Interview: Just a roll, no baloney

Joseph Heller's memoir glows with nostalgia for his Coney Island childhood. But the old master of satire has not gone soft, he tells John Walsh. Photograph by Jonathan Torgovnik

Coney Island is not a fun place to be in February. Outside the subway station in the southernmost part of Brooklyn, where New York meets the Atlantic, you walk down Surf Street past street-market stalls flogging terrible junk to passers-by - old hats, one-legged dolls, cracked coffee pots, plastic kitchenware - past a fly-blown carousel where one little black girl, held on by her mother, sits astride a painted pony, and in due course you find yourself on a wide, three-mile-long sandy beach glinting in wintry sunlight.

This is the Coney strand, immortalised in the songs of Rodgers & Hart ("We'll go to Coney/And eat baloney on a roll..."), a place where half the American nation seemed to congregate on public holidays, cramming the wide Riegelmann Boardwalk with day trippers, the funfair rides at Luna Park and Steeplechase full of shrieks and abandoned hot dogs - invented, it seems, at Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, which survives today - all social classes, all ages and all levels of celebrity, their Sunday excursions immortalised in happy disarray to grace the front pages of the New York tabloids on Monday. Today, the great funfair is out of action, its switchbacks and sideshows and duck-shoots deserted and silent. The Wonder Wheel is going nowhere. Willy the Whale is covered with a tarpaulin. The Tilt-a- Whirl is sadly horizontal. The tall, slender tower announcing "Astroland Amusement Park" ("Home of the world-famous Cyclone") looks like a giant plunger that, at any moment, might flush the whole beach clear of empty Budweiser cans and shish-kebab wrappers. Walking the boardwalk is a voyage into grot and decay: you stare at the brontosaural skeleton of a roller- coaster burned out years ago but never demolished, at the parachute jump, a 100ft-high, crimson 12-pointed flower on a rusting stalk that was once the last word in holiday thrills at the World's Fair, 1939, and has been unused ever since. There's nothing new at all here, although a scraggy patch of allotments on the corner of West 25th St won the 1996 "Dress Up Your Neighbourhood" prize, making you wonder, what on earth were the runners-up like?

This is the place that nurtured one of the century's finest writers. Not six blocks from this tragic wasteland, the author of Catch-22 grew up. And now, in his long-awaited autobiography, Joseph Heller has resurrected the place in all its glory. His book Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, a curious blend of vainglorious memoir and grudging confession, brings the dismal Surf Street back to life as the best of neighbourhoods, the epitome of emigre-American kid rapture. For 19 years, until he joined the army, with consequences the literary world has read and discussed for nearly 40 years, he lived on the 31st St intersection with his mother, his half-sister, Sylvia, and half-brother, Lee. Sylvia and Lee, respectively seven and 14 years older than Joe, were the children of his father's first marriage. Isaac Daniel Heller was a delivery driver for a wholesale bakery firm who used to gorge himself on chocolate cake and died of a bleeding gastric ulcer when Joseph was five. His widow and the three children lived in a four-room apartment, from which she made a modest living as a seamstress, turning collars, taking in laundry and reading Tolstoy at night. A hard life - but reading Heller's rapt account of his youth you'd think it was Paradise, a Norman Rockwell dream with occasional incursions by the Dead End Kids. Coney Island emerges in these pages as a crime-free Utopia, full of street games, warm and secure as a motherly armpit, as warm with "characters" and roadside snacks (halva, kosher corned beef, salami sandwiches), where young men earned nickels and dimes on paper rounds, progressed from punchball to social clubs with girls in tight sweaters, and the Jewish community was mostly untroubled by rumours of European persecution. Heller's memoir purports to deal with his whole life - youth, army, war, university, two decades of working in advertising and magazines, literary stardom - but is selective in the extreme, abandoning any linear sequence for a flood of impressions, associations and digressions, and always returning to the comforting shadow of home. Anyone expecting this most sophisticated of writers to explore the roots of his art, the quiddity of his creative career, will be bemused by his apparent obsession with Coney Island.

"I don't know that it was a perfect childhood," says Heller guardedly. "But we did have an ethnic uniformity. There were Italian, Irish and Jewish neighbourhoods, all with a cultural uniformity we don't have in society any more. They were immigrants. They brought with them a taste of food, a sense of religion and family devotion which doesn't exist any more either." More than a social blueprint, however, the place exists for him as a crucible of tastes and smells. "The main smell on the boardwalk would be the fumes of butter on popcorn, the fat on the hog dog griddle, the smell of knishes. What's a knish? A potato dumpling. They were different shapes, depending who made them. Mrs Shatzskin's were ovular and deep-fried. It's eastern European food, with mashed potatoes inside, and onions and probably chicken fat. It has me salivating right now."

