Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller

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Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: No one who has any interest in modern life, culture or literature can fail to recognise the name Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22. This autobiographical account by his daughter reveals much about the man, but even more about her own colourful but ultimately painful family life in New York. It becomes a rich account of how Erica comes to terms with the aftermath of her parents' dreams.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099570080

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'To live forever or die in the attempt' was the essential glory in life and living that is at the heart of John Yossarian in Catch 22. This autobiography of the daughter of his creator, Joseph Heller, reveals how the same excitement and joie de vivre suffused throughout the Heller family. The harebrained unpredictability, the madcap exploits and relationships bowl us through this book with terrific pace and verve.

For while the story is full of the rich and famous, of movie stars, writers, celebrities and the allumnii of post-war American culture, it is essentially the fun and high spirits which are shot through the life of Erica, her brother and mother as she grows up in New York which captivates the reader. The portrayal of the Jewish family teeters on the edge of caricature, but is always funny, always touchingly full of love and respect for the spendthrift Grandma and her colourful friends. And rather than the famous or notorious, what stands out is the comically awful account of Erica as the teenage brat intent on ruining the family holiday in Paris, or the bizarre vacations in out of town motels where the children had to keep themselves amused in mundane hicksville.

The real triumph of this book is that Erica Heller achieves a pacing of the revelations which draw us into her perspective - even though she is the adult voice recounting the events throughout, we realise as the tale of the Heller's unfolds that we have been as innocent as the young child in the early stages of the narrative, as critical as the adolescent, as confused and torn apart by the split between Joseph and Erica's mother. This is very carefully structured account which enables us both to enjoy the comedy and wonder at success and celebrity, but also experience the shock and pathos that the aftermath of fame and wealth brings.

For while the Heller life seems to be a charmed and magic one, we gradually realise the extent of sacrifices and hardships that created the writer and the space and time for him to write. We find the shadow side of self-absorption and self delusion that enabled Joseph to inhabit his own world to the exclusion of others, and to sacrifice his marriage on the altar of literary success. Erica's fine comic sense is still present, but the latter stages of the book the voice becomes more poignant and regretful as she struggles as intermediary between the charm of her father and the grief of her mother.

When I picked this up I expected the book to reveal the world of Catch 22 and the insights of a character who would inevitably stand head and shoulders above everyone else in the book, Joseph Heller. But what I was left with was an account in which the fame, celebrity and great wit of Heller himself seemed to drop away as Erica Heller told her very own story, of her own magic childhood and of the daughter trapped between divided parents. Her struggle to reconcile her love for both of them is the real centre of this autobiography. And it is a much better book that might have been expected because of that.

An autobiography that is a biography, an insider account of a famous family, a child reflecting on and trying to come to terms with their famous father - it sounds rather like a description of Svetlana Stalin's 'Twenty Letters to a Friend'. The insider view of the American celebrity world is better captured by You Are Not Alone: Michael Through A Brother's Eyes by Jermaine Jackson, but neither really have such an engaging style and depth as 'Yossarian slept here'.

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Buy Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller at Amazon.com.


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