Heller's father, who died when the author was five. Along the way, Heller hints at his own capacity for anxiety and denial; he recounts his psychoanalysis, as well as his recognition of the enduring theme of death in his books. Curiously, Heller writes more about his teenage jobs in Manhattan and his wartime assignment in Virginia than about the air force experience that produced his landmark first novel. He also sketches his youthful writing ambitions, his days as a postwar college student and his time working in advertising. He returns finally to Coney Island, recounting the fates of neighborhood characters. However engaging, the bookwhich includes chapters titled "On and On" and "And On and On"seems incomplete. (Feb.)
Library Journal
From his scrappy beginnings to life in the Hamptons.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Catch-22 and five other novels looks back on the Brooklyn streets that spawned his twisted sense of humor. It somehow seems appropriate that a comic sensibility as acerbic and astringent as Heller's should have arisen a few blocks from America's most famous amusement park, Coney Island. The first half of this memoir, which is about his childhood, is surprisingly warm and elegiac, burnished with a golden air of nostalgia that is seldom found in his other writing. Heller's family dynamic was an odd one; his father died when he was only five, and his older siblings were the products of their father's earlier marriage. But despite a lack of blood ties and a nearly 15-year gap between Heller and his big brother and sister, this slightly skewed family unit was apparently loving and supportive. The Depression was, as he makes abundantly clear, a good time to grow up in Coney Island, a time when kids could roam the streets safely into the night, when ethnic and racial strife was relatively subdued (at least as a young boy perceived it), and he clearly made the most of it. The book's first chapters are redolent of summer days on the sand and punchball in the streets, the awkwardness of growing into adolescence with its many mysteries. With the coming of age that accompanies working lifeHeller's first job as a Western Union delivery boy came when he was 16the book turns every bit as sardonic as his best fiction, and it remains thus for his recounting of his experiences of work, wartime, and early struggles as a writer. Essentially a series of essays linked by leitmotifs of food and mortality, Now and Then is graced with a self-deprecating humor that contains a certain spikiness butalso suggests that Heller would be a good guy to have a few beers with. (A sequel is promised within the pages of this volume.) Knowing, winningly funny, and engagingly bittersweet.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375700552
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/26/1999
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,172,249
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller lives in East Hampton, New York.

Biography

Sometimes life traps you in an unfortunate situation that is impossible to escape from because of a set of inherently absurd rules. Take Joseph Heller, for example. The very first novel he published was among the most biting, powerful, hilarious examples of contemporary literature, a genuine classic of 1960s anti-war literature. Yet, Heller was forever trapped by that novel, unable to achieve similar success with his subsequent works no matter how fine they may have been. Both that painful predicament and that auspicious debut novel are known as Catch-22, and one hopes that an absurdist such as Joseph Heller had to at least appreciate that irony a little.

Catch-22 (1961) was somewhat based on Heller's own experiences as a B-25 bombadier in the Twelfth Air Force during World War II. It is the story of John Yossarian, a malingering bombardier stationed in Italy during the war. He lives in constant terror of being killed, so he flies each of his missions with the sole goal of returning alive. Unfortunately, Colonel Cathcart keeps increasing the number of missions he must undertake in order to complete his service. Yossarian's only way out is to prove that he is insane. Of course, the only way he can do that is to willingly take the most dangerous missions the air force has to offer. Yossarian's ridiculous, unwinnable situation is the Catch-22 from which the novel gets its name.

Heller uses Yossarian's situation as a means to satirize and criticize the military and dehumanizing bureaucracies in general. The novel follows a disorienting logic of its own, owing more to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland than any war-themed novel before it. Consequently, Heller's unique approach to his subject had a deep influence on writers such as Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and Tom Robbins (Villa Incognito). In 1970, Catch-22 was adapted into a star-studded feature film by director Mike Nichols (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ; The Graduate). Although many viewed the film as a disappointment, it had its fair share of highly inspired sequences, and in all fairness, the whimsical structure of the novel does not easily lend itself to the cinematic medium.

With a genuine classic on his hands, Heller then took his time producing his second novel. Something Happened did not appear until 1974, but it continued many of the themes present in Catch-22. This time around he directed his poison pen at the dehumanizing effects of the big-business world. Heller's tangy blend of pessimism and humanism would be the driving force behind the majority of his work that followed, including Good as Gold, Closing Time (a sequel to Catch-22), and the play We Bombed New Haven. However, none of his subsequent efforts came close to matching the success or influence of Catch-22, a fact that irked Heller until his death. His final novel, the posthumously published Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, explored this very theme as writer Eugene Pota struggles to decide upon a subject for his final novel.

Despite his own misgivings about his career, Joseph Heller will forever be remembered as a giant in American literature, even if it is only due to his first novel... and that's the kind of Catch-22 in which most writers would kill to be trapped.

Good To Know

Heller often supplemented his income by taking screenwriting jobs. He worked on screenplays for the films Sex and the Single Girl and Casino Royale, and even worked on the television show McHale's Navy under the pseudonym "Max Orange."

Heller's great abhorrence of war transcended his novels and plays. During the ‘60s, he was very involved in the movement against the war in Vietnam.

Although Catch-22 is regarded as an American classic, it did not truly nab public attention until receiving glowing notices in Great Britain a year after its U.S. debut.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Max Orange
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 1, 1923
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      December 12, 1999
    2. Place of Death:
      East Hampton, New York

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One
The Gold Ring

The gold ring on the carousels was made of brass. Even as kids in Coney Island we didn't believe it was the real thing. By the time we'd grown old enough to ride the outside horses and lunge out sideways to grasp the metal rings that swung toward us for the final few rotations, the carousel was no longer enchanting and we had no deep desire for the free ride that the last, lucky gold one awarded. By then we had nickels enough to go around again if we wanted to, but we tended to spend them on attractions that were higher and faster, more spectacular--roller coasters--and, for fun, the electric bump-cars.

We were luckier with the staying power of our craving for things like pretzels, potato chips, jelly doughnuts, and chocolate bars. Mark Twain is said to have remarked that by the time we're tall enough to reach the jar of jam on the high shelf of the cupboard, we find that we've lost our taste for jam. No such rueful fate struck me or my friends or any in the small family of four of which I was the youngest, not with edibles like halvah or salted peanuts, ice cream, kosher corned beef and hot dogs, or even salami sandwiches. When we found ourselves with enough cash to obtain as much of these delicacies as we wanted, we still had a hearty appetite for them, and we tended to indulge ourselves, and still do, by eating as much as, sometimes more, much more, than we truly did, and do, want.

Of late, my best defense against corpulence has been to keep out of the house supplies of things to eat that reason cautions I shouldn't be stuffing into myself. Pistachio nuts, for instance, whether in petite jars or five-pound bags, have a feeble chance of extended survival once I discover them close at hand. If there's ice cream in the freezer, I feel a commanding moral responsibility to move it out of the house as quickly as I'm able to swallow as much as is there. Lately, I've discovered that salty pretzels go very well with just about any dessert I am likely to have at home. They're also good by themselves. If, before going to bed, I happen to remember we have sliced turkey breast in the refrigerator, the odds are heavy that I'll put some in my mouth as I find my way into the bathroom to brush my teeth--on a couple of crackers, of course, or half a flat of pita bread, with salt and mustard.

