Long Island Books: When Dad Is a Famous Author

By William Roberson
Erica Heller Daniel Melamud

“Yossarian Slept Here”
Erica Heller
Simon and Schuster, $25

“Just One Catch”
Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin’s Press, $35

   In Tracy Daugherty’s recent biography of Joseph Heller, “Just One Catch,” he repeats a statement Heller made in 1975 during an interview for Playboy. Asked about the damaging effects of success and failure on a writer, Heller said, in part, “Along with success comes drugs, divorce, fornication, bullying, travel, meditation, medication, depression, neurosis, and suicide.” With the exception of suicide, Heller pretty much experienced each of these consequences in the aftermath of the publication of his masterwork, “Catch-22.”
    While Mr. Daugherty does an admirable job in chronicling Heller’s successes and failures, the full sense of the weight of this litany of success’s aftereffects is felt in Erica Heller’s “Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22.”
    Appearing within a few weeks of each other last year, the two works overlap at times (Erica Heller is a primary source for “Just One Catch”), but there are distinct differences between Ms. Heller’s book and Mr. Daugherty’s. Mr. Daugherty has written a traditional biography exploring Joseph Heller’s life and work. Ms. Heller’s book is a memoir, and her account of life with her father is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. She does not follow a close year-by-year, chronological account of life with the “Famous Author” (her term).
    Instead she focuses on a number of notable episodes in the family’s lives, such as moving to different apartments within the Apthorp; a trip to Corsica and Italy that becomes an extended Heller family European adventure with an uninterested, unhappy, and unappreciative teenage daughter; a summer in Beverly Hills; her parents’ separation and divorce, and her father’s bout with and recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome. She uses these episodes to reveal aspects of her father’s personality, his relationships with his family and friends, as well as her own prejudices and failures.
    “Yossarian Slept Here” is a clear-eyed, fair-minded work of familial remembrance and, ultimately, understanding. Ms. Heller is less interested in Joseph Heller the celebrated writer than she is in the Heller family’s domestic and social lives and the effect her father’s becoming the Famous Author had on the familial relationships. (Such was the impact of “Catch-22” that the family referred to the time before its publication as B.C. — Before “Catch.”)
    Mother, father, and grandparents, especially her feisty maternal grandmother, Dottie Held, all have featured roles in the story (less so her brother, Ted). In fact, the book is as much about her mother as it is about Joseph Heller, and in many ways Shirley, Heller’s wife for 38 years, emerges as one of the more admirable of the featured players. She was an attractive, warm, strong, and lively woman who was an admiring, devoted, and protective but ultimately unforgiving companion once the true extent of her husband’s betrayal of her was apparent. She refuses to concede her anger toward him even as she lies dying of lung cancer, denying her former husband any sense of reparation — as well as the recipe for her mother’s pot roast, much beloved and sought after by him.
    Erica Heller has an appealing humility and sense of humor as she relates her family stories. One is more prepared to accept the unflattering things she writes about her gifted but flawed father because she is so willing to hold herself up to the same damning mirror. There is disappointment, exasperation, and anger toward her father — “He only let anyone in so far. He was mercurial and it was easy to get on his nerves” — but she also displays some qualities toward him that he appears to have not had in sufficient supply with his family — empathy and generosity: “I loved even if I didn’t always understand him.”
    Although she relates how her father could seem distant and was “snarling” and “brutish,” especially as she grew older, she does not portray him as fundamentally unloving or uncaring. She recounts attending a new school in seventh grade that required her to travel farther and take several buses each way. While riding the bus on her third day of school she realizes that the man sitting in the back with his face behind a newspaper is her father, stealthily attempting to make sure she gets to school safely.

    From her memoir one can understand how Ms. Heller might be disappointed dealing with the excesses of her father's personality and his overbearing self-absorption and self-aggrandizement, but one can also see that she has an abiding love for him -- and ultimately, despite his personal failures and stubbornness, that he maintained an abiding if not always acknowledged love for his family.

    There are a number of wonderfully presented cameos of some of Heller’s friends, such as Mario Puzo and Irving (Speed) Vogel. Ms. Heller relates a few of their experiences together, notably the Gourmet Club, the weekly “food orgies” in Chinatown that included Zero Mostel, Mel Brooks, and George Mandel, among others. (She describes her father as being a “distinguished eater.”) Her comments on these friends often provide a means to characterize her father further: “Speed was eloquent, debonair, and diplomatic: all the things Dad was not.”

   Another interesting character to emerge from the book is the Apthorp, the historic apartment building built by William Astor on the West Side of Manhattan. The Hellers first moved there in 1952. Ms. Heller presents a social history in miniature as she describes the evolution of the neighborhood and the assorted tenants and neighbors — George Balanchine, Nora Ephron, and Al Pacino, among others — through the years. The passage of time and the family’s lives are marked in part by the various apartments they occupied.
    Both Ms. Heller’s and Mr. Daugherty’s books are sympathetic works. If one is interested in an analysis of Heller’s literary work, Mr. Daugherty’s “Just One Catch” is an excellent source. That he is also an accomplished fiction writer helps make his literary assessments and critical insights particularly thoughtful. Because she is concerned with Joseph Heller as paterfamilias rather than author, famous or otherwise, Ms. Heller offers little if any scrutiny concerning his works. She does not even mention some of them, and there is her rather incredible final confession that of all of her father’s works the only one she still has not read is “Catch-22”; she holds that book as her last remaining unearthed treasure.
    “Just One Catch” is by far the more complete record of Joseph Heller’s life and works, but “Yossarian Slept Here” is the more heartfelt. Ms. Heller’s book better captures the immediate lives that existed around those works and that were irreversibly touched by them for both good and bad. She offers up to the reader herself and her family to portray honestly and boldly — with humor and sadness, amid failures and successes — a story of family love and dysfunction as well as one of human frailty and perplexity.

    William Roberson taught literature at Southampton College for 30 years and now works at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus.
    Joseph Heller lived in East Hampton for many years.