Books: Subway memories

NOW AND THEN: A Memoir From Coney Island to Here by Joseph Heller, Simon & Schuster pounds 16.99
IN LATE 1920s New York, Sylvia Heller, a 13-year-old girl whose father had just died, escorted her stepmother to the hospital to receive the death certificate. It was a long subway ride from their Coney Island home. They had to change at Times Square and take one of two IRT lines.

Seventy years on, her kid brother Joey (her half-brother, in fact; Sylvia's stepmother was his biological mother - her own biological mother was already dead) takes up the story: "Sylvia had never been that far from home. It was her macabre luck to choose the wrong line, and the mournful subway journey of bereaved mother and teenage daughter to the hospital for the certification of death took two hours longer than it should have."

This was a significant episode in the life of Joseph Heller. It not only added to the poignancy of his father's death but it may go some way towards explaining his way of dealing with that death: coming to it by circuitous routes. It may even account for Heller's fixation with the length and level of comfort of subway journeys.

He dwells on such matters to an obsessive degree. "The seats were usually completely taken by the time the doors closed ... Those who had no seat when the train left 14th Street were condemned to stand in uncomfortable close quarters ... The subway rides in rush hour between Times Square and Coney Island took almost an hour ..." For large chunks of what is not a very large book, the most animated response is likely to be along the lines of: Can this really be the mind responsible for Catch 22, Something Happened and Good As Gold?

"I loathe unpacking," Heller tells us, "Weeks before a trip, I find myself brooding in torment over which suit to take, the right shoes to bring for each pair of trousers, the correct tie to match each shirt and jacket, the appropriate shirts. I determine not to take too much and always do."

This is a memoir whose author mentions his first wife no more than a handful of times, his children and his second wife only in a passing, postcard-home fashion, and who reveals nothing at all about the break- up of a 35-year marriage or a close encounter with death as a result of a rare, debilitating disease. He does, however, choose to let us in on his youthful discovery that "few things are as lusciously refreshing as ice-cold beer on a sweltering summer afternoon."

Yet it begins promisingly enough: Mark Twain appears on the first page, Proust on the second, food and spirited poverty on both. Here we have the ingredients of the classic immigrant family story. Its matrix, moreover, is Coney Island - home, in those days of Joseph Heller's youth, to a vigorous community of Jewish characters enjoying and enduring the ups and downs of life mirrored in the rides and sideshows of Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, magnetic gems in the island's tinsel crown.

Some of the characters are memorable individuals, whose progress into adulthood - and often material contentment - is charted, along with the pitfalls of war, deprivation and heroin addiction; others are representative figures, such as the street singers and door-to-door pedlars of home-made potato knishes.

Though the streets were safe, as Heller tells us on a number of occasions, that is not to say they didn't breed mean types. My favourite, among an unsavoury bunch who supply the book's best anecdotes, is Louie Schwartz, an "inordinately pugnacious young prize-fighter" from whom "it was best at all times to keep far away". Heller recounts of Louie Schwartz that legend had it that when he moved far upward in class for a bout with "raging bull", Jake LaMotta, even his mother went to shul with hundreds of others in Coney Island to pray that LaMotta "would not knock him out quickly but carry him the distance and pound him mercilessly".

But the deeper Heller goes into Coney Island, the more he repeats himself in a series of tedious, geographical wanderings. The place, whose decline is frequently commented upon, eventually takes on the form of a broken, jagged tooth, over which our author cannot stop running his tongue.

Certainly, the mature, famous and successful Now Joseph of affluent East Hampton cannot resist the trip back - actual, with documentary TV camera crews, or in reminiscence - to the Then Joey of Coney Island. And it is here that the sustained triviality sets in, its mass of mostly, pointless detail subsuming the exploration of deeper themes. Even Heller's war service, in Corsica and Rome, the living source material for Catch 22, the novel that shaped the sensibilities of more than one generation, is given relatively short shrift.

Amid all this, the occasional piece of wry, ironic humour bursts in like a shaft of dazzling light. In the main, this is a man who seems to be compulsively small-talking as a defence against another kind of shaft, that of pain. And, just as you find yourself wondering whether perhaps he should be telling all this stuff to a paid psychoanalyst, instead of boring his readers, Heller reveals that he has indeed undergone prolonged psychoanalysis.

The chapter headed "Psychiatry" is the penultimate one, and it is only at this late stage that Heller allows himself a measure of genuine self- analysis, relating it to his writing to acknowledge, for instance, that he has indeed often entered upon pages of digression before coming to the real point, the true beginning of a story. Once into his analytical stride, Heller's descriptions of his life and work are at last illuminating. "It has struck me," he writes nearing the end of the book, "that in Catch 22 and in all my subsequent novels, and also in my one play, the resolution at the end of what narrative there is evolves from the death of someone in the chapter before, and it is always the death of someone other than the main character ... And - lo and behold - here I am, much to my surprise, doing exactly the same thing with this book!" For he is now piecing together some of the hitherto suppressed details of the death of the father he never really knew but who elicited such painful, ambivalent devotion from little Joey's much older and touchingly protective half-brother, Lee.

Now and Then closes with a richly reflective sequence on some of the men and women belonging to the earlier part of the story, by now unencumbered with trite and tiresome detail. With all the gaps and after all that meandering, in the last two chapters we finally ascend to the summit of the Coney Island roller coaster. Joseph Heller's personal Catch 22 is that his only way back there from East Hampton appears to be through the tortuous tunnels of the subway.