But it's ice cream that still tastes most wonderful and is richest in evocative associations extending backward in time almost to the formation of memory itself, to brands and items long extinct--to Dixie cups, for example, with their prized photographs of cowboy movie stars on the inside of the lid under a transparent waxed-paper seal. Like the evocations of the cookie to Proust, a meditation on ice cream soon takes me back to the age of eight or nine and into a family setting in which a small container is shared with bliss by the four of us, a mother, a sister, a brother, and me. (I was by many years the youngest.) In summer, ice cream was everywhere. In autumn, though, after the change back from daylight saving time, and even in winter on a black night after dinner and before bedtime, the idea of ice cream might be voiced, taking on a sacramental meaning to our small family in our small apartment--four rooms, looking out on West 31st Street near Surf Avenue in Coney Island. My mother--finally relaxing in front of the radio with the rest of us, after shopping for dinner, preparing dinner, serving dinner, and cleaning up in the kitchen after dinner--might say with her Jewish intonations that she would certainly very much welcome the taste of a little ice cream. We had no refrigerator then, no freezer--no family living in our apartment building did--and there would be no ice cream in the house. At that late hour only the soda fountain in a drugstore two blocks away was open. I was the one who would volunteer to go. I would be given a dime to bring back a container. The flavor of our unanimous choice in those years was called Golden Glow. It's hard today to believe that just half a pint of bulk ice cream could have been so satisfying to the four of us, but that's all, as I recall, that a dime paid for. More than a dime for ice cream they couldn't bring themselves to spend. We were prudent with money because we didn't have much, but I, the "baby" in the family, was never allowed to feel that.

My sister, Sylvia, was seven years older than I. My brother, Lee, originally Eli, born in Russia and brought to this country at the age of six, was seven years older than she was. In reality, they were only my half brother and half sister, the children of my father and his first wife, who had died. My mother was therefore a stepmother to them. They were, I realize only now, technically orphans, and although they never said so, they must have felt at least a little like orphans. I was, then, the baby in the family, treated by everyone, in effect, like an only child, which in some ways I was.

I had no inkling of these family relationships until I was well into my teens, and I was shocked nearly speechless when confronted by the discovery, which unfolded at my brother's wedding. There, my mother's role in the procession down the aisle was to walk behind him, alone, and I listened dumbfounded to the officiating rabbi praise her so generously for the loving care she had given the groom, the son who was not biologically her own, and the daughter, too. I felt victimized, disgraced. My response to rage then, as it chiefly is still, was to break off speaking to the person offending me. I stopped speaking to my sister one time when she took up cigarettes and another time when she bleached her hair. And this time I may have fallen silent with all three of them, possibly with so deep and vindictive a hurt that I would obstinately refuse to tell any of them the cause, for that would be speaking. My oldest friend in the world, Marvin Winkler, with whom as an infant I had often been lodged together in a playpen, was amazed not long ago when I recalled the incident and related my stunned reaction. He was puzzled by my surprise, for he had been informed of the relationship by his mother when he was still a child and cautioned against hurting my feelings by bringing it up. My sister, too, was taken aback to read my account of this event in a biographical piece about me for which she had also been interviewed. She, along with my mother and my brother, had simply assumed, she claimed, that I'd known all along. It was not a scandal, not even a secret. They didn't talk about it because there was no need to.

On the other hand, I know it is true that neither my brother nor my sister ever said anything at all to me about my father, least of all about an earlier marriage, until out of curiosity as an adult I began to inquire. And only once did my mother talk to me about him, volunteering the information that my father could eat a whole chocolate cake at a single sitting--as a delivery driver for a wholesale bakery firm, cakes were easy for him to obtain--and that before he went into the hospital with a bleeding gastric ulcer, his stool was as black as coal. She told me this as an admonition against my own appetite, for I could always eat as much cake as was given me, and still want more. I discovered early in life that shelled walnuts in a bowl of raisins make a lovely late-evening treat for uninterrupted munching till bedtime. I once overheard my mother recounting that when I was a nursing infant, she had to tear me away from the breast, for I would never finish, and I can believe her.

Different as each of us was from the others, and however much there was inside us that we didn't want to talk about, we were, and functioned as, a close family. It was not in our nature to complain, quarrel, demand, or gossip. I remember a number of tantrums I discharged as a juvenile, but I believe that from the time I was an adolescent, I had acquired the family's stoic, resigned, and undemanding nature and didn't complain, quarrel, or gossip, either. My mother, finding herself after six years of marriage a widow with three children, two of them not naturally her own, had brought us up as the mother of us all, and my brother and sister had related to her as such. My brother, I learned, had at one time saved up money enough to buy her a better radio. The gift was poignantly apt, for my mother loved melodic music, Puccini arias in particular. And in those days of radio entertainment, amid the glorious profusion of comedy and variety shows, there was an opulence of weekly broadcasts featuring short selections from opera and other light classical pieces.

Although the period was one of severe economic depression, everybody sooner or later seemed able to find employment. By the time I started school, my brother, fourteen years older than I, was already working at a brokerage in Wall Street as a customer's man, a job for which he was to prove ill suited by his modest manner and unaggressive temperament, and by a disposition to be continually obliging to others. My sister, after graduating from high school and encountering a number of startling rebuffs at employment agencies, would eventually find herself starting at R. H. Macy's department store, where she would remain for something like forty years. And I at sixteen, after classes at high school, would be cutting a dashing figure in a khaki quasi-military uniform as a part-time messenger boy delivering telegrams for Western Union, in office buildings in Manhattan weekdays, on a bicycle weekends to residences in Brooklyn, and mostly exulting in my duties with a sense of adventure and attentive curiosity. My mother, who had been a seamstress and something of a dressmaker before her marriage, worked steadily at home at her sewing machine mending garments for neighbors and doing alterations for a cousin, Sadie Pacon, who owned a dress shop on Gravesend Neck Road in lower Flatbush nearby. She also found steady work at home from laundries, turning frayed collars on men's shirts so that, from the outside and at the neck at least, the shirts looked almost good as new. Some weekend nights, mainly Saturdays, my brother would find extra income filling in at a catering hall for some banquet, dressing up appropriately for his suave role in the cloakroom or as one of the hall's hosts greeting and directing arriving guests. Neighbors outside the apartment building seeing him depart in a tuxedo or a natty, double-breasted, summer sport jacket might remark that he was off on a heavy date. But I knew he was going to work.

My mother liked to read. In Europe, her family had been bookbinders. From the Coney Island public library I would bring her Yiddish translations of novels. She enjoyed Tolstoi, especially Anna Karenina, with which she had long been familiar, and thought Dostoyevsky was crazy. Her brother (my Uncle Sam) late in life was employed repairing books for the library of Brandeis University, where his son, Harry Stein, a varsity player in James Madison High School in Brooklyn and City College in New York, was one of the athletic coaches.

When my mother noticed an apple turning soft she would briskly plan a noodle pudding that made use of it rather than have it go to waste. She took threadbare bedsheets to her scissors and her sewing machine and converted them into window curtains. (Often, as her eyesight weakened with age, I would help with the sewing by threading her needle. Today I would not be able to.) If brother and sister had quarreled, she wouldn't let them go to bed until they had talked it out and made peace. She was never more happy than when a friend from the old country appeared unexpectedly. The visit to Coney Island of a Mrs. Rosen filled her with joy.

My sister's clothing as a teenager in high school, she recalls, came to her mainly as hand-me-downs from an older first cousin, who, because she was already at work in a business with her father, favored dresses of dark color, which my mother altered to fit. She also remembers feeling endlessly self-conscious, because she wore dresses rather than the skirts with blouses or sweaters fashionable among her schoolmates. Widowed twice, she is esteemed by a stepdaughter from her first marriage and by the three children from her second, all of them grown now.