Indeed he is. Mr Heller is a tremendously physical presence, just as his writing is egregiously masculine - not bulging with testosterone like Mailer's or Hemingway's or Peter Matthiessen's, but wiry with ideas, careering with sequential thoughts and roller-coaster logic, putting a great deal into the glittering surface. It's what made Catch-22 such a satirical treat - a supposed anti-war novel whose characters were warped more by market economics or public relations, or craven love of authority, than by bullets and bombs - and made its author the most celebrated American writer of theearly Sixties.

There's a high surface gloss on Mr Heller himself, as he sits resplendent in his apartment off Broadway. At 72, he is nobly, senatorially handsome with a broad perma-tanned face so rugged Mount Rushmore itself would feel envious. His hair is swept back in a white wave and his rather piggy hazel eyes sparkle at you. The only sign that he has outlasted the biblical lifespan is the jaw, which has succumbed to huge wobbly dewlaps; his speech is a Jewish-Brooklyn drawl in which all the Rs add on Ws (as in "Bwrooklyn dwrawl") but, amazingly for a writer who's been a celebrity interviewee for 36 years, he enjoys talking to strangers about his life.

Though Coney Island declined after the war, and became a synonym for tawdriness, he speaks of it with fond regret. "I moved to Manhattan shortly before Catch-22 was published," he says, "but my children didn't have anything like the enriching childhood I had. There was that primitive naivete there, in which everyone's values were pretty much the same, and you think the whole world is that way too. Even incomes were standard on Coney Island, so there was no sense of division between wealthy and poor."

And the oddness of growing up beside the nation's biggest funfair? "It was our natural world. Parents died, marriages broke up, every so often someone was stricken with polio. All the families I knew had economic problems, but they survived, they sent their children to school ... we didn't think of being at the funfair all the time. In the winter it was a grim cold place. I discovered as I grew up that the rest of the city wasn't like that."

A surprising motif in these memoirs is the amount of drugs in circulation just after the war. The fumes of marijuana hang over the pages (though Heller himself didn't indulge), and an awkward squad of casualties fall victim to heroin. "It was pretty much confined to New York," says Heller. "The supply was coming down from Manhattan, probably from Harlem, from the jazz world." He likes to tell horror stories about narcotics, like a one-man warning against Reefer Madness. "Some guys I knew got a lump of opium and ate it. They passed out, woke up in the morning, and the first thing they did, they pulled off their clothes and started scratching. Couldn't stop scratching..." His friend Marvin Winkler witnessed the arrival of the first heroin pusher on Mermaid Avenue, a genial pedlar with a fistful of hypodermics. He offered to show a dozen local boys how to mainline smack for free, "and every one of them was vomiting. Marvin walked round the corner to watch it. And now it's all over the world."

The heroin incident took place near Happy's Luncheonette, not a mile from Weepy's Poolroom, itself not unadjacent to Sammy the Pig's gambling parlour. Heller's Coney Island is sometimes too Runyonesque to be true, peopled by picturesque bad guys like Smoky Bleeker the scarred ex-jailbird and pugilist, Izzy Nish the gangster and pool shark, Spooky Weiner the dope connoisseur and Danny the Bull who choked his mother to death in the bathtub. Given that he had introduced real people from his childhood into his last novel, Closing Time (a sequel, of sorts, to Catch-22), I wondered if he'd found himself embroidering the past a little. He looked shocked. "Runyon was writing fiction," he explained coldly. "I can't think of a single place where there's fabrication in this book. Selection, perhaps. I was careful not to reveal things about myself that I didn't want people to know, and some things about living people that might be embarrassing to them." Is that why there's only the most perfunctory mention of his wife and two children? "They didn't have much effect on the story line I was following, which is a line from me growing up, going to high school, going to work, going into the army, becoming successful as a writer..."

Rather than bore us with memories of what it was like marrying at 22 and having children, Heller chooses instead to describe in minute detail the jobs of a Western Union messenger and a blacksmith's helper, both of which he took before joining the army as a wing bombardier. It's a typically perverse emphasis and it makes you wonder: is he a cold fish? In Now and Then, he admits to a glacial streak that stops him empathising with other people's unhappiness. "It's characteristic of me, but also of my sister and brother," he says. "The only time I remember anybody shedding a tear in our family was my sister at her first husband's funeral. We keep ourselves, and our emotions and affections, to ourselves."

About his parents he displays unresolved angst. "I don't remember my mother being particularly affectionate. I don't remember a lot of hugs and kisses, though I was the love child of them all." Rather more spectacularly, he remembers an occasion when - trading on the belief that her command of English was worse than it was - he called his mother "a bastard" and watched her stagger back incredulously. But he's not happy on the subject of parents. "I don't talk much about my feelings of love or anger about my mother, though I think she comes through in the book as a very capable, self-sacrificing person," he says. But when I pressed him about the fictional mother of his alter ego Bob Slocum, in Something Happened, whose parting shot on her death bed is to tell Bob, "You're just no good," his eyes wobbled with tears. "Outwardly, it was a perfect childhood," he said, "but inwardly, when you talk to me now about my mother, I get a feeling of sadness. There's something inside me that's aware of the distance between us." His attitude to his father is similarly fraught. Heller Snr died when Joe was five, and he radiates a curious hostility to the dead man. In a chapter called "Psychiatry", he approaches the subject of his father crabwise, offering a handful of little memories of a parent chronically absent when he was most needed - like when Joseph had his tonsils out at four and lay all night with a Gobi-like thirst (the result of being anaesthetised with ether) waiting for his dad to come and help him.

