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Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22 Hardcover – August 23, 2011
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A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Pick in 2011
“Charming and combative”—The New York Times
“A vital read. [Erica Heller] didn't idolize her father, but she portrays his complexities with sympathy. . . . Feels like all a reader needs to get the feel for the man who wrote, and lived with having written, Catch-22.”—The Los Angeles Times
“For the human aspect [of Joseph Heller], one turns to Erica Heller’s frank but loving memoir of her father, Yossarian Slept Here, which comes as close as possible, I dare say, to deciphering the enigma behind the obsessive, pitch-black fiction. Joseph Heller, the opposite of demonstrative, was given to oblique ways of showing affection [and] such vignettes are all the more charming, and telling, because the author shares her subject’s sense of humor, and is herself a good writer to boot. . . . The miracle of this memoir is that it never seems less than fair: Erica Heller’s worst grievances are mentioned more in sorrow (or levity) than anger, and she’s careful to give her own shortcomings their due. . . . While she was dying of cancer, [Joe Heller’s] ex-wife’s utmost curse was to forbid Erica from ever giving him a coveted pot roast recipe. The daughter kept her promise, though she prints the recipe at the end of her book; for this reason alone—pity Joseph Heller the absence of such pot roast during his final years—I would recommend Yossarian Slept Here.''—Blake Bailey for The New York Times Book Review
“Packed with wonderful anecdotes of a sort that aren't always found in proper biographies.”—Salon.com
“Closely, affectionately rendered”—Walter Kirn for Slate.com
“Charming.”—The Wall Street Journal
“This collection of memories renders all of the pride, dislocation and confusion that follows from a life borne into literary legacy.”—Time Out New York
"With wit punctuating lambent nostalgia, Erica Heller brings her father to life in an animated, absorbing fashion, documenting his quirky habits, celebrity, and "invisible, unfathomable inner cycle," but also her parents' divorce and Heller's suffering with Guillain-Barré syndrome. The total effect is akin to leafing through a bulging family scrapbook where one finds a few blurry images among many snapshots in sharp focus. Erica Heller has inherited her father's finely tuned flair with words."—Publishers Weekly
“Comedic and poignant, her many-faceted memoir is rendered in high-definition as Heller recounts meals, travels, parties, arguments, lies, and the serious illnesses that afflicted her and her parents. Writing with wit, compassion, [and] aplomb, and no little wonder . . . Heller presents an involving and invaluable work of personal and cultural history.”— Donna Seaman, Booklist
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A Jewish wife will forgive and forget, but she’ll never forget what she forgave.
“Joe who?” my mother asked without guile from her hospital bed. She’d just read a card that had been tucked into a glorious bouquet of freshly delivered flowers.
“Joe Heller,” I told her. I was flabbergasted that she didn’t know or couldn’t guess, but then we were in Sloan-Kettering. It was 1995, she was dying, and although my parents had been married for thirty-eight years, they had had a particularly acrimonious divorce twelve years before and had not spoken since. So perhaps the fact that she was scouring her brain for non-Hellerian Joes she might know was not really all that startling. I reached over for the card and read aloud: “My darling Shirley,” it began, “I am so sorry. Joe.” I handed it back to her.
When I told her who’d sent the flowers, she spoke slowly and without rancor. “Well, he is a sorry soul,” she pronounced wearily, crumpling up the card and dropping it into the yellow plastic trash bin on the floor beside her bed. “But he sent you flowers,” I pushed, somehow hoping for more. “Th ey’re from Dad. Don’t you think they’re nice?” I pestered, leading the witness. She stared at me, unruffled and unimpressed. “I get it. I understand,” she said. “But really, how wildly would you like me to celebrate this? Should I hire jugglers?” Then she muttered something that I made her repeat twice because it was said so faintly, she closed her eyes and we never spoke of the flowers or of my father again.
By then my mother was bald and terribly frail. After her initial diagnosis a year and a half earlier, I’d moved back in with her at the Apthorp, the apartment building where I’d grown up, decamping from the Upper East Side to properly care for her for as long as was needed.
