Friday, October 14, 2022

Now and Then by Joseph Heller

It's not required that a memoir be a discursive, loosely-organized thing written by a older writer who is not nearly as critical about his younger self as he wants you to believe he is. But there sure are a lot of them.

Joseph Heller's version was Now and Then, published in 1998, a year before his death from a heart attack. He was 75 for the book's publication, and insisted he was in great health at the end of the book. As one of his contemporaries said: so it goes.

It's a clich√© to say that everything that Heller published after Catch-22 was at least slightly disappointing, but Now and Then is on the higher end of the disappointment scale. It's full of stories about his younger life, but it's a poorly-organized rush, clumped into chapters with titles like "On and On," "And On and On," and "And On and On and On." There's solid Heller writing throughout, and some pleasant anecdotes, and (I expect) a lot of things that will be mined by his biographers or serve as the basis for further research. But the book itself is the usual mushy being-me-was-awesome treatment of his younger life.

It's at its most focused in the early chapters, hitting his young life as a kid and teen growing up in Coney Island. (And his publishers clearly saw that, since the subtitle is "From Coney Island to Here" and the descriptive copy I've seen always talks mostly about Coney and his childhood.) That's the first hundred pages or so, bringing him up to the beginning of the war in a roughly chronological order.

Well, "roughly." Now and Then is roughly a lot of things. The chronology is broken by the war: Heller quite obviously doesn't have a chapter on the war, and his longest section on it - tellingly, in the chapter titled "Peace" - starts from a photo of him and four other airmen, taken after he hit his sixty completed missions and was eligible to go home. All of his war memories come after that point: all of the danger, the retold snippets he used in Catch-22, all the "this guy was the basis for this idea," every bit of it comes after the big "I lived through the war" moment.

And, obviously, we already know he lived through the war. But, maybe, even fifty years later, it didn't quite seem real to Heller, and he had to write it that way for himself.

So this is somewhat straightforward, with digressions, for its first third, and then digressions on digressions for the rest. Heller gives some background on his writing career, in between other things and not always at the times in the narrative you'd expect it. Like most memoirs, the years-to-page ratio starts out very low and skyrockets once he's grown. His children pop up, nearly full-grown, for example, somewhere past the halfway point. He spent a year in England in the late '50s but hasn't a single anecdote or story from that time. The 1960s are almost entirely skipped - he jumps from Catch-22 to Something Happened.

Again, it's only in retrospect a reader can be clear what Heller covers: none of his adult life is in any kind of order. The chapters are vaguely thematic, at least some of the time - at the beginning and end, mostly - but the themes are broad and capacious, allowing him to wander around his topics and memories for a few hundred words at a time.

This is a pleasant book by a engaging writer. It does have some insights to his novels. But it also has all of the usual flaws of a memoir by an aged, famous, lionized writer, plus a few Heller wandered into himself.

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