NEW YORK — First there was the fish. Everyone else enjoyed it, but to Joseph Heller, it tasted tinny, metallic. Then there was the sweet potato. It was delicious, Heller remembers, but for some reason he had the worst time swallowing it. At breakfast, the hash browns simply would not go down his throat.
The newspaper was heavier than usual right about then, too. And suddenly, Joe Heller was unable to remove the big, bulky sweater he was wearing.
Soon the heretofore healthy Heller was to learn he was suffering from a little known neuro-muscular disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome.
'Gotta Be Serious'
Or, as Heller's author friend Mario Puzo said upon hearing this diagnosis, "When they name it after two guys, you know it's gotta be serious." For that matter, Heller might even say it's "No Laughing Matter," the title he and Speed Vogel put on the book (Putnam's: $18.95) they wrote about Heller's bout with the disease, his slow, step-by-step recovery process and the friends who helped him through it. It's no joke, is what the author of "Catch-22," "God Knows," "Good as Gold" and "Something Happened" is saying--but, on the other hand, the whole experience was decidedly in the realm of the absurd.
"We think it is a laughing matter," Heller said.
Added Vogel, "We think the title is the biggest laugh of all."
Now, in their way, Heller and Vogel look like nothing so much as slimmed-down, white-haired versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Their faces crinkle quickly into easy, isn't-that-a-riot laughter. While neither is ever a full-time straight man for the other, they openly play off one another, Laurel and Hardy style.
"I'm going to the bathroom," Heller announced, then over his shoulder, admonished, "Don't let him say anything while I'm gone."
Vogel: "Oh all right, I'll go, too."
Vogel has a beard, but otherwise his resemblance to Heller is strong enough that he could live in his apartment, wear his clothes and even initiate the courtship of Heller's nurse girlfriend with no one giving any of it a second thought.
Their repartee extends into the book, where each writes an alternating chapter, beginning with Heller's crash acquaintance with a disease he had never before heard of.
Becoming ill in December, 1981, Heller spent six months in the hospital. Guillain-Barre is a neurological condition in which myelin, a protein that insulates nerve cells, is destroyed, causing paralysis. It has been found to be the result of a genetic defect and is also linked to viral infections.
"I believe now that I would have lost my mind had I not been able to talk," Heller writes. "I talked incessantly, from the moment I was moved as an emergency admission into the Medical Intensive Care Unit of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Conversation was all that prevented me from going mad. I wisecracked boisterously, commented, criticized, interrupted, counseled. I gave lengthy replies to all questions that were asked me by anyone and garrulous responses to thousands that were not."
And from Vogel, "I'm sure it's mere coincidence, but my life started to get terrific at the exact time that Joseph Heller's got terrible. As he got worse, I got better. As he started to look his age, I started to look more youthful. As he got sicker, I got healthier. As he got poorer, I got to live like a rich man."
Vogel and Heller met 25 years ago while Vogel was sitting on the beach, reading "Catch-22." While Heller continued on his path of much-acclaimed novelist, Vogel worked through careers as sculptor, textile executive and itinerant herring taster. Writing a book was never high on his agenda, but then nonfiction--and collaboration at that--was not the direction Joe Heller's typewriter was taking him, either.
"It's hard, writing nonfiction," Heller said. Writing fiction, "I need weeks to figure out just what I want to say." With nonfiction, "It was very intriguing to write in a way that required me to present facts, knowing that anything technical that I presented should be explained." From Vogel, the confession that "I didn't find nonfiction any harder than fiction" evokes great laughter for the two writers.
As much, nonetheless, a chronicle of friendship as it is the story of an obscure disease, "No Laughing Matter" actually evolved from a first-person newspaper column Vogel wrote about caring for his friend. At that time, Vogel had in mind naming it "Poor Speed, His Friend Joe Is Sick." But as Heller finished up "God Knows," the book he was writing before he became ill, the writing partnership seemed naturally to evolve.
"He came to me and said 'Do you think I can do this?' " Heller said. "And I said no, but there's no reason not to take the money and try to do it."
Heller knew that with his name attached to the project, they could command a comfortable, six-figure advance. On his own, the best Vogel might have done was a $20,000 offer for the solo-authored book.