Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here

David Futrelle reviews 'Now and Then' by Joseph Heller

By David Futrelle
Published February 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Marguerite Oswald, the loquacious and vaguely lunatic mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, once announced her intention to write a memoir with the title "This and That," a title suggestive of the scattered contents of her always-busy mind.

Now, Joseph Heller is no Mother Oswald -- thank heaven for that -- but reading his new memoir, "Now and Then," I couldn't help thinking that he should have filched Oswald's unused title for his own. For Heller, the author of the bitterly funny "Catch-22" and several other less winsome novels, has filled the pages of this disorderly memoir with a collection of remembrances that have no more logic to them than a dream. Heller, at least, seems aware of his tendency to ramble: His fifth chapter is titled "On and On," which is followed by chapters with the evocative titles "And On and On" and "And On and On and On."

Still, Heller is Heller, and even the most jumbled segments of this generally affable memoir have their share of insightful observations and amusing asides. Heller's memories of his Coney Island childhood are laced with sardonic humor and bathed in a warm glow of nostalgia. He tells of his first (and last) ride on the Cyclone at Luna Park (as a returning Air Force airman with 60 missions under his belt); of street games of "punchball" (a sort of stickball without the stick); of swims out to the bell buoy at Coney Island Beach -- which he only now recognizes were exceedingly dangerous ventures.

Most of this memoir -- which stutters to a halt some time before it reaches "now" -- deals with Heller's childhood, his stint in the Air Force and his years as a young adult. Aside from relating his early struggles to get into print (one of which involved a story called "Did You Ever Fall In Love With a Midget Weighing Thirty-eight Pounds?"), Heller provides few insights into his career as a writer. Still, the crumbs he gives are intriguing enough. He notes that over the years his memories of wartime incidents have gotten so intermingled with his fictional versions of them he can't always tell them apart. But there are some things he'll never forget. Like most writers, Heller is unable to forgive a bad review, including one rather unkindly review of "Catch-22" from the New Yorker, which declared that the novel didn't "even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper." Heller restrains himself from gloating over the book's triumph over its early critics, but, as he notes with blunt honesty, "What restrains me is the knowledge that the lashings still smart, even after so many years, and if I ever pretend to be a good sport about them, I am only pretending."

Still, the omissions may be rectified; Heller suggests that he's saving some stories for a sequel. If he does decide to commit more of his stock of memories to paper, Mother Oswald has a perfect title for him.

David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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