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NOW AND THEN by Joseph Heller


From Coney Island to Here

by Joseph Heller

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-40062-1
Publisher: Knopf

The author of Catch-22 and five other novels looks back on the Brooklyn streets that spawned his twisted sense of humor. It somehow seems appropriate that a comic sensibility as acerbic and astringent as Heller's should have arisen a few blocks from America's most famous amusement park, Coney Island. The first half of this memoir, which is about his childhood, is surprisingly warm and elegiac, burnished with a golden air of nostalgia that is seldom found in his other writing. Heller's family dynamic was an odd one; his father died when he was only five, and his older siblings were the products of their father's earlier marriage. But despite a lack of blood ties and a nearly 15-year gap between Heller and his big brother and sister, this slightly skewed family unit was apparently loving and supportive. The Depression was, as he makes abundantly clear, a good time to grow up in Coney Island, a time when kids could roam the streets safely into the night, when ethnic and racial strife was relatively subdued (at least as a young boy perceived it), and he clearly made the most of it. The book's first chapters are redolent of summer days on the sand and punchball in the streets, the awkwardness of growing into adolescence with its many mysteries. With the coming of age that accompanies working lifeHeller's first job as a Western Union delivery boy came when he was 16the book turns every bit as sardonic as his best fiction, and it remains thus for his recounting of his experiences of work, wartime, and early struggles as a writer. Essentially a series of essays linked by leitmotifs of food and mortality, Now and Then is graced with a self-deprecating humor that contains a certain spikiness but also suggests that Heller would be a good guy to have a few beers with. (A sequel is promised within the pages of this volume.) Knowing, winningly funny, and engagingly bittersweet.