September 21, 2011
Joseph Heller’s daughter gets the final word
As a rule, a novel speaks for itself and its author, but when it comes to Joseph Heller, we are privileged to have an especially intimate source of information about his life and work. In “Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22” by Erica Heller (Simon & Schuster: $25), we find out exactly what it was like to grow up as the daughter of one of America’s greatest writers.
At the very outset of her memoir, for example, Erica Heller tells us about the calls that her father made to her during the final illness of her mother and his ex-wife, Shirley. “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.”
Erica clearly shares her father’s wry sense of humor and his gift for storytelling. When her mother and father divorced, she reveals, “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.” On her deathbed, her mother extracted a solemn promise: “No matter what, don’t ever give him the pot roast recipe.” The payoff for me, an ardent fan of Heller’s comic masterpiece of midrash, “God Knows,” is that I recognized in Joe and Shirley Heller’s marriage the model for his depiction of the immortal David and Bathsheba.
“Yossarian Slept Here” is, at once, a literary biography, a family chronicle and a memoir. Erica harks back to 1952, when the family moved into a quirky old apartment house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called the Apthorp, and she recalls that it was in apartment 2K South that he wrote “Catch-22,” turning to his typewriter “early in the mornings and after returning home in the evenings from his pleasant but prosaic job as ad writer.”
The stakes were high. When Heller first met his future wife at Grossinger’s, in the Catskills, he had boasted that he was going to be a writer, “and not just a writer, but a great writer” who would produce “the definitive book about World War II.” Nor were his literary ambitions a good preparation for fatherhood: “I don’t do children,” Heller cracked in a 1998 interview, which Erica interprets to mean that “he was not willing to exert the effort and expend the time and concentration” that was necessary when it came to children, whether his own or those of his friends.
Heller’s appetites were famously large, both for literary achievement and for the delicacies of Coney Island. “He would circle the counters at Nathan’s, pacing, thinking, studying it all, eventually settling on pea soup, a hot dog, fries, a slice of pizza, chow mein on a roll, and a hamburger smothered in onions,” Erica writes. “Notice there was no ‘or’ in that sentence.”
Food was a way to measure success in the Heller family. Erica recalls that during the era she calls “B.C.” — that is, Before “Catch” — she would receive a kick under the table if she tried to order a shrimp cocktail at the local Italian restaurant. “After the publication and eventual success of ‘Catch-22,’ ” she reports, “the kicks under the table at Tony’s suddenly stopped. It was in this way that it suddenly dawned on me that my father’s book must have been successful.”
Erica had the courage to write a novel of her own, “Splinters,” and to ask her famous father to mark the galleys with the same red pen he used to put comments on the work of his writing students at Yale and City College. “They came back three days later, covered in that red felt-tip scribble, like a wild rash erupting,” she recalls. Her mother flatly refused to read it at all. “What if it’s terrible? What will I say to you?” “ ‘What if it’s not?’ I countered, having learned at the feet of the master.”
Erica felt her father’s sting more than once. She recognized the brutal scenes between father and daughter in “Something Happened” as autobiographical: “How could you write about me that way?” she confronted him. “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” he demurred. She interpreted the exchange to mean that “if I was interesting enough to write about, he had written terrible things,” and “if not, the girl in the book wasn’t me and I could rejoice in that, except for the fact that I was boring.”
She is utterly honest about her father and herself. When she gently suggested that his second wife might not be comfortable at her wedding, he refused to attend on his own. “I was only doing what felt right, but still, it was certainly uncharacteristically optimistic of me, and not in the natural Helleristic order of things.” He stopped talking to his daughter, and then, as she puts it, “the notion of Dad having the ‘last word’ suddenly took on an altogether new meaning” when Joseph Heller died.
“Yossarian Slept Here” is a must-read for anyone who delights in finding out exactly how our favorite books entered the world. Some of the most delightful illuminating moments, in fact, have nothing to do with family conflict, as when Erica describes a ritual that involved Osner’s typewriter repair shop at 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. “Typewriters there were a religion, and the shop had cared for the machines of Isaac Bashevis Singer, David Mamet, Alfred Kazin, Erich Maria Remarque, Roger Kahn, Philip Roth, Howard Fast, and Murray Schisgal,” she recalls. “Dad always went there when a book was finished to announce that he was done.”
As someone who loves (and misses) typewriters, and as a reader who reveres (and rereads) the work of Joseph Heller, that’s a memory I will cherish.