Except for William Shakespeare, who did it wholesale, precious few people have fashioned concepts that have left language and awareness forever changed. Joseph Heller did, with "Catch-22" - a phrase, an idea, a book that affirmed our essential insanity. And now, 36 years later, he has fashioned a memoir. It convincingly celebrates something like sanity: That life offers a central promise, which is that it can be lived decently, voraciously and finally happily.
The book is called "Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here." (Knopf, 259 pages, $29). Coney Island, the legendary chip on the edge of Brooklyn, N.Y.,, is where Heller grew up.
His tale begins in an almost pedestrian manner, chronological, linear, without much flair or grace or even Heller's trademark irony. Soon on, it becomes increasingly anecdotal, layered, evocative:
"Some early evenings in the spring, summer, and fall, a hearty black woman would appear in the street and in the courtyards of the summer bungalow colonies - a street singer singing Yiddish songs with accurate Yiddish pronunciation. If we were upstairs, my mother invariably would wrap a few pennies in a scrap of newspaper and toss them down from the window, as she did with others who arrived to serenade us with accordions or violins."
Weaving characters, most of them dazzling little set-piece personalities, with the landscape and texture and commerce of Coney Island from the 1930s to the late 1940s, Heller produces a tapestry combining a never-admitted near-poverty, the rigors of the Great Depression, the indomitable personal industry of a positive and ambitious immigrant culture.
For Heller, Coney Island was both a home and a playland resort. But "even before World War II, the Island as a diversion and playground had been fading in verve and enterprise, its amusement area persistently shrinking."
Simply, Heller loved the place. His writing of it is a love story - though full of fading and sadnesses and conflicts and frustrations. He has astonishing and vivid recall down to nicknames and tics and proclivities.
Though he celebvrates his childhood and his adolescence, he can report with conviction that "It is often pleasing to be free of even good things, and childhood is one of them. Youth is another."
Gradually, the chronological narrative becomes informed by subsequent knowledge and bits of research and recalled personal history. This broadens the description and exploration of the social and economic structure not only of Coney Island but beyond, to the "swank" gated village of Sea Gate, to greater Brooklyn, to Manhattan (alone called "the city"), to Europe and a war and then to a series of universities, studying and teaching.
The narrative line and its tension are sustained by the energies of associations rather than the rustle of calendar pages. It is a commanding, deft, confiding device of presentation - not unfamiliar to readers of Heller's novels.
By early adolescence, Heller was quite sure he would spend his life as a writer. He had begun experimentally doing stories in secondary school and then in the Army Air Corps, which he served as a bombardier.
He makes substantial reference throughout this book to "Catch-22," which not only was his first and most important book, but clearly also his favorite. There is little about his other books. There is a great deal of revelation of iconography and origins of characters, decoding much of that novel.
Describing a bombing mission over France, as in "Catch-22," he writes: "A co-pilot panicked and I thought I was doomed. By that time I had learned through experience that this war was perilous and that they were trying to kill me." This finally overcame his "trusting innocence, like an ingenuous kid in a Grimm fairy tale." Thus Heller and this extraordinarily forthright memoir confront the defining event of a person's first doubt of the assumption of personal immortality.
Right out of the Army, he sold a short story for $25 and imagined he was off and running. He was not. He was more than a dozen years doing short stories and other free-lancing, living on minor jobs, before he began writing "Catch-22."
He went to college and graduate schools on the GI Bill, became fascinated, more or less in order, by Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, H.L. Mencken, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner.
Robert Gottlieb, then at Simon & Schuster, gave him a $1,500 contract for that first book. He began writing it in 1953 and finished in early 1961. It was considerably damned and slighted, was not initially a best-seller, and won no prizes. Then it took off and exploded. It was 12 years later that his second novel "Something Happened," was published.
In its final 50 or so pages, "Now and Then" begins to weave and knot together all the disparate threads ofd Heller's life. The narrative becomes clearly masterful.
It ends: "I have much to be pleased with, including myself, and I am. I wanted to succeed, and I have. ... 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 the 1960s, it would have been perilous to guess how the Joseph Heller of "Catch-22" would feel about life - though many people would at least assume that he would be skeptical, questioning, and possibly deeply cynical. But here he is, writing a lovely, moving, affirming, celebratory work of courage, clarity, insight and joy.
If ever you find yourself doubting that life is eminently worth living, read this book. You will not doubt again.
Pub Date: 2/08/98