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Dec 12 2011

Joseph Heller

by Greg H

If you have found yourself of late wondering “Is it just me or am I seeing a lot about Joseph Heller recently?”, rest assured, it isn’t just you.  2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22, reason enough for Heller, who died in 1999, to be memorialized by two new biographies.

Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, by Tracey Daugherty, is the more comprehensive of the two but the more intimate,  obviously, has to be that written by Heller’s daughter Erica: Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home and Life Was a Catch-22.  Daugherty may have dug more deeply but Erica Heller knows her way around the Heller family plot, having known the residents when they were still walking among us.  (My favorite thing I learned about Heller: his best friend was a guy named Speed Vogel. Who wouldn’t want a best friend named Speed Vogel?!?!?!)

Erica Heller tackles the daunting task of making the reader understand how a man could be so egotistical, irascible, and insensitive and still be loved, at least by his daughter.  After his infidelity drove his wife into a bitter divorce,  Joseph Heller’s biggest regret, of the many he could have chosen,  seemed to be the loss of his ex-mother-in-law’s pot roast recipe. This was forever withheld from him as retribution for his betrayal. Erica, out of loyalty to her mother, would reject her father’s repeated entreaties and even an offer of $10,000 in exchange for the recipe.

Erica Heller has written a truly entertaining account of her place within her family’s tumultuous history, most of it lived out within the confines of various apartments in the Apthorp building. The double-edged sword of her father’s literary acclaim impacts much of her childhood and Heller develops  Job-like patience as she deals with her increasingly hostile parents from her precarious place between them.

Yossarian Slept Here is the perfect appetizer to a heftier tome like Daugherty’s.  Besides, even if Just One Catch covers Joseph Heller from soup to nuts,  Erica Heller trumps all with one last surprise at the end of the book: Grandma Dottie’s pot roast recipe.

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