From the day I moved back in, whether my mother was home or, as she was with increasing frequency, in the hospital, my father was too stubborn and too shaken by the gravity of her illness to call or speak to her. Instead, he called me. Night after night he inquired about her with an array of questions that never varied: Had she eaten? Had she gotten fresh air that day? Was she able to sleep? What were the doctors saying? Had she taken all of her medications and had I remembered to give her all of her vitamins? What was her mood? Every night I answered him, increasingly baffled by his persistent interest and concern, but not, I suspect, as baffled as he himself may have been.
As my mother got sicker, had brain surgery, lung surgery, chemo, and radiation, I could hear how much more difficult it was for him to keep the fear from creeping into his voice. He knew we were going to lose her. It was only a question of when. Officially, they had lost each other many years before, of course, but it was obvious how deeply he was tied to her. They were still uncannily connected.
Even after years of silence, the truth remained that there’d never been anyone who’d known or understood each of them better than the other. There never would be. With Mom’s death, this aspect of my father’s life would be obliterated, and I sensed that fact very strongly during that time. To me, it could easily be seen lurking just beneath the surface—a surface customarily guarded and closed and, for the most part, ineluctably indecipherable.
When my father called me those nights he was not the blustery, famous author; the gruff, arrogant big shot; the smug, cocky fellow who sometimes showed up to friends’ cocktail parties for the sheer fun of insulting them. He wasn’t the caustic, clever master of the verbal arabesque who for years had answered the question “How come you’ve never written a book as good as Catch-22?” with the sly, Talmudic response to put any other to shame: “Who has?” he’d ask, genuinely wanting to know. He was not bombastic or self-satisfied during those nightly calls. He was only sad. He just wanted to talk, and I let him.
Then, about a month before my mother died, when she had gone into Sloan-Kettering for what seemed as if it might be the last time, one night when Dad called I was simply too exhausted to hold everything back that I’d been wanting to say to him ever since she’d first been diagnosed. I had never found the courage or the proper words to use with him before.
I blurted out that he simply had to communicate with her again now, or he would never forgive himself. “How will you live with yourself if you don’t? How will you sleep at night?” I asked in an uncustomarily loud tone. He listened silently, and I could picture him sitting in his lemon-yellow study out in East Hampton where he lived, seething at the very notion of being scolded by his daughter. “Call. Write to her. Send flowers. Do something. There isn’t much time left, and if you don’t, I think you’ll always be sorry,” I fumbled, suddenly aware of and horrified by my own stridence. Now, understandably, there was angry silence. When Dad finally spoke, he was petulant, childlike. “I don’t need you to tell me what to do,” he growled, hanging up before I could respond.
It was the very next day when, sitting in my mother’s hospital room, there had been a knock at the door, and an orderly had entered with the exquisite bouquet of flowers for Mom. From Dad.
When I arrived home that night the phone was already ringing. He wanted to know if she’d gotten the flowers and if so, had she liked them. I assured him that they’d arrived and had been magnificent. “Well, what did she say?” he asked with some urgency, and then it was my turn to be silent.
After the divorce, for years my father had begged, cajoled, and finally actually offered me a hefty bribe of ten thousand dollars in cash if I would only tell him my mother’s secret pot roast recipe. It was handed down to her from her mother, my grandmother Dottie, and the meal was for him like kryptonite. It always made him groggy, feeble, and positively stupid with glee, turning his knees to jelly.
When my mother had closed her eyes in the hospital after receiving his flowers, what she had muttered to me, in fact, was: “No matter what, don’t ever give him the pot roast recipe,” and with that, she’d drifted off to sleep. I did not share this with him, take a sorrowful moment when he was so uncharacteristically humbled and vulnerable and make it even more difficult.
On the other hand, he never did get that recipe.
© 2011 Erica Heller
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Erica Heller is certainly a snappy writer with a penchant for for nice, tight sentences and wry observation, thanks to her years as a copywriter, a profession she shared with her old man. And she's an engaging storyteller--she recounts her life in a series of vignettes which, taken as a whole, add up to an admirable memoir, which is no small accomplishment. But for a book ostensibly about growing up as Joseph Heller's daughter, the guy on the cover is mysteriously absent.
