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Book reviews: 'Yossarian Slept Here' and 'Just One Catch'

Joseph Heller, author of 'Catch-22,' is recalled in a memoir by daughter Erica Heller and a biography by Tracy Daugherty.

August 21, 2011|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Joseph Heller in March 1979.
Joseph Heller in March 1979. (Los Angeles Times )

"Yossarian Slept Here: WhenJoseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a 'Catch-22'"

Erica Heller

Simon & Schuster: 288 pp., $25.00

"Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller"

Tracy Daugherty

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.

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