For a little while, far back before the age of sixteen, out of eagerness more than need, I hawked newspapers in the early evening, peddling the next morning's editions the night before, crying, "'Merican, News, and Mirror, morning pape'!" The American, a Hearst newspaper more reactionary than his Mirror, was thicker than the others, cost more, and had few readers in the Italian and Jewish neighborhoods I traversed in my desperate hurry to keep ahead of other newsboys who were trying desperately to keep ahead of me. I soon dropped that heavier paper from my inventory, and my sales cry became "Hey, get your morning News and Mirror, morning pape'!" At best this was very small stuff, and I was lucky if I earned as much as a dollar. I bought the papers for a penny and a half, I think I remember, and sold them for two cents each, hoping for an occasional tip of a penny or two. People who wanted both might give me a nickel. I bought the papers from trucks near the subway station at Stillwell Avenue, usually eating a frankfurter while I waited for them to arrive, and wended my way home on a route along the boardwalk and the populous avenues of Surf and Mermaid in the hope that my last batch would be entirely gone by the time I got there. If not, a humorous, audacious plea to neighbors sitting outside their houses might do the trick. "Extra, Extra! Hitler dies . . . his mustache!" was one shouted ploy to command immediate attention. Any papers that remained I might give away to mothers and fathers there who were my favorites.

A wondrous incident remains indelibly alive--it occurred only one time. At a boardwalk Irish bar one night, a thin man sitting alone at a table beckoned to me and reached out for one of my papers. As I stood there and waited in suspense, he opened it from the back, studying the racing results a few moments, and then returned it. And then he gave me a dime and wanted no newspaper. I was in heaven, strolling on air as I went back outside. I was in love with a world that had such humans in it.

From repeated personal experience I've learned that few pleasures are so thoroughly reinforcing to the spirit as the arrival of unexpected money. Not long ago, I was amazed to receive in the mail, with no advance word, a royalty check from my literary agent for almost $18,000, representing cumulative royalties over the years from the publication of one of my novels in East Germany. I had long since forgotten that I'd even had a novel published there, and for the next hour or so I found myself grinning and humming a happy show tune or two. But I doubt very much that the sensation of well-being I experienced from this relatively huge windfall surpassed the joy brought me by that ten-cent gift I once received as a newsboy. It feels now as though that dime meant enormously more to me, and perhaps it did.

Each of these benign surprises affecting me was a rapture someone born rich is not likely ever to enjoy. There are some pleasures money can't buy. Our street and neighborhood felt safe, insular, and secure, to a child an ethnic stronghold. Just about all the parents were immigrants, the majority from Eastern Europe. There was nothing and no one to fear physically.

I did not really know who Hitler was. Our elders did, but I doubt that even they, or anyone, could have guessed at the evil immensity of the brutal destruction he was going to set loose. I remember a day: It is late afternoon, and I can hear again the newspaper vendors tearing through our street with their high-pitched cries and their "extra" editions of the papers with glaring headlines announcing that Hindenburg had resigned as president of Germany to make way for Hitler as chancellor. They knew they would sell every copy that day, whereas I didn't know who Hindenburg was. Until much later, I thought he was a zeppelin.

There was just about no fear of violence in that part of Coney Island where I lived and grew up. And there was practically no crime, unless one considers the peddling of ice cream or soft drinks on the beach a criminal activity--the police did, but we didn't--or later on, approaching the years of the war and to a broader extent afterward, the possession and smoking of marijuana. I didn't consider using marijuana a crime, either, although I never wanted to become "schooled" to be what was called a "viper." I doubt that my brother or sister even knew about the increasing prevalence of this activity, and my mother would have been of a disapproving mind toward anything thought wrong. Then after the war came heroin.

In the nineteen years I lived on that street before going into the army--except for two months away as a blacksmith's helper in a southern navy yard, I lived nowhere else--I never heard of a rape, an assault, or an armed robbery in our neighborhood. I do recall having heard of a bookmaker shot to death in a poolroom, but that was on West 25th Street, six blocks away, on the very border between the Jewish and Italian sections. It wasn't really in our neighborhood, although we were eventually using that spot as a meeting place and the most convenient site for placing our bets on professional baseball games. It was run by a short, squat man called Sammy the Pig. The poolroom nearer my home was owned and run by a man we knew as Weepy. Nicknames were legion in Coney Island. Foofson is the Yiddish word for the number fifteen. Sammy Foofsen, an older youth, was already Sammy Fifteen by the time I heard of him. A little while later, even his nickname acquired a nickname: He was referred to as Six-Six-Three. These mutations in title appeared to arise and take hold quite naturally, as though by spontaneous generation; no one person originated them. A guy called Chicago was Chi, then Shy. Mursh the Cripple had a leg in a clumsy metal brace from polio. In time, Mursh the Cripple matured into Mursh the Hopper. He was older, too--one of the first guys we knew in Coney Island to own a car; it was an automobile with just hand controls. And a prank of his was to sit in the space beside the driver's seat, staring straight ahead with a placid smile and, with no person behind the wheel, operate the car with manual movements below the dashboard that weren't visible to disbelieving other drivers or pedestrians, who, startled, usually looked twice. My friend Marvin Winkler was Beansy for some reason, which seems almost preferable to Marvin. Murray Rabinowitz was Rup since childhood, in honor of his early surgery for a hernia, known then as a "rupture." Danny Rosoff was Danny the Count. Squeezy and Frenchy were two girls--I don't know how they came to merit such racy monikers. Danny the Bull, another fellow my age, was given that name before the war because of his broad chest and muscular shoulders. After the war, he was soon rendered frail and woeful by an addiction to heroin. His father, a barber named Max, gave him a cruel new title, derogating him to customers in his shop as My Son the Junkie.

The lone act of violence affecting me was one I unconsciously took pains not to find out much about until I was well into my thirties, and that was the death of my father in a hospital--from internal bleeding after surgery for a condition that today I imagine would likely be considered almost routine, his bleeding ulcer. I prefer to believe that these days, with such protective facilities as intensive-care units and surgical recovery rooms standard, the falling open of his stitches would have been detected in time and that he would have survived.

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

The Gold Ring

THE GOLD RING on the carousels was made of brass. Even as kids in Coney Island we didn't believe it was the real thing. By the time we'd grown old enough to ride the outside horses and lunge out sideways to grasp the metal rings that swung toward us for the final few rotations, the carousel was no longer enchanting and we had no deep desire for the free ride that the last, lucky gold one awarded. By then we had nickels enough to go around again if we wanted to, but we tended to spend them on attractions that were higher and faster, more spectacular--roller coasters--and, for fun, the electric bump-cars.

We were luckier with the staying power of our craving for things like pretzels, potato chips, jelly doughnuts, and chocolate bars. Mark Twain is said to have remarked that by the time we're tall enough to reach the jar of jam on the high shelf of the cupboard, we find that we've lost our taste for jam. No such rueful fate struck me or my friends or any in the small family of four of which I was the youngest, not with edibles like halvah or salted peanuts, ice cream, kosher corned beef and hot dogs, or even salami sandwiches. When we found ourselves with enough cash to obtain as much of these delicacies as we wanted, we still had a hearty appetite for them, and we tended to indulge ourselves, and still do, by eating as much as, sometimes more, much more, than we truly did, and do, want.

