Review: Yossarian Slept Here

Catcher in the wry

By Madeleine Kingsley, October 7, 2011
Erica Heller with her father, mother Shirley and brother Ted in New York in 1962.

Erica Heller with her father, mother Shirley and brother Ted in New York in 1962.

By Erica Heller
Vintage, £8.99

Joseph Heller, creator of Catch-22, was not a traditionally doting dad. Far from it: he would hide baby Erica in a closet to see how long his wife Shirley took to note the infant's absence. When Erica was old enough to play outside, Heller would say that she could come back in only if she brought him pizza. Completing the 20th century's ultimate war story (nine years in the writing) was evidently hungry work.

"I don't do children", Yossarian's alter ego once famously pronounced. Considering which, daughter Erica Heller "does" him generously in her memoir of family life, fame and fortune in 1950s and '60s New York. Not that Heller fille needs to up the antagonistic ante: her evocation of minks and Catskills ("Jewish alps"), of the splendid Apthorp apartment where the likes of Mario Puzo, Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel and Richard Burton dropped by is in itself pure paperback gold. Add Joe's dark mischief, plus kin more gloriously dysfunctional than any Woody Allen cast, and Heller has herself a hit.

Who could resist grandmother Dottie, spotting Joe at a hotel check-in and peddling her daughter to the newly-demobbed air bombardier with the shameless sales patter: "Have I got a girl for you"? Although Joe growled that he hated red hair and freckles, Shirley proved the love of his life, even post-divorce when she stole back her prized chintz slipcovers from their former Hamptons summer home. Shirley never forgave Joe's serial betrayals: "No matter what, don't ever give him the pot-roast recipe" was her dying wish to Erica. The recipe (for which Joe once offered Erica 10,000 dollars) came from Dottie, who so turned against her ex son-in-law that she cut his head out of every family photo, and substituted cotton wool.

Lest she might have overstated the "currency" of her father's acquaintanceship as "frequently sarcasm and a coruscating wit - snarling, brutish, yet often impossibly, improbably, delightfully and deliriously funny", Erica invites aperçus from writers - among them, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie - who met and unequivocally revered him.

She is frank about her personal failings that so annoyed her dad: her slow-learning start in school, her sullen teenage grumps throughout a European summer trip. But nothing justifies Heller penning a novel - Something Happened - that includes a cutting, scarcely disguised account of Erica's youth.

Asked how he could do this, Joe dissembled: "What makes you think you're interesting enough to write about?"

So there was Erica's very own Catch-22: either she was interesting enough, in which case he'd traduced her, or she wasn't the girl in the book, in which case she was dull. But Erica gets to have the last word, forgiving all and spilling the beans, or the brisket, on that long-kept secret, family pot-roast recipe.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance reviewer

Last updated: 10:23am, October 7 2011