The trouble with writing a truly great first novel — as Walker Percy, Alan Paton and both Charlotte and Emily Bronte, among others, could all attest — is that you spend the rest of your career trying to live up to it. Joseph Heller, who followed “Catch-22” with a handful of ambitious but less celebrated novels, developed a clever response to what must have been an exceedingly annoying question: “How come you’ve never written a book as good as ‘Catch-22’?” His parry: “Who has?”
This repartee appears in both his daughter Erica Heller’s memoir, “Yossarian Slept Here,” and Tracy Daugherty’s biography, “Just One Catch,” timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Heller’s brilliant satire on the illogical absurdities of war and bureaucracy. The two books are very different, but when read in conjunction, they present interesting counterpoints.
“Just One Catch,” the first full-scale biography of Heller, offers a more complete, cosmetically burnished picture of his life. Daugherty covers the author’s modest roots in Coney Island, Brooklyn, where he was born to Russian immigrant parents in 1923; his service in Europe as a bombardier during World War II; his 1945 marriage to Shirley Held, whom he met in the Catskills; his work in academia and as a copywriter in the Mad Menschish world of magazine advertising; and, most significant, his evolution as a serious comic novelist.
Daugherty, the author of eight books of fiction as well as “Hiding Man,” a biography of the writer Donald Barthelme, combines a novelist’s flair for character and narrative with astute critical analysis of Heller’s work. He’s especially strong on context, providing the political, literary, personal and broader cultural milieu in which each of Heller’s books was produced. Discussing “God Knows” (1984), for example, he sums up Heller’s oeuvre to date: “With this fourth novel, Joe’s prophecy skills improved. Just as Catch-22 seemed to anticipate Vietnam, Something Happened the ‘Me Decade,’ and Good as Gold the neoconservatives’ lock on political power, God Knows sketched the greedy, grab-what-you-can entrepreneur who would spark the United States’ deepest economic crisis since the 1930s.”
“Yossarian Slept Here” is a more personal project. A dozenyears after her father’s death, Erica Heller joins the sorority of daughters who have penned memoirs striving to come to terms with their often difficult literary lion papas — including Susan Cheever (“Home Before Dark”), Janna Malamud Smith (“My Father Is a Book”) and Alexandra Styron (“Reading My Father”). All share the experience of reading books that occasionally struck too close to home. Discussing the hurtful portrait of the sullen teenage daughter in her father’s second novel, “Something Happened,” Erica — who has worked as a blogger for the Huffington Postand an advertising copywriter — asks, “In the name of literature, is writing about anyone fair game? I wasn’t sure, still am not sure.” (Daugherty notes that “Joe’s relationship with Erica had never been easy” and that Erica responded publicly to “Something Happened” with a Harper’s article titled “It Sure Did.”)
“Yossarian Slept Here” awkwardly attempts to intertwine Heller family history with that of the legendary Apthorp apartment building, erected by William Waldorf Astor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1908. Heller’s parents first moved into a modest apartment there with newborn Erica in 1952, upgrading to much grander digs 10 years later, after the success of “Catch-22,” which bifurcated their life into B.C. (Before Catch) and A.C. After her parents’ divorce in 1984, Erica’s distressed mother downsized into a third Apthorp apartment. When Shirley died from lung cancer in 1995, Erica, who had moved back home to nurse her, stayed on, downsizing further still into the apartment she has occupied since 1997. The no longer majestic building was eulogized more memorably in former resident Nora Ephron’s 2006 New Yorker article, “Moving On: A Love Story.” Erica’s chapters on its troubled condominium conversion come as distractions from the Heller story.
The real focus of “Yossarian Slept Here” is neither literature nor real estate but dislocation: displacements caused by success and divorce. Caught between her parents during their rancorous split after nearly four decades of her father’s “dedicated philandering,” Erica finds comfort in recognizing how deeply tied her father remained to her mother despite his second marriage to the bubbly private nurse who tended him through his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome. Erica writes, “Apart from writing, I believe that my father had two great and lasting loves in his life: my mother and Irving ‘Speed’ Vogel.” (Vogel was the buddy with whom Heller wrote “No Laughing Matter,” a nonfictional account of his illness).
Not surprisingly, given that Erica is one of Daugherty’s primary sources for family anecdotes, these two books overlap. Erica offers a more intimate portrait of her mother and her profligate grandmother, the aptly named Dottie Held, but leaves her brother, Ted — the author of two comic novels — essentially out of her story.
Daugherty’s more rigorous book is a Heller-worthy smorgasbord, encompassing the origin of Coney Island (from the Dutch Conyne for “rabbit”); Heller’s gastronomical extravaganzas in Chinatown with his pals from the Gourmet Club, who included Speed Vogel, Mel Brooks and Mario Puzo, among others; the sad trajectory of literary agent Candida Donadio, who helped launch not just Heller’s career, but that of Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon; and the contested story of how the number 22 came to replace the original “Catch-18,” which was changed in deference to Leon Uris’s “Mila 18,” published the same year.
Daugherty also considers the writers in whom Heller steeped himself (Saroyan, Celine, Faulkner, Waugh, Fitzgerald); the long, slow gestation of each work from a single sentence and core idea; the extensive editing that slashed Heller’s bulging manuscripts from as many as 1,100 pages down to 600; and the critical reception of each book. (In a prepublication review for Britain’s Daily Mail, Kenneth Allsop called “Catch-22” “The Naked and the Dead scripted for the Marx Brothers, a kind of From Here to Insanity.” Joseph Epstein quipped in The Washington Post, “Nothing happens in Something Happened.”)
A portrait emerges from both these books of a hard-working, fast-talking, blunt, mischievous, “magnetic, charismatic” wisecracker — and a father who inscribed a copy of his first novel to his daughter, “With the hope that when you read this book in ten or fifteen years, you will love it at least a little — and that you will love me too. Daddy.” Fifty years later, Heller’s daughter loses me when she confesses — but not until we’ve read her whole book — that she still hasn’t read her father’s magnum opus.
YOSSARIAN SLEPT HERE
When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22
By Erica Heller
Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $25
JUST ONE CATCH
A Biography of Joseph Heller
By Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin’s. 548 pp. $35