Of late, my best defense against corpulence has been to keep out of the house supplies of things to eat that reason cautions I shouldn't be stuffing into myself. Pistachio nuts, for instance, whether in petite jars or five-pound bags, have a feeble chance of extended survival once I discover them close at hand. If there's ice cream in the freezer, I feel a commanding moral responsibility to move it out of the house as quickly as I'm able to swallow as much as is there. Lately, I've discovered that salty pretzels go very well with just about any dessert I am likely to have at home. They're also good by themselves. If, before going to bed, I happen to remember we have sliced turkey breast in the refrigerator, the odds are heavy that I'll put some in my mouth as I find my way into the bathroom to brush my teeth--on a couple of crackers, of course, or half a flat of pita bread, with salt and mustard.

But it's ice cream that still tastes most wonderful and is richest in evocative associations extending backward in time almost to the formation of memory itself, to brands and items long extinct--to Dixie cups, for example, with their prized photographs of cowboy movie stars on the inside of the lid under a transparent waxed-paper seal. Like the evocations of the cookie to Proust, a meditation on ice cream soon takes me back to the age of eight or nine and into a family setting in which a small container is shared with bliss by the four of us, a mother, a sister, a brother, and me. (I was by many years the youngest.) In summer, ice cream was everywhere. In autumn, though, after the change back from daylight saving time, and even in winter on a black night after dinner and before bedtime, the idea of ice cream might be voiced, taking on a sacramental meaning to our small family in our small apartment--four rooms, looking out on West 31st Street near Surf Avenue in Coney Island. My mother--finally relaxing in front of the radio with the rest of us, after shopping for dinner, preparing dinner, serving dinner, and cleaning up in the kitchen after dinner--might say with her Jewish intonations that she would certainly very much welcome the taste of a little ice cream. We had no refrigerator then, no freezer--no family living in our apartment building did--and there would be no ice cream in the house. At that late hour only the soda fountain in a drugstore two blocks away was open. I was the one who would volunteer to go. I would be given a dime to bring back a container. The flavor of our unanimous choice in those years was called Golden Glow. It's hard today to believe that just half a pint of bulk ice cream could have been so satisfying to the four of us, but that's all, as I recall, that a dime paid for. More than a dime for ice cream they couldn't bring themselves to spend. We were prudent with money because we didn't have much, but I, the "baby" in the family, was never allowed to feel that.

MY SISTER, SYLVIA, was seven years older than I. My brother? Lee, originally Eli, born in Russia and brought to this country at the age of six, was seven years older than she was. In reality, they were only my half brother and half sister, the children of my father and his first wife, who had died. My mother was therefore a stepmother to them. They were, I realize only now, technically orphans, and although they never said so, they must have felt at least a little like orphans. I was, then, the baby in the family, treated by everyone, in effect, like an only child, which in some ways I was.

I had no inkling of these family relationships until I was well into my teens, and I was shocked nearly speechless when confronted by the discovery, which unfolded at my brother's wedding. There, my mother's role in the procession down the aisle was to walk behind him, alone, and I listened dumbfounded to the officiating rabbi praise her so generously for the loving care she had given the groom, the son who was not biologically her own, and the daughter, too. I felt victimized, disgraced. My response to rage then, as it chiefly is still, was to break off speaking to the person offending me. I stopped speaking to my sister one time when she took up cigarettes and another time when she bleached her hair. And this time I may have fallen silent with all three of them, possibly with so deep and vindictive a hurt that I would obstinately refuse to tell any of them the cause, for that would be speaking. My oldest friend in the world, Marvin Winkler, with whom as an infant I had often been lodged together in a playpen, was amazed not long ago when I recalled the incident and related my stunned reaction. He was puzzled by my surprise, for he had been informed of the relationship by his mother when he was still a child and cautioned against hurting my feelings by bringing it up. My sister, too, was taken aback to read my account of this event in a biographical piece about me for which she had also been interviewed. She, along with my mother and my brother, had simply assumed, she claimed, that I'd known all along. It was not a scandal, not even a secret. They didn't talk about it because there was no need to.

On the other hand, I know it is true that neither my brother nor my sister ever said anything at all to me about my father, least of all about an earlier marriage, until out of curiosity as an adult I began to inquire. And only once did my mother talk to me about him, volunteering the information that my father could eat a whole chocolate cake at a single sitting--as a delivery driver for a wholesale bakery firm, cakes were easy for him to obtain--and that before he went into the hospital with a bleeding gastric ulcer, his stool was as black as coal. She told me this as an admonition against my own appetite, for I could always eat as much cake as was given me, and still want more. I discovered early in life that shelled walnuts in a bowl of raisins make a lovely late-evening treat for uninterrupted munching till bedtime. I once overheard my mother recounting that when I was a nursing infant, she had to tear me away from the breast, for I would never finish, and I can believe her.

DIFFERENT AS EACH OF US was from the others, and however much there was inside us that we didn't want to talk about, we were, and functioned as, a close family. It was not in our nature to complain, quarrel, demand, or gossip. I remember a number of tantrums I discharged as a juvenile, but I believe that from the time I was an adolescent, I had acquired the family's stoic, resigned, and undemanding nature and didn't complain, quarrel, or gossip, either, My mother, finding herself after six years of marriage a widow with three children, two of them not naturally her own, had brought us up as the mother of us all, and my brother and sister had related to her as such. My brother, I learned, had at one time saved up money enough to buy her a better radio. The gift was poignantly apt, for my mother loved melodic music, Puccini arias in particular. And in those days of radio entertainment, amid the glorious profusion of comedy and variety shows, there was an opulence of weekly broadcasts featuring short selections from opera and other light classical pieces.

Although the period was one of severe economic depression, everybody sooner or later seemed able to find employment. By the time I started school, my brother, fourteen years older than I, was already working at a brokerage in Wall Street as a customer's man, a job for which he was to prove ill suited by his modest manner and unaggressive temperament, and by a disposition to be continually obliging to others. My sister, after graduating from high school and encountering a number of startling rebuffs at employment agencies, would eventually find herself starting at R. H. Macy's department store, where she would remain for something like forty years. And I at sixteen, after classes at high school, would be cutting a dashing figure in a khaki quasi-military uniform as a part-time messenger boy delivering telegrams for Western Union, in office buildings in Manhattan weekdays, on a bicycle weekends to residences in Brooklyn, and mostly exulting in my duties with a sense of adventure and attentive curiosity. My mother, who had been a seamstress and something of a dressmaker before her marriage, worked steadily at home at her sewing machine mending garments for neighbors and doing alterations for a cousin, Sadie Pacon, who owned a dress shop on Gravesend Neck Road in lower Flatbush nearby. She also found steady work at home from laundries, turning frayed collars on men's shirts so that, from the outside and at the neck at least, the shirts looked almost good as new. Some weekend nights, mainly Saturdays, my brother would find extra income filling in at a catering hall for some banquet, dressing up appropriately for his suave role in the cloakroom or as one of the hall's hosts greeting and directing arriving guests. Neighbors outside the apartment building seeing him depart in a tuxedo or a natty, double-breasted, summer sport jacket might remark that he was off on a heavy date. But I knew he was going to work.

My mother liked to read. In Europe, her family had been bookbinders. From the Coney Island public library I would bring her Yiddish translations of novels. She enjoyed Tolstoi, especially Anna Karenina, with which she had long been familiar, and thought Dostoyevsky was crazy. Her brother (my Uncle Sam) late in life was employed repairing books for the library of Brandeis University, where his son, Harry Stein, a varsity player in James Madison High School in Brooklyn and City College in New York, was one of the athletic coaches.

