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The Best of Times or the Worst of Times? A 'Catch-22' Halloween

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Courtesy of Erica Heller

The day started out beautifully. Crisp, cool and clear. Halloween, but not a witch or a goblin in sight.

I got to the studio, where I was to be on NPR last Monday, a little bit early. Then again, I had waited my whole life to write a book and be on NPR, so what was early? I was queasy, my palms were sweating. One temple throbbed. I have a book out but very little radio experience, except in telephone interviews from the UK and Australia. I have been awake and hopefully at least mildly coherent at many strange hours and in a myriad of time zones of late, asked many probing questions by various people with a variety of unidentifiable (at least to me, 3:30 a.m.) accents, lilting, singsong or twangy, but I am essentially a novice at radio.

The studio was at the back of an apartment filled with antique toys and vintage radios. A benign, courtly gentleman in suspenders let me in to wait in his office until the appointed time. He sat at his desk, in silence, his back to me. I thought about my book, Yossarian Slept Here, When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22, and what I hoped to convey to listeners. That my father was not Hannibal Lecter crossed with Mussolini, as a few people I know have apparently thought I've depicted him in my book. This simply isn't true.

What he was was a dauntingly complicated man who, at heart, as one of his dearest, oldest friends George Mandel described it, had "a merry heart of mischief." He was a merciless tease. Teasing, in fact, was one of his most dazzling gifts. The teasing sometimes went a touch too far, hit the wrong note or place and the dart went in deeper than I believe he realized, but his mind worked so fast, was so adept at its own verbal pyrotechnics, I think half the time he said things simply because to him, they were too clever to suppress. Hypocrisy and stupidity offended him, set off his built-in, 24/7 b.s. detector. He could speak to someone for three minutes, and like sonar, zero in on a weak spot for a joke, then gnaw at it like a starved hound with a meaty bone. If you buckled and didn't fight back, you were toast. His Russian-born mother told him, when he was a kid in Coney Island, that he had a twisted brain. Twisted brains don't always make the best parents, but they also don't always make the worst either. And my brain must surely be twisted too because I usually found so much of what he said and did so idiosyncratically funny, but then I remember that Catch-22 has been around for 50 years, so someone else must still be laughing, too. All of this, Dad's best parts, tend to get lost in the shuffle of media sound book bytes, so I keep trying to reinsert them into the deck. This is partly why I was sitting there last week, in that man's office, getting ready to talk about my family and my father, to remind people of the scorching wit, the eccentric goofball. The diligent craftsman and hard, hard worker. The merry heart of mischief.

Arthur Gelb, one of Dad's best friends, a former managing editor of the New York Times, reminded me recently of the time I was 27, when I'd written a piece, hopefully for the New York Times Op-Ed page. Arthur was in no way connected to Op-Ed but Dad brought him the piece to read anyway and Arthur still remembers how proud Dad was of me. Indeed, proud of both of his kids. (My brother Ted also writes and believe me, is no slouch.) As for Dad being proud, who knew? At the time I wasn't sure. He helped and supported, but always behind the scenes. He was not a hand holder, a flatterer. The piece was published and he may never have told me he thought the piece was good but he did tell Arthur. In the end, that's what stays and the part that matters.

Hoping to stress this on NPR, the morning of Halloween, on a morning when I suddenly remembered much of the Eastern seaboard had no power due to a freakish snowstorm the day before and probably wouldn't be listening, I was brought into a room, to the studio. On the table before me were a pad, a pen, a bowl filled with Ricolas and two glasses of water. I put on my headphones and on the show came. Music first.

My interlocutor was lovely, warm and genuinely interested. She had a wonderful laugh. Her other guest was informative, cordial and knowledgeable about the life of Joe Heller. Both of them were terrific. I tried to sound cheerful, make a joke here and there. I tried to talk about my book and lure potential readers with tales of the hilarious $10,000 (cash) attempted bribes my father offered me for my mother's secret pot roast recipe after they divorced. When asked at the end why I have never, in 50 years, managed to read "Catch-22" all the way through, I answered with typically Hellerian Talmudic logic: "What's the rush?"

On my way out of the studio, the benign, courtly gentleman, who had listened to the program, showed me some of his toys: a Marie Antoinette doll whose guillotined head flew off with the push of a button, a little red, battery-operated bus, which played the music from a vinyl record just by circling it amazingly fast. He seemed to want to cheer me up for some reason, I just had no clue as to why.

I got to the front door, filled with some elation, confident that I had made things right, set things straight about my father and my family. I understood years ago how little I would ever understand him, but loved him anyway. He was too interesting, hilarious and brilliant not to. As a parent, he did the best he could. His father died when Dad was 4. He had no one's example to either follow or ignore and made it up as he went along, the way many of us do many crucial things. He was just, perhaps, more honest about it, telling the British journalist Lynn Barber, in an interview in 1998, "I don't do kids." Call me crazy but I never took that to mean he didn't love his own, only that he hadn't and wouldn't pretend to make a fuss about the ones he didn't care about, which turned out to be most of them. Under, over, packed into and between the lines, this was what I'd hoped I'd conveyed that morning on the radio.

When the program and the toy-viewing were over, opening the door to let me out, the courtly, benign gentleman with the studio shook his head sadly and said to me, with the most somber expression I've ever seen on someone not at a funeral, "I'm sorry you had such a terrible childhood." So much for my communication skills, I thought, ruefully, deflated.

At that moment, I could have laughed or cried, or both. Instead, I reassured him, "It really wasn't so bad," comforting him, entreating him to feel better.

And the truth is, it wasn't. It really wasn't bad at all.