Joseph Heller: Now And Then

Joseph Heller
Now And Then

ANY ACCOUNT OF the life of Joseph Heller is bound to move toward a single question: How close is the resemblance between the author, an Army Air Corps veteran, and his most famous creation, the conflicted Yossarian of Catch-22? Though Heller addresses this subject in his memoir Now And Then, he devotes more attention to the beginnings of his life than its near end in the air over Europe.

Like Woody Allen, Joseph Heller grew up in the shadow of the world's most famous amusement part, Coney Island. Heller recalls the scene there in the 1930s with a tactile enthusiasm, describing the commingling scents of potato knishes and frankfurters, along with the sights and sounds of massive crowds converging upon the boardwalks and beaches of his neighborhood. The magic of this place yields to a number of duller places and occupations that filled his adolescence and early adulthood, including stints as a messenger for Western Union and an advertising manager at Time magazine. Heller's caustic, self-deprecating outlook--the stylistic trademark responsible for Heller's fame--is in evidence throughout these accounts.

WWII, however, is the event that shaped the course of his life and his work. At age 19, after four months as a blacksmith's helper at a Naval Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, Heller returned to Coney Island. The looming possibility of the draft, compounded by scarce prospects for employment, led Heller to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Though he reasoned then that he could exercise his freedom by choosing his division of the military, such opportunities would prove scarce through the harrowing course of his service.

In one of Heller's early missions, he witnessed a plane in his squadron being shot down. Moments later, he was administering emergency first aid to a gunner suffering flak wounds. It was during this bomb run, aimed at the bridges of Avignon, France, when Heller realized the obvious--that being a soldier in combat meant that he could die. "They were trying to kill me and I wanted to go home," he writes, "That they were trying to kill all of us each time we went up was no consolation." Upon being discharged from service, he refused to set foot in a plane for the next 15 years.

Heller, who is now in his early 70s and in good health, has since lived a colorful and comfortable life, attending Oxford University on a Fulbright Scholarship and returning there recently as an Honorary Visiting Fellow at St. Catherine's College. As the final pages of Now and Then unfold, many decades and many miles from the terror that would make his career, Heller notes, "I have much to be pleased with, including myself, and I am." And readers will agree; he has good reason to be.

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