When my mother noticed an apple turning soft she would briskly plan a noodle pudding that made use of it rather than have it go to waste. She took threadbare bedsheets to her scissors and her sewing machine and converted them into window curtains. (Often, as her eyesight weakened with age, I would help with the sewing by threading her needle. Today I would not be able to.) If brother and sister had quarreled, she wouldn't let them go to bed until they had talked it out and made peace. She was never more happy than when a friend from the old country appeared unexpectedly. The visit to Coney Island of a Mrs. Rosen filled her with joy.

My sister's clothing as a teenager in high school, she recalls, came to her mainly as hand-me-downs from an older first cousin, who, because she was already at work in a business with her father, favored dresses of dark color, which my mother altered to fit. She also remembers feeling endlessly self-conscious, because she wore dresses rather than the skirts with blouses or sweaters fashionable among her schoolmates. Widowed twice, she is esteemed by a stepdaughter from her first marriage and by the three children from her second, all of them grown now.

For a little while, far back before the age of sixteen, out of eagerness more than need, I hawked newspapers in the early evening, peddling the next morning's editions the night before, crying, "`Mexican, News, and Mirror; morning pape'!" The American, a Hearst newspaper more reactionary than his Mirror; was thicker than the others, cost more, and had few readers in the Italian and Jewish neighborhoods I traversed in my desperate hurry, to keep ahead of other newsboys who were trying desperately to keep ahead of me. I soon dropped that heavier paper from my inventory, and my sales cry became "Hey, get your morning News and Mirror; morning pape'!" At best this was very small stuff, and I was lucky if I earned as much as a dollar. I bought the papers for a penny and a half, I think I remember, and sold them for two cents each, hoping for an occasional tip of a penny or two. People who wanted both might give me a nickel. I bought the papers from trucks near the subway station at Stillwell Avenue, usually eating a frankfurter while I waited for them to arrive, and wended my way home on a route along the boardwalk and the populous avenues of Surf and Mermaid in the hope that my last batch would be entirely gone by the time I got there. If not, a humorous, audacious plea to neighbors sitting outside their houses might do the trick. "Extra, Extra! Hitler dies ... his mustache!" was one shouted ploy to command immediate attention. Any papers that remained I might give away to mothers and fathers there who were my favorites.

A wondrous incident remains indelibly alive--it occurred only one time. At a boardwalk Irish bar one night, a thin man sitting alone at a table beckoned to me and reached out for one of my papers. As I stood there and waited in suspense, he opened it from the back, studying the racing results a few moments, and then returned it. And then he gave me a dime and wanted no newspaper. I was in heaven, strolling on air as I went back outside. I was in love with a world that had such humans in it.

From repeated personal experience I've learned that few pleasures are so thoroughly reinforcing to the spirit as the arrival of unexpected money. Not long ago, I was amazed to receive in the mail, with no advance word, a royalty check from my literary agent for almost $18,000, representing cumulative royalties over the years from the publication of one of my novels in East Germany. I had long since forgotten that I'd even had a novel published there, and for the next hour or so I found myself grinning and humming a happy show tune or two. But I doubt very much that the sensation of well-being I experienced from this relatively huge windfall surpassed the joy brought me by that ten-cent gift I once received as a newsboy. It feels now as though that dime meant enormously more to me, and perhaps it did.

Each of these benign surprises affecting me was a rapture someone born rich is not likely ever to enjoy. There are some pleasures money can't buy.

OUR STREET AND neighborhood felt safe, insular, and secure, to a child an ethnic stronghold. Just about all the parents were immigrants, the majority from Eastern Europe. There was nothing and no one to fear physically.

I did not really know who Hitler was. Our elders did, but I doubt that even they, or anyone, could have guessed at the evil immensity of the brutal destruction he was going to set loose. I remember a day: It is late afternoon, and I can hear again the newspaper vendors tearing through our street with their high-pitched cries and their "extra" editions of the papers with glaring headlines announcing that Hindenburg had resigned as president of Germany to make way for Hitler as chancellor. They knew they would sell every copy that day, whereas I didn't know who Hindenburg was. Until much later, I thought he was a zeppelin.

There was just about no fear of violence in that part of Coney Island where I lived and grew up. And there was practically no crime, unless one considers the peddling of ice cream or soft drinks on the beach a criminal activity--the police did, but we didn't--or later on, approaching the years of the war and to a broader extent afterward, the possession and smoking of marijuana. I didn't consider using marijuana a crime, either, although I never wanted to become "schooled" to be what was called a "viper." I doubt that my brother or sister even knew about the increasing prevalence of this activity, and my mother would have been of a disapproving mind toward anything thought wrong. Then after the war came heroin.

In the nineteen years I lived on that street before going into the army--except for two months away as a blacksmith's helper in a southern navy yard, I lived nowhere else--I never heard of a rape, an assault, or an armed robbery in our neighborhood. I do recall having heard of a hookmaker shot to death in a poolroom, but that was on West 25th Street, six blocks away, on the very border between the Jewish and Italian sections. It wasn't really in our neighborhood, although we were eventually using that spot as a meeting place and the most convenient site for placing our bets on professional baseball games. It was run by a short, squat man called Sammy the Pig. The poolroom nearer my home was owned and run by a man we knew as Weepy. Nicknames were legion in Coney Island. Foofson is the Yiddish word for the number fifteen. Sammy Foofsen, an older youth, was already Sammy Fifteen by the time I heard of him. A little while later, even his nickname acquired a nickname: He was referred to as Six-Six-Three. These mutations in title appeared to arise and take hold quite naturally, as though by spontaneous generation; no one person originated them. A guy called Chicago was Chi, then Shy. Mursh the Cripple had a leg in a clumsy metal brace from polio. In time, Mursh the Cripple matured into Mursh the Hopper. He was older, too--one of the first guys we knew in Coney Island to own a car; it was an automobile with just hand controls. And a prank of his was to sit in the space beside the driver's seat, staring straight ahead with a placid smile and, with no person behind the wheel, operate the car with manual movements below the dashboard that weren't visible to disbelieving other drivers or pedestrians, who, startled, usually looked twice. My friend Marvin Winkler was Beansy for some reason, which seems almost preferable to Marvin. Murray Rabinowitz was Rup since childhood, in honor of his early surgery for a hernia, known then as a "rupture." Danny Rosoff was Danny the Count. Squeezy and Frenchy were two girls--I don't know how they came to merit such racy monikers. Danny the Bull, another fellow my age, was given that name before the war because of his broad chest and muscular shoulders. After the war, he was soon rendered frail and woeful by an addiction to heroin. His father, a barber named Max, gave him a cruel new title, derogating him to customers in his shop as My Son the Junkie.

THE LONE ACT of violence affecting me was one I unconsciously took pains not to find out much about until I was well into my thirties, and that was the death of my father in a hospital--from internal bleeding after surgery for a condition that today I imagine would likely be considered almost routine, his bleeding ulcer. I prefer to believe that these days, with such protective facilities as intensive-care units and surgical recovery rooms standard, the falling open of his stitches would have been detected in time and that he would have survived.