She tells us a great deal about her relationship with her mother Shirley, and about the quirks and foibles of her maternal grandparents, colorful characters in their own right. But her father, one of 20th century American letters' towering figures, remains curiously unformed. It's almost as though we're viewing him through glasses with a very outdated prescription. Ms. Heller informs us that her father liked to eat, and did a lot of it. He liked women and did a lot of them. He could be nasty on occasion. But beyond that, hardly anything, and this is odd, considering what a colorful character he was.
She spends an inordinate amount of space on things that, not to be uncharitable, just don't really seem to matter much. She recounts her family's vacations in New Jersey, Long Island, and Europe in excruciating detail, and tells us an awful lot about the apartment building (Manhattan's storied Apthorp) where she grew up and now lives, right down to floor plans of the apartments. In a lot of ways, the book is more of a memoir about the Apthorp Building and her relationship to it than it is about being the daughter of Joseph Heller.
Even the man's career gets short shrift. The story's chronology revolves around the publication of "Catch-22," giving the reader the impression that Heller was a one-hit wonder who dined out for the rest of his life on one book, Henry Roth with a better sense of humor. Surprisingly little is said about his other books--the sublime "Something Happened" (except to say that parts of it wounded her and her mother), the howlingly funny "Good as Gold," the brutally honest "No Laughing Matter," "Picture This," and my favorite, "God Knows."
There's nothing whatsoever about his complex, sometimes tortured relationship with his Jewishness. We learn that his family was "profoundly unreligious"--there's no mention of Jewish holidays, and a surprising amount about Christmas and Easter. But the topic of Jewishness, judging by books like "Good as Gold" and "God Knows" was on his mind quite a lot, and this, too, seems like a striking omission.
Perhaps this was vagueness was deliberate. Heller, apparently, was neither the warmest or most doting of parents, and the fact that she seems to know little about him accurately reflects the distance she felt. But if this is the case, then to call the book a memoir of "when Joseph Heller was Dad" seems a bit like a bait and switch.
She also writes with affection and empathy about the many other colorful members of her unique family.
Erica Heller has a powerful story to tell and the ability to make the reader want to hear it. She's a wonderful writer --- smart and funny (her analogies are hilarious). It would be great to hear more from her, in the form of a novel next time. She could probably write a great screenplay as well.
I think one of the most interesting things about Yossarian Slept Here, is the fact that we never really get very close to that creator of such characters as Major Major Major Major and Milo Minderbinder; we view him from a distance. The image that keeps coming to mind is that of Erica and her brother passing an open door in their Apthorp apartment where their father is busy writing, and not knowing which Joe was inside. Was it the one who would become irate at being disturbed for breaking the creative flow or would he stop them in their tracks and ask "Where are you running?"
This, to me, is a key moment in the book and symbolic of how many people might have known him. We learn much about Mr. Heller and his family, yet we are kept at a distance, as if peering through an open door but not fully allowed to enter. We catch glimpses of him; saving snow over the winter so he can confound his kids by tossing snowballs at them in the summer (which, by the way, my own son found absolutely brilliant); gleefully correcting his writing students' work with a red felt marker, which Erica would later be subjected to as well; or, one of the most touching moments of all, when he followed his daughter, undercover, to a Washington protest in the 70's, hidden up in a tree with his friend, Speed Vogel, after warning her not to go. He seems to have been a man of many contradictions. Fitting for someone who wrote the book on contradiction. Another one of my favorite anecdotes involves Erica and a friend of hers crashing Woody Allen's annual New Year's Eve party. I don't know what's more priceless, the fact that they were caught using her father's invitation (with his permission), or the image of an irate Arthur Miller standing right behind them, angling to get passed them.
Ms. Heller begins her memoir with what I consider a device akin to Citizen Kane's "Rosebud": the mystery of a pot roast recipe that is desperately coveted by her father. It serves to propel a story that is told with humor, heart, and perhaps a touch of bewilderment. In the end, it is a cathartic release that the reader shares with the author as she discovers that regrets are a waste of time. You do what's right at the moment for your journey. When you look back, maybe you've learned something by putting all the pieces back together and gained a better understanding of people and their actions. Or maybe not.
We all know the old saying: You can't judge a book by its cover.
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