Only God Knows How Joseph Heller Survived a Mysterious Disease to Tell His Tale of the Biblical King David
After writing, eating and talking are the favorite occupations of the celebrated author of Catch-22. But both have been troublesome for him since Guillain-Barré syndrome, a bizarre form of paralysis, struck him suddenly almost three years ago. Guillain-Barré, which attacks the peripheral nervous system when the body's immune defenses go awry, often after exposure to a viral infection, is rarely fatal. Yet its symptoms are devastating. Almost totally paralyzed for several months, Heller was unable to lift his head, swallow food (he had to be fed through a tube in his nose) or hold a pencil. After six months he was able to write in longhand, and within a year he was back at the typewriter. Now, after more than two years of patient therapy, Heller, 61, can walk unaided, ride a bicycle, drive a car and swim, but his speech is still occasionally slurred, and his weakened tongue and cheek muscles make eating difficult. "I can't think of a muscle that is as good as it was before, but I seldom feel the effect of it," he says. A nonsmoker, moderate drinker and faithful jogger, Heller was felled at the height of his physical health. God, it would appear, owes him an apology.
That's the chief complaint of the protagonist in his new best-selling novel, God Knows (Knopf, $16.95). Heller's hero, the biblical King David, lies on his deathbed spouting one-liners worthy of the author's friend Mel Brooks. When he tries to get rid of his "wimpy" son, Solomon, for example, David tells a servant, "Show him the door." Answers Solomon: "I've seen the door."
The deity of God Knows is autocratic, cruel and fickle. David started out okay—he had a moment of glory when he killed Goliath; he married the woman he loved, the lusty Bathsheba; and he became King of Israel. But it's been downhill ever since. One son is trying to dethrone him, a daughter has been raped, and three of his other children are dead. "I know if I were God...I would sooner obliterate the world...than allow any child of mine to be killed," moans David. "But that may be because I am Jewish, and God is not." Still, David has found some happiness. "I honestly think I've got the best story in the Bible," he boasts. "Where's the competition?" Although one critic called God Knows "the longest lounge act never performed in the history of the Catskills," another reviewer praised it as "original, wildly funny and, like all truly grand comic novels...ultimately sad."
Heller insists that any similarities between his illness and King David's condition are purely coincidental. The author had completed a third of the book when he was stricken with Guillain-Barré. "I'm lucky I've had a better life than most people. Certainly King David had much more trouble than I did," says Heller, who still speaks with an accent reminiscent of his Coney Island boyhood. "I've been successful; until this illness I'd never been sick and I had a happy marriage for 30 years." But that too was ending as Heller wrote God Knows. Last month he and his wife of 39 years, Shirley, were finally divorced after a four-year separation and a bitter court battle. In legal papers Shirley claimed that Heller walked out on her in 1981, leaving her "destitute." She reportedly had so little money that she had to rent out her seven-room Manhattan apartment for parties to make ends meet. "It's very difficult," says Heller of their divorce. "I haven't recovered from it yet, and I don't think my wife has either."
God Knows reflects Heller's cynical, yet romantic, view of love. David's wife, Bathsheba, won't sleep with her husband. Yet she can't stop nagging him to name their son Solomon heir to the throne. ("I'll let you in on a little secret about my son Solomon," David says. "He was dead serious when he proposed cutting the baby in half, that putz.") Nevertheless David is wildly in love with her. "I do believe people fall in love," says Heller. "I just don't believe that it lasts."
These days Heller's love is Valerie Humphries, a tall, pretty nurse who was assigned to Heller's case at Manhattan's Mt. Sinai Hospital when he first became ill. They've been together ever since. Valerie confesses that she'd never read Heller's books until she met him. When she was told that she would be assigned to Joe Heller, Valerie says, "I had an image in my mind of Norman Mailer. And then when I saw Joe lying in the hospital bed with that white hair, I thought he was Norman Mailer." Deadpans Heller: "That's because Norman and I are twins."
Like the pugnacious Mailer, Heller enjoys talking about ancient evenings almost as much as writing about them. "Immortality doesn't concern me," he says. "I want to see the results while I'm alive." To this end the somewhat reclusive Heller has been showing up at cocktail parties and on TV talk shows, dressed in elegant clothes and flashing an even smile, the result of a recent trip to the dentist.
When the hoopla dies down, sometime before Christmas, Heller will finish No Laughing Matter, a memoir of his illness. His co-author is Speed Vogel, a longtime friend who helped care for the writer during his illness. Heller has also completed a screenplay about a cocky novelist who contracts, naturally, Guillain-Barré.
At the moment Heller has no idea what his next novel will be about. He used to brood that he'd never write another book. "But now I see a pattern developing," he says. "About a year after the preceding book is out, I get an idea that it's time to write another book. And then I sit out by the pool and do what I do best—daydream."