Illness is a great teacher. It slows people down and invites them to take a look at themselves and their world. The hospital beds, the wheel chairs, the sun porch are marvelous retardants in their way. From them we are obliged to pause and observe more than we are accustomed to. I do not mean to celebrate sickness but rather to suggest that a salutory aspect of being ill is the chance to measure our lives from a different and often instructive point of view.
This phenomenon has not been lost on established writers, who in recent years have produced a number of autobiographical works that have told us much about life, sickness and death. Stewart Alsop wrote about cancer, Michael Halberstam about his heart attack, Norman Cousins about a rare and aggressive arthritic condition and William Nolen about cardiac by-pass surgery, to cite a few. The public's fascination with things medical and a general tendency toward candor in matters of health and the human body have helped make the autobiography of illness a successful and useful genre.
So it does not come as a surprise that when novelist Joseph Heller emerged from a year-long battle with Guillain-Barr,e Syndrome, he should set about telling his tale. Veteran of war, author of four skilled and successful novels, donor of the concept "Catch- 22" to the language, Heller is eminently well qualified to write a gem of an essay on the agonies of sudden paralysis and the months of hospitalization and rehabilitation that followed. Unhappily, that is not the book that emerges from this experience. Joseph Heller and his friend and co-author Speed Vogel have given us the People magazine approach to Guillain-Barr,e Syndrome. People magazine, however, is concse and entertaining. No Laughing Matter is neither.
In the fall of 1981, the 58-year-old Heller suddenly found himself unaccountably weak in the legs and unable to swallow. Within 24 hours he had become a ward of the intensive care unit at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital with the diagnosis of Guillain-Barr,e Syndrome, an uncommon, progressive paralysis of unknown cause. The disease is dangerous because it will often attack the muscles of breathing, resulting in death if the patient is not placed on a respirator. The advancing paralysis stops as mysteriously as it began and, over a period of weeks to months, recedes, often leaving the patient -- surprisingly and mercifully -- with little or no permanent damage. The course of the disease is unpredictable and requires enormous medical vigilance. Hence Heller's quick trip to the intensive care unit.
Speed Vogel is a 25-year sidekick of Heller's whose achievements in life, he details for us, include the losses of a family fortune, a marriage and several careers in business. Being short on money, housing and commitments, Vogel proved to be more than the doctor dreamed of ordering to help Heller through his illness. Vogel moved into Heller's apartment, took charge of his checkbook and command of his business affairs. The arrangement was serendipitous all around since Heller was snarled in a divorce proceeding at the time and had no natural candidate to attend to his personal needs. As he lived in Heller's shoes, many luxuries came Vogel's way, including good food, good trips, and lots of shoulder rubbing with the wealthy and celebrated. He became so pleased with his new station in life that he persuaded Heller to collaborate with him on a book about Heller's sickness and Vogel's windfall.
The result is No Laughing Matter, whose problem is that it yields very little insight into the fascinating and tough problem of Guillain-Barr,e Syndrome while providing page after page of minor-league gossip about the friends and acquaintances of Joseph Heller. An example: "Dr. (Norman) Pleshette, in fact, had been Mel's (Brooks) first wife's obstetrician, and he was now the house guest of other good friends, Lillian and Miles Cahn, who would soon be kind enough to bring pelmeni Siberian (dumplings in broth) from the Russian Tea Room to Joe Heller." An entire chapter and numerous other references are devoted to the "so-called Gourmet Club," a regular get-together of Heller, Vogel and friends including Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks in Chinatown for the purpose of "pigging out." While some of the events surrounding the "so-called Gourmet Club" are funny, more are sophomoric.
HERE as elsewhere in the text, the Heller circle seems focused on the glitzy and the trendy, the gluttonous and the libidinous. If they have concerns about the world or the nation beyond the ends of their chopsticks, these are kept well hidden. But I don't believe that Heller, Vogel and company really live without thoughts beyond the next lobster Cantonese or the upcoming trip to Fire Island. I'm sure that Heller's illness sent a shiver of mortality through these smart and articulate people. But No Laughing Matter hoards its secrets and offers, instead, 300-plus pages largely devoted to trivialities. That is too bad because Joseph Heller has it within him to tell us a lot about facing death, about paralysis, about impotence, about recovery -- and recover he has. Perhaps autobiography is not a comfortable vehicle for him, and the wisdom earned from his months struggling with Guillain- Barre Syndrome will enrich some future novel. In the meantime, most readers will find better accounts of illness in the world of other writers, better humor in Heller's earlier books and better gossip, to be sure, in People magazine.