- - Friday, November 25, 2011

By Erica Heller
Simon & Schuster, $25, 288 pages

This year has been a season of memoirs written by the daughters of the famous: Alexandra Styron’s “Reading My Father,” about William Styron, and Katharine Weber’s “The Memory of All That,” about her grandmother Kay Swift and George Gershwin. Joining them is Erica Heller, novelist and creative consultant, piecing together the puzzle of her father, Joseph Heller, who used his experience of flying missions over France during World War II as the inspiration for his most famous (and lasting) 1961 novel.

“Catch-22” sensationally examined the business of war, faith and heroism. Its title became a common phrase in the American language, with the American Heritage Dictionary defining it as “a difficult situation or problem whose seemingly alternative solutions are logically invalid.”

“Catch-22” has sold more than 10 million copies, is taught in colleges, and averages 85,000 copies in annual sales. Its themes have resurfaced in discussions about the war in Afghanistan, and a legal battle is emerging over digital rights. When asked why he had never written anything as great again, Heller’s stock reply was: “Who has?”

For young Erica, then age 12, the measure of her father’s success was being treated with shameless favoritism at local restaurants and being able to move to a much nicer apartment. To family and friends, “Catch-22” was simply known as “the Book.” Its astonishing success inflated her father’s ego to such a degree that, one Thanksgiving, he was purposely excluded from her grandmother’s holiday gathering. “If I had wanted to invite a celebrity,” he was told, “I would have invited Frank Sinatra.”

It is not easy to be the children or the close relations of the famous, least of all of writers who, during years of anonymity, struggle alone, sustained by their tremendous belief in their talent. Then, when reaching meteoric heights, they are forced to grapple with a new set of demands imploding upon their emotional sanity and family life.

Erica Heller does not command the stylistic artistry demonstrated in Alexandra Styron’s beautifully written memoir of her father, but she vividly captures the humor and feistiness of this atypical Jewish-American family. Joseph Heller’s pals, such as Martin Amis, Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel and Christopher Buckley, knew one side of the man; this poignant glimpse, written by the daughter, captures quite another.

Ms. Heller has ingeniously organized this memoir into four parts - centering on the four separate apartments owned at different stages at the Apthorp, that grand 1908 structure built by William Waldorf Astor, on the Upper West Side of New York City. “The Apthorp had been inextricably linked to my parents’ marriage,” she writes, “and the thread had been strong and sure, interlaced with complete logic, and yet also total and absolute nuttiness.”

Running through this memoir is a much stronger thread, that of longing and loss. She recounts the story of her parents’ first meeting at a dance in the Catskills, when Grandma Dottie Held approached the cocky young Heller and said, “Have I got a girl for you!” (Unimpressed, he replied, “Everyone I know has a girl for me.”)

When the passionate 38-year marriage between Joseph and Shirley Heller ends in acrimonious divorce, Dottie Held, who had put aside her usual skepticism to support her son-in-law, beheads pictures of him from all of the photo albums, filling the gap with cotton balls. “As for Grandma, when you live in a dream,” writes Erica, “apparently all it takes to reestablish order in your universe is a pair of scissors and a few bags of cotton puffs from Publix.”

Erica loves both of her parents dearly, and puts aside her own volatile relations with each complicated individual by repeatedly trying but failing to bring them back together. When her mother dies, she recalls: “I felt great sorrow for both my parents and for the bitter implosion of their marriage, the full weight, force, meaning, and consequences of them having been … meshuggah.” Even after having read all of her father’s books, she is reluctant to crack open “Catch-22.” “Oceans pound between my ears. My brain turns to soup.”

For those interested in a discussion of Heller’s life and legacy that traces his place in a generation that included Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike and Jack Kerouac, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of the man (“Just One Catch”), released this year, does the job well. When it comes to capturing the essence of Joseph Heller, fans of the writer will not want to miss this original and highly readable memoir.

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford University Press).

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