“Yossarian Slept Here: WhenJoseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a ‘Catch-22'”
Simon & Schuster: 288 pp., $25.00
“Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller”
St. Martin’s Press: 560 pp., $35
Fifty-one years ago, nobody used the term “Catch-22" to describe a victim trapped in a contradictory, often bureaucratic, paradox. Not even Joseph Heller, who’d spent seven years writing his satirical World War II novel; he was still calling it “Catch-18.” Then, just months before its publication, news that bestselling author Leon Uris had grabbed the numeral for “Mila 18" forced Heller and his editor to change the title. In 1961, Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder and Major Major met their public in “Catch-22.”
Few authors ever make a cultural impact as broad and as lasting as Heller did with “Catch-22.” But there was a catch: It was the 38-year-old writer’s first book, and he had a long life ahead of him; he died at 76 in 1999. He wrote other, quite possibly better, books — he and many others thought his second novel, “Something Happened,” was his best — yet it’s “Catch-22" that lasts.
On the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Catch-22,” two new books remember Heller. An intimate view comes from daughter Erica Heller — who, like her father, writes with occasionally biting wit — in “Yossarian Slept Here” and Tracy Daugherty’s “Just One Catch” shows the path Heller took to become the man who could write the novel and where he went from there.
Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in 1923 and brought up in the crowded ghetto ofConey Island with his older half-brother and -sister. When he was 4, Heller was lavished with attention and gifts and enjoyed a rare party — unfortunately, the occasion was his father’s funeral. If this early encounter with inverted logic (treats are for funerals!) helped form the dark-yet-giddy current of his writing, Daugherty doesn’t make such an explanatory leap. He’s assembled an appropriate amount of evidence for a biography, but he seems unsure what to do with it.
Heller’s own memoir “Now and Then” (1998) provides much of the material Daugherty includes about Heller’s early life. He was a socially adept young man, bored by school, raised by his old-world, somber mother with the help of his half-siblings. He delivered telegraphs as a teenager, was sociable and handsome and mostly broke, and enlisted to fight in World War II.
Like his famous character Yossarian, Heller was a bombardier, flying in the glass nose of a B-25, and like Yossarian, the number of missions he had to fly kept creeping up. He was stationed in Corsica from 1944 to 1945 and, after 60 missions, finally shipped home.
Upon his return, Heller’s half-brother coaxed him to take a short winter visit in the Catskills, where he met Shirley, his future wife, after being lassoed by her strong-willed mother. “I can only marvel at the pair of them now,” Erica Heller writes, “my grandmother and my father, both so cagey and indomitable. They had a great deal in common, although neither would have agreed on that.”
It’s these intimacies that make Heller’s book a vital read. She didn’t idolize her father, but she portrays his complexities with sympathy. Of her father’s friendship, she writes, “the currency was frequently sarcasm — snarling, brutish yet often, impossibly, improbably, delightfully, and deliriously funny.” This pithy description of her father’s character is fuller than anything Daugherty gets to: He’s found the bones of the story but lacks its connective tissue and the man at its heart.
Erica’s memoir starts with the end of her mother’s life and then jumps around chronologically. She centers her narrative on the Apthorp, the Manhattan apartment building her parents moved into in 1952, shortly before she was born. At the time, her father was working as an ad man, and the building was a gilded-age island surrounded by unpleasant urban jetsam. While writing “Catch-22,” Heller worked as a copywriter for Time, Look and McCall’s magazines and for Remington Rand Corporation. For years, he wrote in odd hours at the family’s dining table.
Daugherty is good at explaining the evolution of Heller’s writing career: how he found his devoted agent, Candida Donadio, who became legendary after Heller became a star. And how Donadio found a young Simon & Schuster editor, Robert Gottlieb, who likewise would become legendary thanks to “Catch-22.” He also aptly portrays Heller’s friendships with lifelong buddies Mario Puzo, Mel Brooks and the artist Speed Vogel, who were among a men-only weekly dinner group that met for years.
There are tantalizing hints of another level in Heller’s emotional life. Daugherty mentions that Heller carried on affairs with women in his advertising circles both before and after “Catch-22" was published, but they are little explored. Erica is writing about her memories of her parents together as much as her father alone — they spent seemingly happy years in New York’s literary circles after her father’s success took hold. As if to protect her mother, she allows one significant dalliance — whom she dubs “Dr. Bugs” — to stand in for her all father’s philandering.
Like the best memoirists, Erica reveals her own mistakes. When Shirley was finally driven to seek divorce in the ‘70s, she documented Heller’s affair with Dr. Bugs, showing that this woman had traveled to the same places she and her husband did, sometimes staying in the same hotels, alleging he’d been paying for her children’s schooling. Joe insisted his estranged wife was paranoid, if not entirely insane, and Erica believed him. Then in 1981, Heller fell ill with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a devastating neurological disorder that put him in the hospital, paralyzed. Visiting one day, Erica pulled back the curtain and was astonished to find Dr. Bugs standing at her father’s bedside; she suddenly realized that her mother was right, and her father had lied to her over and over again.
Heller’s life was changed by that illness; the acrimonious divorce was put on hold and then completed, he settled into his house in East Hampton, and he married his nurse. He co-wrote a memoir of his illness — or as Erica sees it, a memoir of his friendship — with Vogel, 1986’s “No Laughing Matter.” As time wore on, his cultural presence seemed less in demand. He wrote a sequel to “Catch-22,” 1994’s “Closing Time,” which few people thought was a good idea. Critics, who ran hot and cold on Heller, were decidedly cold.
Slipping from the cultural firmament was perhaps inevitable; Heller was as much a victim of changing times as he had earlier been the beneficiary. When he began work on “Catch-18,” writing serious realistic novels about war was all the rage, but he wasn’tNorman Mailer or James Jones. By the time his novel was done, American culture and American letters had changed, and Heller’s irreverence and irony found a place — with readers his own age and, as the ‘60s wore on, with a new generation. “Catch-22" became an anti-establishment staple, part of a cultural revolution even a too-smart ad man with a wicked sense of humor couldn’t have predicted.
Daugherty’s “Just One Catch” sets out the markers of Heller’s life clearly enough, putting the biographical facts in order in one simple volume. It may lack for artistry and insight, but it’s the first biography of Heller and a decent starting point. Meanwhile, the serendipity of Erica Heller’s memoir begs the help of a supplementary timeline, but it is much deeper and feels like all a reader needs to get the feel for the man who wrote, and lived with having written, “Catch-22.”