By Heller McAlpin
“Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22”
A book by Erica Heller
“Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller”
A book by Tracy Daugherty
The trouble with writing a truly great first novel is that you spend the rest of your career trying to live up to it. Joseph Heller, who followed “Catch-22” with a handful of ambitious but less celebrated novels, developed a clever response to what must have been an exceedingly annoying question: “How come you’ve never written a book as good as ‘Catch-22’?” His parry: “Who has?”
Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller
By Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin’s Press, 560 pages
Yossarian Slept Here:
When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22
By Erica Heller
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages
This repartee appears in both his daughter Erica Heller’s memoir, “Yossarian Slept Here,” and Tracy Daugherty’s biography, “Just One Catch,” timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Heller’s brilliant satire on the illogical absurdities of war and bureaucracy. The two books are very different, but when read in conjunction they present interesting counterpoints.
“Just One Catch,” the first full-scale biography of Heller, offers a more complete, cosmetically burnished picture of his life. Daugherty covers the author’s modest roots in Coney Island, Brooklyn, where he was born to Russian immigrant parents in 1923; his service in Europe as a bombardier during World War II; his 1945 marriage to Shirley Held, whom he met in the Catskills; his work in academia and as a copywriter in the Mad Menschish world of magazine advertising; and, most significant, his evolution as a serious comic novelist.
Daugherty combines a novelist’s flair for character and narrative with astute critical analysis of Heller’s work. He’s especially strong on context, providing the political, literary, personal and broader cultural milieu in which each of Heller’s books was produced. Discussing “God Knows” (1984), for example, he sums up Heller’s oeuvre to date: “With this fourth novel, Joe’s prophecy skills improved. Just as ‘Catch-22’ seemed to anticipate Vietnam, ‘Something Happened’ the ‘Me Decade,’ and ‘Good as Gold’ the neoconservatives’ lock on political power, ‘God Knows’ sketched the greedy, grab-what-you-can entrepreneur who would spark the United States’ deepest economic crisis since the 1930s.”
“Yossarian Slept Here” is a more personal project. Erica awkwardly attempts to intertwine Heller family history with that of the legendary Apthorp apartment building, erected by William Waldorf Astor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1908. Joseph and his wife moved into a modest apartment there with newborn Erica in 1952, upgrading to much grander digs 10 years later, after the success of “Catch-22,” which bifurcated their life into B.C. (Before “Catch”) and A.C. After her parents’ divorce in 1984, Erica’s distressed mother downsized into a third Apthorp apartment. When Shirley died from lung cancer in 1995, Erica, who had moved back home to nurse her, stayed on, downsizing further still into the apartment she has occupied since 1997. The no-longer-majestic building was eulogized more memorably in former resident Nora Ephron’s 2006 New Yorker article, “Moving On: A Love Story.” Erica’s chapters on its troubled condominium conversion come as distractions from the Heller story.
The real focus of “Yossarian Slept Here” is neither literature nor real estate but dislocation: displacements caused by success and divorce. Caught between her parents during their rancorous split after nearly four decades of her father’s “dedicated philandering,” Erica finds comfort in recognizing how deeply tied her father remained to her mother despite his second marriage to the bubbly private nurse who tended him through his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
From both these books emerges a portrait of a hardworking, fast-talking, blunt, mischievous, “magnetic, charismatic” wisecracker—and a father who inscribed a copy of his first novel to his daughter, “With the hope that when you read this book in 10 or 15 years, you will love it at least a little—and that you will love me too. Daddy.” Fifty years later, Heller’s daughter loses me when she confesses—but not until we’ve read her whole book—that she still hasn’t read her father’s magnum opus.
[To see long excerpts from “Yossarian Slept Here” click here. To see long excerpts from “Just One Catch” click here.]
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group