Thursday, February 16, 2012

View From Below

Around the same time the new Joseph Heller bio came out, so did Yossarian Slept Here by Heller's daughter Erica.  It's a memoir about growing up with the famous author as head of the household.

Of course, she was born in 1952, so until Catch-22 was published in 1961, daddy was just a middle-class guy living on the Upper West Side who was taking an awfully long time to write his first novel.  Suddenly, he became THE Joseph Heller and Erica was now the daughter of a Great Man.

The book talks about his ways.  How he ate so much.  How he could hand out insults without thinking.  How he loved his fame.  How it wasn't easy to grow up with a father who was an intellectual celebrity. There's no doubt she loved him, but he could be irascible and impossible to reason with. Erica also spends time sketching her mother Shirley, her eccentric grandparents, and her younger brother, Ted.  But Erica knows if it weren't for her father no one would be reading the book.

Erica herself sounds like a handful, and seems willing to admit it.  For example, on a big family trip to Europe in 1966, she had a miserable time and seemed to make sure her parents were just as miserable.  She also was an indifferent student who could barely get into college, though she eventually became a writer herself.

Then there's the story of her father's second novel, Something Happened, published in 1974.  The main character is a middle-aged man who, among other things, bemoans his relationship with his sullen, uncommunicative teenage daughter:

There was a cheerful baby girl in a high chair in my house once who ate and drank with a hearty appetite and laughed a lot with spontaneous zest: she isn't here now; and there is no trace of her anywhere.

It was hard for Erica not to believe it was about her--and the whole world was reading it.  That's the kind of problem only children of famous writers have.

The second half of her memoir bogs down a bit.  It deals with Erica's travails as an adult, and also dwells on the sad story of her parents' ugly breakup, as well as their deaths.  She's taking us all the way up to the present (2011--the 50th anniversary of Catch-22), but if you want a jauntier read, you might consider putitng the book down when she leaves the nest.  That may seem unfair, but hey, Erica herself admits she's never read Catch-22.


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