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  • The Best-Selling Author Down the Hall
  • Anthony Aycock (bio)
Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller. Simon and Schuster, 2011, 288 pp., $25.
Dream Catcher by Margaret Salinger. Simon and Schuster, 2001, 464 pp., $16 (paper).
Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff. Simon and Schuster, 2008, 192 pp., $14 (paper).
Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez. Atlas & Co., 2011, 144 pp., $20.
In My Father’s Footsteps by Sebastian Matthews. W. W. Norton & Co., 2004, 278 pp., $24.95.

For much of history, parents with a trade, craft, shop or farm have passed the operation of that business on to their children. In Italy, Antonio Stradivari brought his sons into the world of eighteenth-century instrument making, while across the English Channel, the younger Thomas Chippendale took over his father’s furniture workshop. Writing of his ownership of the lone funeral home in Milford, Michigan, the essayist Thomas Lynch explains why he is in the exequies business: “The living are careful and oftentimes caring. The dead are careless, or maybe it’s care-less. Either way, they don’t care.” Such insight comes from growing up in the trade, from seeing it spread over the family, sometimes like a [End Page 181] cloud, sometimes like a fog—but it is only one reason for his entering the profession. The other is that his father handed him a hundred-year-old company.

Yossarian Slept Here
Erica Heller. Simon and Schuster,
2011, 288 pp., $ 25.

Writers’ children grow up in a different sort of family business, one that threatens to consume the family at times, especially if the writing parent is famous. As adults, those children can choose to embrace the fame or walk away. In her memoir Yossarian Slept Here, Erica Heller embraces it. Her father was Joseph Heller, author of the mordant masterpiece Catch-22. When it was published in 1961, Erica recalls, “the staff at Tony’s, who’d barely noticed us all the years we’d been eating there, turned slavish and pandering.” The headwaiter, Jerry, served the Hellers “with flourishes,” chatted up Erica’s father and asked him to sign books for friends and relatives. (Wouldn’t I love to have one of those! According to, a signed first edition in excellent shape sells for about $10,000.)

The ostentation grew from there. Erica fills her pages with accounts of extravagant dinner parties, improvident trips and the family’s New York apartment, which looked to her “as if twenty-seven jets could land comfortably in the living room alone and there’d still be room for a grand piano.” Family friends included Mario Puzo, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Mel Brooks, Nora Ephron, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Walt Frazier, Meryl Streep, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall. As a teenager, Erica once tried to sneak into a New Year’s Eve party. She and a friend stood in line between Arthur Miller and Howard Cosell. “Let’s move this thing!” boomed Howard, referring to the queue. About that time, a henchman checking the guest list noticed the interloping Erica and pulled her and her friend out of line. Arthur Miller pushed past them, “at the end of his rope.”

I love this story about Cosell and Miller. Yossarian Slept Here is a celebrity memoir, light and refreshing, though Erica is hard on her dad, portraying him as caustic, egocentric and manipulative. She is not the [End Page 182] stylist he was. At times her descriptions are cliché. Other phrases are overwrought or unsatisfying: to answer the commonly asked question of why Joseph Heller hadn’t written another book as good as Catch-22, Erica cites her father’s “sly, Talmudic response to put any other to shame: ‘Who has?’ he’d ask, genuinely wanting to know.” One wonders how his words could be both “sly” and “genuine.”

Part of any literary biography is analysis of the work; in the hands of an astute critic, such analysis becomes another window on the author. Erica is no critic, and she hardly needs the novels to know her own father. Yet a writer’s kid’s memoir should still engage the work. Erica does at least discuss her father...


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