Heller was only 19 when he signed up to go to war. All his friends did. They had nothing better to do. He looks back with approval. "It came along just at the right time ... It put an end to our confusion and ambivalence, took most powers of decision out of our hands and swept us into a national endeavour considered admirable and just." He was sent to Corsica, from where he flew the 60 bombing missions that had to be completed before he could be sent home. And there he encountered the chaplains, go-getting mess officers, lickspittle captains and terrifying colonels that would find their way into the pages of Catch-22.

From his early twenties, Heller had been writing short stories and his first, entitled "I Don't Love You Anymore", earned him $25 from Story magazine in 1945. Eight years later, when he was 30, he published the first chapter of a work in progress in New World Writing; it was called Catch-18. Two years later, he got an advance of $1,500 from Simon & Schuster (who are still his publishers; his editor, Bob Gottleib, amazingly, survived to edit the present volume of memoirs). The novel was finished after eight years' work. To avoid confusion with Leon Uris's courtroom saga Mila 18, its title was changed to Catch-22.

"None of the characters are representative of the actual people in the army. We had a mess officer who was allocated money to buy local produce, and we had fresh meat and eggs and vegetables. But I was writing the book in the post-war world, and I was dealing with much that was happening after the war. It wasn't about the army, it was about the birth of the multi-national corporation. I saw the mess officer building up a local syndicate, then a multinational, then a global economy. But Milo [the book's crazily entrepreneurial mess officer] isn't immoral. He's just amoral. He's not a villain in the way J Pierpont Morgan was. He's just a logical extension of economic man."

Yossarian, the central figure of Catch-22, got his name from an army colleague called Yohannon, it seems, and his character from Heller's wish- fulfilment. "He's an idealised figure in my mind. I wish I could have been like him in almost all respects. But" - he sighed - "he's not like me. He has more courage, and stronger feelings than I have. My reactions weren't the same as his. I don't think I ever had a commanding officer that I ever felt was being unjust, or egomaniacal. I had no complaints about my service in the army. What I did have was a lot of objections to people in authority in America, in military, in business, and especially in government - and a vivid, glowing sense of their moral corruption. So many people who wield power today are far more concerned about their image than with reality."

He sees no reason for America to go to war with Iraq, either now or then. "If Bush hadn't gone to war, Iraq would be our ally today. She'd be dependent on us for military equipment, and for us she'd be a barrier against Iran." He is full of contempt for President Clinton, and is gleeful about his recent discomfiture. And when Heller gets under way with the patrician scorn, hardly anybody escapes: he attacked the broadsheet papers for running sex stories on the front page, abused the news media for being more interested in the Oscar nominations than in world events, and reviled the New Yorker for its "superficial" interest in showbiz personalities.

You would never accuse the author of Catch-22 and Something Happened (and, come to think of it, the post-modernist biblical novel God Knows, and the study in applied aesthetics that is Picture This) of being trivial. But some critics are sharpening their quills to attack one superficial aspect of Now and Then: its shrieking conceit. Time and again, Heller crows about his brilliance at this, his genius at that, his good grades, how he shone in class, how he walked through exams, how he was the leader in "Follow My Leader" games, his expertise at dancing, his bella figura ... It's exhausting, but it's also a little shrill, as if the great man were editing his career to excise uncomfortable thoughts (like about his father). "Yeah, I know," he said. "There's a review coming in the New York Times, which likes the book but says I'm boastful. And a review in a Jewish paper said the same thing. The guy said he couldn't imagine a New York intellectual like Alfred Kazin ending a book by saying, 'I'm pleased with myself'. But then I'm not a New York intellectual."

Of course you are, I replied (it seemed no less than the truth).

"Not what New York Jewish intellectuals mean by 'New York intellectual'."

One leaves Mr Heller with a light heart, buoyed up by his emotional honesty, his mental agility and an indefinable charisma you get with American superstars, intellectual, Jewish or otherwise. It's not every day you encounter a septuagenarian so enormously pleased with how life has panned out and so keen to communicate his pleasure.

"The book is saying, This is where I am," was his cheery finale, "and it's been a happier life than most. I've been more successful than most people. Even my two marriages have been more successful. If I pretended to be more mournful, to be torn like Hamlet, to be melancholy, it would be bullshit. And people would know it was bullshit"

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