Vintage £8.99 (272pp). £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Yossarian Slept Here, By Erica Heller
Friday 07 October 2011
Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, seems to have weathered her girlhood better than most daughters of celebrated literary lions. As we know from the memoirs of Susan Cheever, Janna Malamud Smith and Alexandra Styron, growing up under the shadow of an artistic ego can seriously stunt your emotional health. Heller's book shows a robust acceptance of her father's overbearing personality and Don Draperesque approach to marriage and fatherhood.
The publication of Catch-22 in 1961 transformed not only Joseph Heller's life, but that of his wife, Shirley, and young son and daughter. Erica remembers how her parents would ride around Manhattan at night in a cab just to see the book displayed in store windows. For Erica, the biggest change was suddenly being able to order shrimp cocktails at the local Italian restaurant. She was enrolled in private school, and the family moved across the courtyard of the Apthorp building, a bohemian enclave on the Upper West Side, to a ritzier apartment.
Dominating the memoir is the story of Erica's parents' marriage. The book opens with an anecdote about a bouquet of flowers Heller sent to his dying wife in 1995. They'd been married for 38 years, separated 12 years before, and had communicated since. The card read "I am so sorry. Joe". Her answer: "Well, he is a sorry soul." After decades of "dedicated philandering", Erica believes that her wise-cracking, charismatic father was still deeply tied to her mother, despite his second marriage to the nurse who tended him when he was ill with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The New York of the period leaps off the page. Heller's cronies included Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo and Speed Vogel, and Erica captures their "food orgies" in Chinatown on Tuesday nights and late night board games. She recalls holidays in Fire Island and New Jersey, and a trip to Paris where the tension between her parents was so high that she took a coach trip to Chartres Cathedral and promptly passed out on the cold, hard floor.
Like any author of a great first novel, Heller was faced with the lifelong problem of trying to replicate his initial success. According to Erica, he soon developed a clever riposte to those who'd ask why he'd never been able to write another Catch- 22. His response: "Who has?" Fifty years on, and his daughter gamely admits she still hasn't read her father's most famous work.
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