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Now and Then:
Catch-18 was the intended title of Joseph Heller's most famous novel, Catch-22, which the author renamed to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's bestseller Mila 18. It's hard now to imagine anyone ever mistaking a single line written by Heller for the work of someone else; his atmospheric new memoir grabs readers' attention with the same plain, powerful prose; blunt, but oddly tender, humor; and striking ability to recreate a particular time and place that distinguishes all his fiction.
The brief, haunting section on his air force service confirms that Heller drew on his own experiences for Catch-22. But it's his boyhood home, Brooklyn's Coney Island in the 1920s and '30s, that prompts Now and Then's best pages. You can practically taste the cheap ice cream and hot knishes, hear the shrieks of kids on the amusement park's hurtling rides, see the facades of long-demolished apartment buildings, and smell the sand-and-salt odor wafting from the beach. The dignity and emotional reticence of Heller's widowed mother, the security he felt in an impoverished but safe immigrant neighborhood, come to life just as vividly.
Scattered anecdotes about famous friends (including Irwin Shaw and James Jones) are also evocative, and occasional comments about his novels' themes reveal Heller to be a better self-critic than most writers. But it's his affectionate tribute to a vanished New York that most clearly displays this popular author's narrative skills and engaging personality. --Wendy Smith [via]