Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger Dies at 91

There are only five books that I have read more than once. Four of them were written by J. D. Salinger. He is my very favorite fiction writer which makes me one among millions.

The first time I read his masterpiece Catcher in the Rye, I was in 8th grade, just a bit younger than Holden himself. I remember that The Hobbit was all the rage and my friends and I were passing it around like a family-size bag of Jay's.* I hated it. I hated the little the gnomes. I didn't care about the stupid ring.

Then I caught wind of Catcher. The word on the street (which meant my mother talking on the phone to her best friend Charlotte) was that the book was dirty. This is all the information that I and my friends needed to obtain a copy of it. When you're just shy of 14 years old, there could be no other label more likely to cause a stampede to the library. Dirty books have contributed more to teenage literacy than many English classes.

In any event, I read the dirty book. It was disappointing in only one respect: it wasn't dirty. ("So he goes to a prostitute," my friends and I discussed, "but they don't do anything!")

But Holden Caulfield I loved. He was so real to me. I knew just what he meant when he realized that the world was full of phonies. I knew he wanted to do well. Why didn't the people he disappointed know that? And where were his parents? Didn't they know their kid was walking around dangerous New York City in the cold? Holden wanted to save children from falling off the cliff. He'd catch them. Why weren't any adults catching him?

In short, something happened to me when I read that book, something that had never happened before. For the first time, I started to empathize with a character in a book. Holden Caulfield knocked on my door, grabbed my hand and took me on his journey. And it wasn't any stupid, phony journey about a bunch of non-human, toad people questing for a piece of jewelry that was supposed to change the world. Holden was real, and I was there to witness it. Catcher in the Rye wasn't a book - it was a diary. For the first time in my life, a book picked me up and dropped me in someone else's life. No wonder my mother and Charlotte were talking about it.

When I was in my twenties, I read Franny and Zooey, two short stories published together which read like a single book. If you haven't read it, here's the action of the plot: Franny Glass breaks off her engagement to a rich guy and goes home to New York City to have a nervous breakdown on the living room couch of her parent's New York apartment. Her brother Zooey, an aspiring actor, tells her a lot of stories about their older genius brothers, and ultimately saves her by pretending he is one of the genius brothers on the phone, but he's really calling her from an extension phone in the apartment.* Yeah, I know. Doesn't sound like much.

Franny and Zooey is my favorite book in the world. It's about the universal feeling that what you want to do with your life is different than what the world says you're supposed to do. It's about the universal feeling that your family is ugh and that everyone else's family is "normal" and cool. It's about how you use your family history to pull you up but reject the living members of the family. It's about how your very uncool family saves you. It's about how helping a member of your family can take you from being a schlep into something indiscernibily close to being a loving, multi-dimensional human being. And it's about God. Franny and Zooey is all that in 201 pages with two characters, a couch, a bathroom and an extension phone. Maybe this Salinger guy knew how to write, huh?

Of course I read the more prominent biographies of Salinger. The first was written by Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World: a Memoir. Maynard was her own sort of wunderkind who started a letter-writing relationship with Salinger. By this time, he was fifty-ish, a divorced father of two and hermetically ensconced in a farmhouse in Cornish, New Hampshire. Maynard fascinated him and he invited her to his home - a singular event. They became lovers and notwithstanding their 30 year+ age difference, Maynard moved in. Then it all went bad. Apparently, J.D. is nuts. Worse, he's a control freak. When he started to tell young Joyce how to quilt, she bolted.

A few years later, Salinger's daughter Margaret published Dream Catcher: a Memoir. If you didn't hear it the first time, hear it now. He's nuts. He drinks his own urine for health reasons. On the good side, he's never stopped writing. There are 50 years of unpublished Salinger that we may read some day.

But do we want to? Holden may still be working his problems out in perpetuity, but do we still want to listen? Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and sometime in the 1960s, Salinger went into seclusion. That's right. No Oprah. No People Magazine. The guy shut himself off from the world. He wanted his privacy*. So very un-21st century.

This is another reason we should love him, of course. It' s all making me sad and I haven't even mentioned Nine Stories or Raise High the Roofbeams and Seymour: a love story. The Glass family - don't get me started.

So, great writer, goofy human being. I'm not sure why I connected to his stories but I did and his death saddens me. I feel that we lost something. Perhaps I should take Holden's advice at the end of Catcher, and just let it go. "Don't tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."

* For those of you unlucky few who weren't raised in Chicago, Jay's refers to Jay's Potato Chips - the best and greasiest chips on the planet and the favorite of acne-scarred teens for decades.

* An extension phone was another phone in the house on the same line. This is when phones had cords, an "immobile" phone if you will.

* Before Facebook, and camera phones and YouTube and blogs and Oprah and People Magazine, people used to keep their personal lives sort of secret. Honestly.


Laura A. said...

Great post, especially on the way a book can reach out to you when you're young (or old, for that matter).

I still remember discussing this book as a junior in high school under the expert instruction of my favorite high school teacher, Ms. Judith Jahant. We were talking about Holden and some of his less appealing qualities, including his sometimes harsh judgments of others. Some students were complaining about him, when one of my classmates said something like: "But he's real. We know people like this."

Not every teen likes Catcher and Holden, but that years later many young people still find Holden "real" is a credit to Salinger's empathy and storytelling.

Linda K. said...

I'm not really a J.D. Salinger fan, but I remember liking Catcher in the Rye when I first read it in high school. (I have to say I read it again later in life and wondered what all the fuss was about.) Mary Schmich wrote a column about Salinger and Catcher in the Rye in Friday's Chicago Tribune - In Honor of Holden, Who Never Held Back - that I found hilarious. She writes her column in the same way Holden Caulfield gave his narrative. What she says in her column matches exactly the way I feel about the man and the book. Wish I had written it.

Anonymous said...

Love those greasy Jay's potato chips! I remember when you could buy them in a big round can. My Mom always said "don't touch your books with those potato chip fingers!" I can go one better than the extension phone - we lived in an area of Chicago that had party lines. That's where more than one address shared a common phone line. When you picked up the phone you had to check that the people who shared your party line were not already using the line. Ah, the good old days.

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