The New York Times Book Review
Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22by Erica Heller
From Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, comes a mordantly funny, poignant, and incisive memoir about growing up with her father.See more details below
From Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, comes a mordantly funny, poignant, and incisive memoir about growing up with her father.
The New York Times Book Review
“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
"An affectionate family scrapbook crafted with a bittersweet blend of humor and pathos."—Kirkus Reviews
“Readers might wonder if Erica Heller will have anything new to say about her famous father. The answer is: absolutely. . . . Rather than focus on [Joseph Heller's] genius, she fleshes out his personality and their relationship. . . . While most of our parents are mere mortals, Heller's tale of trying to meet parental expectations while finding her own path will resonate with readers everywhere.”—Shelf Awareness
“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. . . . Erica [Heller] clearly shares her father’s wry sense of humor and his gift for storytelling. . . . Yossarian Slept Here is a must-read for anyone who delights in finding out exactly how our favorite books entered the world.”—The Jewish Journal
“Erica Heller has clearly inherited her way with words from her father, and her wry, sometimes mordant viewpoint as well.”—New York Journal of Books
“Yossarian Slept Here is a finely crafted, wonderfully observed reminiscence on an extraordinary, often traumatic life. . . . You sense the fear of a man who, in his daughter, detects a potential rival: somebody of great imagination and eloquence, in whom he has privately identified a writer with great promise. That last quality, in Yossarian Slept Here, radiates off the page.”—The Independent (UK)
"Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, seems to have weathered her girlhood better than most daughters of celebrated literary lions. As we know from the memoirs of Susan Cheever, Janna Malamud Smith and Alexandra Styron, growing up under the shadow of an artistic ego can seriously stunt your emotional health. Heller's book shows a robust acceptance of her father's overbearing personality and Don Draperesque approach to marriage and fatherhood."—Arts & Book Review (UK)
“An intriguing take on the saga of a celebrity-author dad and his long-suffering family.”—Winnipeg Free Press
“Erica Heller has a story to tell and I for one am eager to see it in print. I think this is going to be one hell(er) of a memoir.”—Christopher Buckley, author of Losing Mum and Pup
“As soon as I read the opening I was determined and eager to consume everything that followed, up to and including the Pot Roast.”—Christopher Hitchens, author of Hitch-22
“Erica Heller to me is like a Carrie Fisher on the East Coast. She is as authentic as they come."—Richard Lewis, comedian, actor, author
A daughter's loving tribute to her famous father and the iconic Manhattan apartment building that housed their family's joys and sorrows.
Copywriter Heller's (Splinters, 1991, etc.) family memoir brims with warm reflections right from the opening chapters, in which she describes the genesis of her parents' fiery, robust marriage abetted by the author's persistent grandparents. Together, they not only prevented Heller's mother Shirley from succumbing to her premarital "crumbling courage," but, in 1952, they also secured a surprisingly available apartment inside the grand Upper West Side tenement, the Apthorp, where the Hellers would live out the duration of their marriage. Heller notes that her father and his willful mother-in-law might have locked horns more often had they not had the familial bond uniting them, since she'd supported the newlyweds early on in their marriage until the author was born. The author sprinkles intermittent snapshots throughout the book, as she offers a succession of anecdotes and memories of summers on Long Island with her "inveterate fabulist" Grandma Dottie, family holidays and her father's friendships with artist Irving Vogel, Mario Puzo and Swedish publisher Per Gedin. She traces his nine-year progression while composing his defining work, Catch-22, "hunt-and-pecking his way to more opulent times," and reaping the notoriety and upgraded lifestyle the novel and its movie version would bring his family. Heller chronicles the family's various residences and histrionics inside the Apthorp as it became a much-revered, eccentric celebrity roost, and she is generously candid and evenhanded aboutthe family's happier days, her father's later novels and the darkness of her parents' marital discord and their separate, debilitating illnesses. Closing personal recollections offered by authors Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Buckley are entertaining, but Heller gets the last word in a surprising disclosure that she has yet to read Catch-22.
An affectionate family scrapbook crafted with a bittersweet blend of humor and pathos.
- Simon & Schuster
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- 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Read an Excerpt
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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