I was just past five. I knew he was gone--I don't remember that I was ever told, I just knew--but I had no notion of the cause. For thirty years I didn't care to ask. I didn't dare? It wasn't a secret. I didn't know, I eventually recognized in one startling moment--and it came to me in an illuminating burst of understanding--because I had never wanted to ask; they didn't tell me, I guess, because with the passing of years they simply assumed I knew. It was not a gratifying subject for family discussion. The impact upon my brother and sister--losing both parents in so short a time and finding themselves in the care of a stepmother they had known only six years--would have been enormous. But not only did we not complain much in my family, we didn't talk much about anything deeply felt. We didn't ask for much, either. Only one time ever was I present when one of us shed a tear, at the funeral of a spouse. And that's about all it was, a tear.

About my father, I simply lost interest in him after he was gone. Later on--outside the family, of course--it became a conceit of personality to assert impertinently when the subject arose that I never missed him, and I don't believe I did. I didn't have that tender admiration for a large and generous nature that Nabokov expresses for his father. I hardly knew mine at all. If anything, the passing away of Mr. Isaac Daniel Heller was for me more a matter of embarrassment than anything else. At the beginning of each term in elementary school, it was the procedure of the teacher to call the children one by one to the desk in front of the classroom to obtain information that included the father's name and perhaps his occupation. Someone, teacher or sister, taught me the word deceased. I said it always in a repentant murmur brought low by a burden of shame and humiliation, and I hoped none of my classmates would hear.

I did not feel I missed him. In later years, I might even wisecrack irreverently when hearing someone talk of an appalling home life caused by a father that I was fortunate mine was gone before he could inflict much damage. But I was biting my fingernails at the age of seven. And except for two hospital confinements very much later, during which my anxieties were focused on inescapable concerns, I have gone on biting them and I still do. In my late teens and afterward, I was suffering headaches before I understood what headaches were. Earlier, when someone spoke of a headache, I had no grasp of what was meant; once I did get the idea, I realized that I had been having them all along, usually on weekend mornings and afternoons. They've stopped. I studied my face in the mirror excessively. I had overheard that I was a good-looking child, mostly from repeated comments by my sister's girlfriends, and I wanted to reassure myself that I had not changed for the worse. I suffered boils more often than what was considered normal and had a school year of warts: There were seventeen on my hands and arms, including one large flat one on an elbow that didn't disintegrate with the others and had to be burned off by Dr. Abe Levine (who charged two dollars for the office visit and the treatment). I had a crazy fear I was going bald, because the hairline at my forehead was so much higher than at my ears. I did what I conceived I could to "train" my hair, and I moved the part from one side to the other, and then to the center and then off again to the side, and then tried it without a part, plastered flat with a stiffening hair tonic, and then with waves. I did other little things I still wouldn't want to tell anybody. I measured my height by the level of my eyes and therefore believed dismally that I was half a head shorter than I indeed was--that I was much shorter than boys who were shorter than I. It was vanity, of course, but I'm inclined now to believe that it was a very anxious vanity founded on a wobbly formation of what R. D. Laing might have called "ontological insecurity."

I was prone to fantasizing, daydreaming--and to good effect: I brought my rather overworking imagination into the classroom in book reports and compositions, and in this schoolwork I excelled. I can think of these examples: For a book report on Tom Sawyer in one of the earliest grades I donned the mantle of Tom Sawyer tasked with the assignment of writing a book report on the work in which he is the principal personality; in the seventh grade, when I was about twelve, for an autobiographical written assignment supposedly by a subject in history. I became, in a first-person account--not Abraham Lincoln, which would have been ordinary, others would have chosen him--but the metal in the gun that was used to shoot him. I was born, I remember, in a mine in Chile, in a shovelful of iron ore. Papers like these were read aloud as outstanding, which was the reward I aimed for. I very strongly did want to excel and be noticed.

And one time I used some savings to surprise my brother with a gift for Father's Day. I bought him a carton of cigarettes, Camels, and it cost a dollar then. And I still am unable to decide, aware now of unconscious motivation. whether the deed was one of sincere gratitude and affection or merely a stunt contrived to excite comment and win me some complimentary attention. Or both. Another time, nearing the age of sixty, while experimenting with psychoanalysis as a remedy for alleviating stressful moods in the throes of a rancorous divorce, I had a coherent dream in which my brother, Lee, who then was living and in good health, was dead and resurrected from the grave to rejoin the family in the old apartment house in Coney Island, where my mother, who had long since died, was alive and active. On my back on the analyst's couch, I protested astutely that I probably wouldn't have had that dream of my father-as-brother the night before were I not in this treatment and if I hadn't known I would be coming to see him that morning. And he, chuckling in his upholstered armchair, didn't disagree, and conceded that the psychoanalytical process was indeed to a large extent "neurogenic," a word I had not heard before and have not heard since.

NOT LONG AFTER my father died, we moved from our old apartment into one of equal size directly across the street, and that is the one I think of as the home in which I grew from childhood. It had four rooms. All of the apartments seemed to have four rooms, one a full kitchen, one a living room that routinely also functioned as somebody's sleeping place. In spring, with us as with others, the ROOM FOR RENT sign went up, the notice went out to neighbors, and we took in a boarder for the summer, usually a single adult or an adult couple with friends or relatives nearby. None of us, not my brother or sister or I, could recall with certainty how we disposed of ourselves for the period in which we gave up that room. My sister does remember a situation in our first apartment with two parents and a child boarding in one room, while one of us slept in the kitchen. She can't remember which one of us it was.

It was to one of these boarders that I owe my first exposure to classical music. He politely requested permission to tune in to station WNYC on our radio when it wasn't in use (in use by me, usually, listening--to the despair of my mother--to big-band swing). WNYC was a classical music station. I didn't have to listen when he played the music he preferred, but I did have to hear. And I was overwhelmed when I recognized in these classical performances so many melodies already familiar to me as popular songs from Your Hit Parade and other radio programs: "Our Love," "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," "You Are [perhaps "This Is"] My Song of Love," "The Lamp Is Low," and a host, more than one host, of others ("The Isle of May," "April Showers," "No Star Is Lost in My Blue Heaven," Tchaikovsky again, and what appeared to be a genuine Negro spiritual and was, in fact, astonishingly, the largo from Dvorak's New World symphony, "Going Home"). And it was while I was listening alertly to discover more of these that other strains I hadn't heard before were played and repeated and became recognizable and appreciated.

When families moved from one flat in Coney Island to another, it was mainly to take advantage of the usual "concession"--a rent-free first month or two given to the new tenant. When they moved away from Coney Island into areas of loftier economic standing, it was because they could at last afford to. The clearest memory I preserve of our earlier apartment was of my brother, after all our belongings had been transferred, going back with me and bringing a broom to sweep out, still one more time, the corners of all the rooms. He didn't want the new tenants, he explained, to think that the ones preceding them, us, were slobs. He would retain this conscientious and considerate trait, this regard for comportment, till the end of his life.

In the new apartment, after being put to bed, I would frequently and furtively imagine, or hope, that a policeman was stationed at each end of our segment of the dark block, keeping vigilant watch on my building and window to safeguard me from--I cannot imagine what. Except for the threat of true poverty, against which I was protectively kept ignorant, there were no dangers. Both inside and outside the house we were safe. There were no kidnappings or burglaries, and always in decent weather there were scores of kids on the street to play with, and grown-ups to watch and keep an eye on us. From the earliest grades on, we were encouraged, boys and girls, to walk on our own to the grade school close to half a mile away, crossing streets. We walked home for lunch at noon, walked back to school for the afternoon session, returned on foot when classes ended at three, without fear, without harm. Except in summer, there wasn't much danger from automobiles; this was a low-income neighborhood during the Great Depression, and there weren't many automobiles. From about the age of nine or ten, we could play in the street at night or roam the boardwalk until we sagged with sleepiness or someone came to fetch us.

