Picks and Pans Review: No Laughing Matter

updated 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Joseph Heller and Speed Vogel

Here's what a master of black comedy does when real life strikes a bitter blow. He turns it into a book. In 1981, novelist Heller (Catch-22) came down with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a sometimes fatal illness that can leave its victims paralyzed from head to toe. Its onslaught is sudden and therefore doubly frightening, but many victims, including Heller, recover. This detailed account of that illness is provided by Heller and, in alternating chapters, by his friend Speed Vogel, a man a New York Times Magazine article has described as "a retired textile manufacturer and former itinerant herring taster." Vogel has many talents, but the most obvious one is that of making himself useful. When the illness struck, Heller was separated from his wife, and a long, painful description of his divorce proceedings (which cost him more than $300,000) is included. But the novelist is a man with such friends as Dustin Hoffman, Mario (The Godfather) Puzo and Mel Brooks. It is Brooks who supplies one of the book's funniest and most touching moments when, in faith-healer fashion, he invokes Jesus' name in an attempt to get Heller out of his wheelchair. This book also offers a lot of pleasant chatter about life in New York, about the Hamptons on Long Island (where Heller, Vogel and a nurse, Valerie Humphries, go for further rehabilitation after treatment at New York's Rusk Institute) and about people who are really nice to their friends. The illness mellows Heller, who falls in love with his nurse and who, despite the disruption and fear, claims that at the end he was having the best time of his life. He's convincing too: No Laughing Matter, strangely enough, is a collection of dark guffaws. (Putnam, $18.95)

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