Thursday 5 January 2012

Review: - Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad and Life Was a Catch 22 by Erica Heller

Straight up I will say, just so nobody is under any delusions, I have not yet read Catch 22. I started it once, when I was about fifteen, but I got bored and gave up and all I remember about it now is that there was a guy with several of the same name. Many people assure me that it is worth the effort though, and I am hoping to get to it later on this year as part of the Books I Should Have Read Challenge

Now that's out the way, the next thing that I did wonder halfway through Yossarian Slept Here was if I've not read any Joseph Heller, why bother reading his biography? There are several answers. The first is that Rebecca at The Book Ladys Blog mentioned this book in several places (Twitter, her blog, Bookrageous to name a few) in a very positive way, and apparently I'm lately reading a lot of things she recommends and being disappointed by none of them, I may add. Also, they had it in the library on the shiny and exciting 'New Releases' stand. I love the books on this stand, because it feels (and probably is in some cases) like nobody else has ever read them before me - it's kind of like getting a brand new book for free, and who doesn't love a free book?? And then finally the fact that by the time I wondered about the reasons why I was reading the book, I was entirely absorbed by the book and it was impossible and unthinkable to stop reading it. 

Erica Heller’s writing is very enjoyable; she managed to lull me into really enjoying  Yossarian Slept Here before I’d realised that I was. Joseph Heller's life was in many ways completely ordinary, and Yossarian Slept Here is in the most part a chronicle of the life of a normal family, but with the addition of things like visits from Mario Puzo and invitations to parties at Woody Allen's house. Having said that, I generally enjoy books which focus on the family dynamic, coming from a big mad one myself, I find other peoples' unendingly fascinating. I was worried that I would feel left out of the loop having not read any of Heller the elder’s work, but in actual fact it is barely mentioned, except as a catalyst for things (i.e. because of Catch 22’s success there was enough money for the family to move apartment/take holidays etc), but to be honest, considering that I have never met a person who hasn’t heard of Catch 22 even if not a lot of them have actually read it, I would have thought the money would have featured more in the Heller family’s lives.

The thing that Erica Heller does brilliantly is that she keeps it personal, while at the same time being detached about it. While a lot of ‘celebrity’ memoirs are all about the shock factor – terrible abuse or drastic surgery – the only shocker in Yossarian Slept Here is that Joseph Heller was a contradiction; an unpredictable and often not very nice man. I have to say, though, that I didn’t really expect him to be lovely, it’s just not the image my brain associated with him. His relationship with his daughter is painted as being a fairly difficult one – while I got the impression that there was a lot of love in it, Joseph Heller seemed to have a pretty hard time interacting with children, and often comes across as fairly self absorbed. I guess if you are a writer then you must need a certain degree of self – absorption,  if only to put up with doing a job that requires you to be solitary so much of the time, but to be one of those writers who deliberates over a novel for years – who literally ends up eating sleeping and breathing the novel they are attempting to write, must make you even more so.

In the end the impression of Joseph Heller I was left with is of a man intensely conflicted – who was at once caring and cold, detached and incredibly involved, emotional and emotionless. A man who basically ended up destroying his family for a while with his own distortions of the truth, and lost the love of his life from which he never seemed to have fully recovered. The story of Hellers’ parents romance, marriage, divorce and its’ aftermath was very poignant and really touching in all its’ intricacies. I just found it incredibly sad to read about the destruction of a couple who were once so much in love.
 The day before I turned eighteen my then boyfriend was rushed to hospital almost totally out of the blue because all the nerves in the left side of his body had randomly stopped working properly. We were freaked. He had to be transferred from our local hospital to a specialist neurology place where they ran tests on him. All. Night. I got about two hours of sleep and rang him on the hospital phone at the crack of dawn before going to college, sitting an exam, then getting on a bus for an hour to get to the hospital where they told me that he had Guillain- Barre Syndrome, which is basically a post-viral disorder affecting the nervous and immune systems. It can be really terrible, and in cases, fatal. Thankfully in this case it wasn’t, but it was about a month in hospital followed by some intensive physio and probably about a year to pretty much full recovery. The reason I tell you this is that during the time I spent sitting in the hospital, somebody mentioned to me that Joseph Heller had had GBS, and that he had written a book about it. The book, No Laughing Matter, proved really difficult to get hold of at that time, and so I have still never read it, but having read Yossarian Slept Here , I’ve added it to my wishlist and am really interested to read it. Although it probably wouldn’t be too interesting to somebody without experience of GBS, to me it would be brilliant to read about how somebody else coped with the experiences we went through. Also, to make a full recovery from an incredibly debilitating disorder shows incredible strength of character and determination, which only strengthened Erica Heller’s picture of her father as a giant character.

Basically, if there is a biography that you can read and enjoy without knowing anything at all about the person on whom it is based, then Yossarian Slept Here is it. It’s pacy, well-written, and the chapters have awesome titles. It was the first book I finished in 2012 and was a brilliant way to start the year!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much.
    Reading this made my day!

    Erica Heller