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, February 9th, barnesandnoble.com on AOL welcomed Joseph Heller to discuss NOW AND THEN.


JainBN: Mr. Heller, it's an honor to have you with us this evening. The audience is brimming with questions for you, so without further ado....

Joseph Heller: Hello, audience. I'm glad you're all listening.


Question: Would you consider CATCH-22 an antiwar novel?

Joseph Heller: Of course, it is antiwar; it's hard to think of novels that are prowar, or neutral about war, but my intention was to make it about more than that -- about the government, about society, and about how things were at the time, in 1961-62. I've been lucky in that most of the things I wrote about in a referential way have not improved since then, so the book seems to have remained relevant. [Laughs]


Question: Do you still fly planes from time to time, recreationally?

Joseph Heller: No, I never flew aviation in my life. I was a passenger in a plane -- a bombardier in a military aircraft -- but I never wanted to be a pilot. When I got back from military duty overseas, I had myself taken off flight duty and never wanted to go up in an airplane again. I broke that vow after 17 years. I remember what led me to fly again regardless of the risk. I was coming back from a company convention on the island of Nassau. I went by boat, I came back by boat, and I had to take the train again from Miami to New York, alone, and it was something like a 24-hour ride. I vowed I'd rather be dead than relive that kind of boredom. And so I flew again, I believe it was to England. I believe that was in 1962, after the publication of CATCH-22. I was invited to England for the British publication.


Question: John Updike recently listed his ten greatest works of the 20th century. Would you care to share a few of yours?

Joseph Heller: No. [Laughs] I would not do that. I don't do that. I don't talk about other novelists. I do feel that in this country there is too large a multitude of talents for anyone to keep up with, including book reviewers. If I did list my ten great novels of the century, five would be by me, and five would be by John Updike. [Laughs]


Question: In NOW AND THEN, were you concerned with presenting a historically accurate look at the era in which you grew up, or did you wish to allow your nostalgia to affect your recollections?

Joseph Heller: I wanted to be as accurate, and as consistent, as possible with the easily obtainable facts. Sometimes it didn't work. I guessed that Kings County and Queens County in New York City were named after a pair of rulers. I realized later that I was mistaken, but I doubt that anyone else will realize that I was mistaken.


Question: Were you pleased with the film adaptation of CATCH-22?

Joseph Heller: I was very, very pleased with the film adaptation. My feeling was that whoever made the movie would not attempt to make a serious movie. But the director and his crew did everything they were capable of in translating the book to the screen. I've seen it over the 25 years since it was made maybe seven or eight times, and it's one of those rare films that improves with age. I feared they would make a cartoon version, a sex comedy, and I was gratified when I saw the movie the first time and realized the attempt was to translate the book in its entirety to film.


Question: Do you feel that the novel has a future in this age of cinema and television?

Joseph Heller: Oh, definitely I do. I don't dispute the fact that visual arts such as TV and film appeal to a larger audience than novels do, because it's easier to watch something than to read a book, but there are still those who get their greatest mental pleasure from reading books. And there will always be those neurotic personalities like myself who would rather write books than do anything else. The people I'm engaging with now are involved with reading.


Question: Mr. Heller, I was reading an interview with Norman Mailer where he made an allusion to the fact that technology has made writing "too easy." What do you think?

Joseph Heller: I've never found writing easy, and technology has not made it easy for me, and I would not agree with that observation. I don't know what he'd be alluding to, except that the word processor makes rewriting tremendously easier than the typewriter was. But there's no substitute for the tremendous amount of mental energy that goes into creating the first draft of a work.


Question: What is your favorite phrase from CATCH-22?

Joseph Heller: [Laughs] I've got a million of them. No, I don't have a favorite phrase from CATCH-22. I'm surprised because when I reread it, I have new favorites each time. Very many favorite parts, very many favorite paragraphs, but no favorite lines.


Question: Are you the real-life Yossarian?

Joseph Heller: [Laughs] Not really, though I'd like to claim I am. I don't have his courage, and I don't have his determination, and I'm more afraid of authority than he was. I also didn't have the same experiences as he did. My military service was not filled with the same obstacles and issues that his was in CATCH-22.


Question: In CLOSING TIME, what were the Hell scenes symbolizing?

Joseph Heller: The Hell scenes were symbolizing Hell. [Laughs] There was an attempt in CLOSING TIME to depict the events on our different levels of consciousness. Hell existed in CLOSING TIME because we have a concept of Hell, not because I believe in such a place. The imaginary and the realistic. The imaginary would include the concept of Hell, an inferno and an underworld. These are all human constructs that exist in consciousness. They may be real; they may not be real. But we do think of them as existing. The real underworld would be an imagined underworld -- our concept of an underworld. I tried to give equal weight to what we feel would be real and imaginary. In different parts in CATCH-22, I tried to combine real literary figures with characters, such as the Good Soldier Schweik sharing a cell with the writer Kurt Vonnegut.


Question: Do you have a set writing routine, or do you only write when the spirit moves you?

Joseph Heller: When I'm writing, which means when I've started a book, I tend to have a set writing routine, which I tend to break very often. I still write by longhand. My best time would be after breakfast, between 10am and noon. After that my mind goes blank. Since I'm living now out of the city and can spend my time thinking of nothing else, sometimes I can have a session in the afternoon or the early evening. Once I start a book, I can think of nothing but writing the book. That was not true when I was living in New York, where the distractions and temptations were numerous.


Question: Was CATCH-22 inspired by the incipient turmoil in Vietnam, which was, I believe, contemporary to your writing it?

Joseph Heller: No, CATCH-22 was published in 1961. It was inspired by events in this country from 1945 to the time of writing it, such as the Korean War. Vietnam did not come to our public attention until about 1963. But a lot of observers have noted that CATCH-22 was more realistic a depiction of Vietnam than of World War II. And there was a huge upsurge in the sales of CATCH-22 in 1963, '64, and '65, when Vietnam was very much in our consciousness.


Question: Did you spend much time in areas of Brooklyn other than Coney Island when you were growing up?

Joseph Heller: I spent almost my entire life in Coney Island when I was growing up. It was where I lived until age 19, when I was drafted. In high school my neighborhood was lower Flatbush, and when I got my first job as a bicycle deliveryman for Western Union, I used to get out to other parts of Brooklyn. At other times I worked in the Western Union office in Manhattan, so I did become familiar with upper Manhattan as well as with Coney Island and lower Brooklyn.


Question: Were most of the characters in your novels inspired by people you actually knew? Where did you find such bizarre company?

Joseph Heller: [Laughs] Most of the characters in my novels were not inspired by real people. Certain traits in the characters were inspired by people I knew or had heard of, but most of my novels aren't very realistic. Pure literary inspiration.


Question: Your name is often mentioned alongside such authors as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Salinger. Do you see yourself as part of their tradition (to the extent that they all belong to a single tradition)?

Joseph Heller: The authors you just named are not too similar to each other, so I don't see much of a tradition among them. I don't think there's a tradition there other than that they are American authors, and American authors do tend to have a distinctive air, as opposed to French, English, or Brazilian authors. The Continental authors tend to be morephilosophical. The Americans tend to be more action-oriented. I see myself as part of that tradition only to the extent that I just mentioned, in that I'm American and my writing tends to be more action-oriented.


