A few weeks ago in this space, I had the pleasure of reviewing JUST ONE CATCH, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joseph Heller. Heller’s daughter Erica's sometimes scarifying, but often hilarious, memoir of life in the Heller household is a worthy companion to that volume, providing some of the brushstrokes and shading to complete Daugherty’s more comprehensive portrait. What’s most satisfying is that Erica is no talentless celebrity offspring who has cobbled together some sensational revelations with the help of a ghostwriter to even the score with her famous father. Instead, this energetic, often moving, work is a good argument for the existence of a writing gene.
"YOSSARIAN SLEPT HERE captures the challenge of growing up a Heller: exhilarating, frustrating and painful, but never, ever dull."
While Erica’s memoir follows a generally chronological path, she has a knack for the well-timed detour to share a punchy anecdote, and without doubt has inherited her father’s talent for comic writing. There’s the hilarious story of her disastrous attempt to crash Woody Allen’s 1980 New Year’s Eve party and one of an uncomfortable lunch as a teenager with Gene Wilder. She revels in telling how her father “paid twice” when she sold back to him the furniture her mother had removed from the family’s East Hampton home after the divorce. But the most striking story tells of the highly original revenge her grandmother (a colorful character in her own right) wreaked on pictures of Joe after he divorced her daughter.
One story in Daugherty’s biography that’s missing here, curiously, deals with the article Erica wrote for Harper’s in 1974 after the publication of her father’s second novel, SOMETHING HAPPENED. Erica describes the book, which contains a chapter entitled “My Daughter Is Unhappy,” as “569 pages of hilarious, mordant, caustically wrapped, smoldering rage.” Convinced the character was modeled on her, she plaintively asked her father, “How could you write about me that way?” His tart reply, “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” is about as accurate a summary of what this book suggests it must have felt like to grow up as Joseph Heller’s daughter as one can imagine.
Erica’s memoir is especially rich in its depiction of her parents’ marriage, the paradigm of two people intensely in love with each other who simply couldn’t live together. Joseph Heller worked in the advertising world portrayed in “Mad Men,” and when it came to his relationships with women --- both his wife and the ladies who provided frequent diversions --- his values clearly were shaped by that culture. In the midst of his bitter divorce and his simultaneous battle with Guillain-Barré syndrome, Erica tells of his implausible denial of an affair with a North Carolina daughter she nicknames “Dr. Bugs.” Shirley, his wife of nearly four decades, was a beautiful, talented woman whose spirit ultimately was crushed by the weight of living with a man whose world was “a dictatorship, where the currency was frequently sarcasm and a coruscating wit --- snarling, brutish, yet often impossible, improbably, delightfully, and deliriously funny.”
But despite all the times he was cold and distant, and the pain he almost seemed to relish inflicting on the people who loved him most, there’s no denying the kindnesses --- helping her gain admission to NYU or tipping the apartment staff at Christmas when she was unemployed --- he offered her. Perhaps it’s for that reason, despite all logic, that she’s conflicted when she’s called upon to testify against him in the divorce proceeding, realizing that he was a man “whom I loved even if I didn’t always understand him.”
Apart from her stories about her father, Erica is frank about her own struggles --- the mediocre academic performance that nearly had her studying agriculture at Itawamba Community College, in Fulton, Mississippi, her breast cancer, and a short and disastrous mid-life marriage to an “art director, skydiver and artist” from the Netherlands she met online.
But one of the most distinctive characters in Erica’s memoir has to be the Apthorp, a “quirky, iconic, and grand Manhattan apartment building rich in fascinating anecdotes and gossip,” where the Hellers first moved in 1952, the year of Erica’s birth, and where she lives to this day. The family’s movements from one apartment to another mirror the rise in Joseph Heller’s literary fortunes and the decline in Shirley’s economic status after the couple’s divorce in 1984, as well as Erica’s determination to maintain a precarious hold in a smaller space there after her mother died.
Whether it’s Erica’s startling revelation about her encounter with CATCH-22 or the story of a long-running battle over a pot roast recipe, YOSSARIAN SLEPT HERE captures the challenge of growing up a Heller: exhilarating, frustrating and painful, but never, ever dull.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 25, 2011