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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Heller’s Memories

The late comedian Alan King, then in his 60s, was on NBC’s Tonight Show years ago and told a story about his constantly bickering parents, who had been married for decades and were then in their 90s. Your father drives me crazy, his mother repeatedly told him. I cannot live another minute under the same roof as that man, Mrs. King stated.

King said he finally tired of hearing the same complaints. “Mom, maybe you should think about divorcing Dad,” he said. His mother’s response: “How dare you talk about your father in that way!”

Erica Heller, the 50-something-year-old daughter of the late Joseph and Shirley Heller, both of whom spent their twilight years living separately in the Hamptons after a contentious divorce, got me thinking about King’s tale while reading her entertaining, just-published memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp was Home, and Life was a Catch-22 (Simon & Schuster).

Ms. Heller is promoting her book with an appearance on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. at The Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue, at 93rd Street, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

She vividly traces her parents’ nearly 40-year marriage, which ended in the mid-1980s, in the context of Joseph Heller’s sudden rise to fame after the publication of Catch-22 in 1961. Yossarian, the novel’s protagonist, is furious because people he does not know are constantly trying to kill him, and his military superiors are doing little to prevent such an outcome, while he’s serving as a bombardier in Italy during World War II. The character is based on Heller’s own experiences as a Corsica-based combat fighter pilot during that same war.

In his daughter’s view, Heller’s prickly personality was an acquired taste, although few seemed to stay mad at him for long. Plus, look at the literary career Heller, a Fulbright scholar who worked initially in the magazine business, established. He spent eight years toiling part-time on Catch-22, his first book, while residing with his young family in Manhattan’s Apthorp complex on the Upper West Side. Shirley Held Heller, if she were alive today, would probably beg to differ with this nuanced portrait of her ex-husband, with whom she also had a son, Ted.

Indeed, it was Heller’s second novel, Something Happened (1974) that appears to have contributed to the break-up of his marriage to the first Mrs. Heller (there would be a second one). That work of fiction hit close to home, Ms. Heller writes. Bob Slocum, the main character, has a successful career but feels trapped in his marriage. Slocum also engages in numerous affairs and is bothered by a daughter who complains a lot.

Ms. Heller is, like her father, a New York University graduate. And one reviewer compared her to Carrie Fisher, an apt analogy. Erica Heller holds little back, offering details of her battle against breast cancer and a brief, unsuccessful marriage. She also shares a great anecdote about how her father, while harshly critical of almost all his writing students at the City University of New York, raved about one of them: the late Wendy Wasserstein, who would go on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (The Heidi Chronicles).

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net