Question: What is the most valuable advice you ever received about writing?

Joseph Heller: [Laughs] I don't recall ever having received valuable advice about writing, but what I do remember receiving is encouragement. As in school, having received praise for my short stories, that was what I remember receiving. The advice I give to writers is to keep writing. Even if you don't become rich or famous, you're doing something worthwhile. It's not like choosing to go to law school or medical school for two years and then changing your mind. What writers do, they enjoy doing, and find it enriching.


Question: A man once said laughter is the key to a happy and prosperous career. Do you believe in that theory?

Joseph Heller: [Laughs] I know lots of people who laugh and are not happy. It's certainly not the key to prosperity. I certainly think that laughter, if it's sane and not idiotic, is the key to personal, enjoyable associations.


Question: Do you see the country as being better or worse off since the time that CATCH-22 was published?

Joseph Heller: Better or worse off in a technical sense, spiritual sense, social sense? I think technologically we're better off. So far as the other two are concerned, I think we're worse off. Society is fragmenting, many things have gone awry. During World War II, at least we had a sense of belonging. I'm not even sure if we're better off economically. We have more rich people than ever, but also more impoverished people. The sense of unity we had at the time of World War II certainly no longer exists. And the feeling of unlimited opportunity for young people getting out of high school and college, the sense that opportunity was there, no longer exists. And the opportunities no longer exist.


Question: Your book is called NOW AND THEN: FROM CONEY ISLAND TO HERE. Where is "here"? What is your current life like?

Joseph Heller: "Here" is being online with BarnesandNoble. "Here" is wherever I happen to be at the time the question comes up. A year ago, "here" would be where I was when I was waiting for the book to be published. But I think the good things have not changed since then. The last few paragraphs, the good things in them, have not changed. My life is very good. I believe one of the last paragraphs starts, "I have much to be pleased with, including myself, and I am. I wanted to succeed, and I have." Just about every ambition I've had when I was young has been achieved. I'm in good health, I look pretty good for my age, I have a full head of hair, an enormous appetite, and a good digestive system, and enough money to live where I want to, which a lot of talented writers don't have. Another piece of advice I'd have for young people who want to write is: If getting rich is your goal, go into another profession.


Question: There's a street in North Brooklyn called Havermeyer. Any connection to the character in CATCH-22?

Joseph Heller: The name Havermeyer came not so much from the street as from the telephone exchange. We used to have names for the telephone exchanges like Murray Hill and Havermeyer. I believe it must have come from the street, at least from the Havermeyer telephone exchange.


Question: If the U.S. attacks Iraq in the next few weeks, it will be primarily a bombing campaign from the air. Things seem uncannily unchanged since Yossarian's day. Would Yossarian have any opinions on the current state of affairs?

Joseph Heller: Yossarian of course would have the same opinions that I have about the current state of affairs, which is that things are hopeless. The thing is that air strikes tend to be ineffective. Even in World War II, studies have shown that the bombing campaigns were relatively ineffective in making the Germans surrender. Besides the atomic bomb, air strikes didn't help in winning the war. I'd say that unfortunate choices are made by people in office who are like the characters in CATCH-22. I don't know what choices I would have made. But I do think that when George Bush declared war against Iraq, it was a terrible mistake. I do believe that if he had stayed quiet, Iraq would be an ally of ours by now, or a buffer. It seems that the country is in a no-win situation.


Question: Did you encounter much anti-Semitism in the Brooklyn of your youth? Are there any particularly poignant episodes you recollect?

Joseph Heller: In the Brooklyn of my youth there were virtually no anti-Semitic incidents. The Coney Island I grew up in was virtually all Jewish, next to a neighborhood that was virtually all Italian. There were virtually no incidents. In the service, there was the usual elbowing. We were meeting people we would never have met before. I was meeting people from Texas, from places I'd never known anyone from, and they were meeting me, somebody from a place where they'd never been. We would kid each other about these things. People would know I was from Brooklyn, that I was Jewish, and we would kid each other. That was the military. In New York there were different neighborhoods, and we were aware of our differences. There was a part that was heavily Norwegian, and we knew those guys were tough. I used to know a guy from there, and I learned from him that he could walk into a beer hall in Manhattan on a hot summer day and bring out two pitchers of beer. We were all under 18 and 19. Coming home once on the subway, there was a stop at Fort Hamilton Parkway where those going into Bay Ridge had to get off; those going to Coney Island continued on their way. Everybody on that train was reading a heavily isolationist newspaper. Everybody was reading the New York Post and a newspaper called P.M. They stayed on and went into Bensonhurst, Rohwalt Park, and Coney Island. I did find, when I was working in Virginia, I worked in the blacksmith's shop, and I was the only Jew there, and the only one from New York there. Most everybody else was from rural Virginia and North Carolina. I was a curiosity to them, just as they were to me. There was never any Jew-baiting, though. The only dislike was for the one Catholic who worked there. That was when I learned that among rural southerners, the dislike for Catholics was intense. I was able to make friends with everybody there. The Catholic Orangeman told me of the dislike of Catholics in Ireland. I tried to make friends with the few blacks there, but they were smarter than I was. They kept their distance.


JainBN: Mr. Heller, thanks so much for joining us this evening. It was an absolute pleasure. Please come again upon the publication of your next book.

Joseph Heller: It's been a pleasure. I think the questions were particularly good. They indicated that the audience reads. Even if it's what they read on the television. [Laughs]


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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2001

    A Fine Representation of Heller's Psychology and Style

    If you are like me, you are tempted by autobiographies of writers whose work you love. You hope to get that extra bit of insight that will expand your appreciation of their writing. Usually, these hints come from long passages about writing and inspiration concerning those works. In Now and Then, Mr. Heller is more laconic about that sort of information than many writers are. On the other hand, he is very generous in explaining his personal psychology, demons, work habits, and writing blocks. You will come to appreciate that Mr. Heller is a man beset by some important demons who overcomes them with wry wit that delights almost everyone. The book's weakness is that you will perhaps get more knowledge about Coney Island in the 1930s than you had counted on. If you are from Coney Island, on the other hand, you will revel in all of the myriad details and will want to give this book more than five stars. Mr. Heller takes great pleasure in his success, his career, his recognition, and his accomplishments. He takes equal delight in his ability to use language with precision and erudition. The autobiography allows him plenty of opportunities to focus on all of these pleasing elements. To make this self-indulgence more palatable to the reader, he pokes a bit of fun at himself with gentle irony. But all of this seeming self-indulgence is really procrastination to delay dealing with the painful parts of his life story. His father's death while he was young, and later exposure to the horrors of war in World War II left a deep stamp on his emotional make-up. The book describes an important catharsis as Mr. Heller identifies what he learned from psychoanalysis and the pscyhological testing that his employers applied. His self-descriptions perfectly mirror his characterization of what happened in a typical psychoanalysis session. He would tell witty stories, jokes, and did everything possible to please the analyst . . . so he would not have to focus on the problems that faced him that day. And so the book does the same. I came away with a new appreciation for Mr. Heller after coming to see how much of his great writing and humor serve as his defense against deep emotional wounds. I hope that we can all learn how to cope as well. After you finish this book, think about where you procrastinate. What is it that you are trying to avoid facing about yourself? Tell the truth . . . and make it interesting if you want to help others! You may also help youself. Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution

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