Thursday, January 28, 2010

God Bless you Mr. Salinger

I guess this will serve as my first elegy to a great writing mentor. Salinger is the first writer I truly admired and tried to emulate. I devoured his books and actually reread them. I loved the way he got under his characters’ skin and slipped under my own. I loved that he topped off by the two-hundred page mark.

Vonnegut passed away a few years ago and I meant to write about how profoundly he had and still influences me, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I’m a champion procrastinator. Updike checked out last year. That didn’t shake me. Frankly, I was more familiar with his criticism, book reviews, and New Yorker pieces than any of his fiction. I paid my respect by dusting off a copy of “Rabbit Run”.

Salinger though is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, his death is anticlimactic. He made himself untouchable. I imagine many folks are surprised he whisked into this new decade. Salinger peeled out of hibernation briefly in 1996 when he gave the green light to a small Virginian press Orchises to publish the last of his New Yorker stories Hapworth 16, 1924. Salinger, of course, reneged and Seymour Glass’s 7-year-old camp letter never made it into book form.

Over the years much has been said about the Sound of Salinger’s Silence. Some have suggested that the reclusive nom de plume William Wharton belonged to J.D. In 1976 John Calvin Batchelor wrote a famous mock-sleuth essay contending that Thomas Pynchon was J.D. Salinger. The following year Gordon Lish tried a stunt with Esquire publishing an anonymous story entitled “For Rupert— with no promises.” After much speculation and hope that Salinger had written the piece Gordon Lish, then the editor at Esquire, admitted that he penned the story.

In 1997, I remember picking up a copy of Esquire from the newsstands and turning the pages with trembling fingers to an article on Salinger. Ron Rosenblum wrote a terrific piece, but it left me along with many others longing for that chance to reconnect with Hermit from Cornish. There’s an awesome line that pretty much sums up what I perceive to be the Salinger Sensibility though Rosenblum included Delillo and Pynchon as also being disinterested in uber-publicity.

“In a publicity-mad, celebrity-crazed culture, they have become in effect the Madonna and Michael Jackson of Silence, celebrities for their reticence and their renunciation of celebrity, for their Bartleby the Scrivener-like great refusal, the resounding echo of their silent "I would prefer not to."’ (Rosenblum Esquire 1997)

Imagine living in the Age of Twain. Anybody who ever crossed his path has long since left this mudball, but Salinger, well, he’s our modern day Twain. Perhaps, a reincarnation if you go for that fluff. The thing that really shocks the pants off me though is how many souls have actually plunked down their cold hard cash to own a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”. It’s mind blowing. Sixty-five million copies have been sold worldwide. To give you an idea just what that means take this into consideration. In terms of record albums, only Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” has out-grossed “The Catcher in the Rye”. Salinger’s magnum opus has sold more copies than any two Beatles albums combined, including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road” more copies than Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, The Eagles Greatest Hits”, the Bee Gees, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”, Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection”, Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. I’m comparing apples to oranges because in this attention deficit planet of ours it’s a mega phenomenal accomplishment to have your book outsell the heart of rock n roll.

But let’s get down to the nitty gritty. How does “The Catcher in the Rye” stack up against hardbacks and the paperbound? Well, as you might have guessed the Bible, the Quaran, The Book of Mormon, Chairman Mao’s Poems, and “Lord of the Rings” have all sold more copies. Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Agatha Christie’s “And then there were None” rank higher than TCITR and I’m sorry but not surprised to say that “Da Vinci Code” has about 15 million copies on Holden’s story. But, it is still encouraging to note that Salinger has a handy lead on Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist”, “Anne of Green Gables”, Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty”, all the Harry Potters, “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “Bridges of Madison County”. Salinger eclipses “Diary of Anne Frank”, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, “The Communist Manifesto” and even “The Valley of Dolls”.

Does this give me new faith of my fellow Homo Sapiens? Not a chance. More junk will be published and read, but it’s a numbers game right? I digress. Sorry Senor Salinger. I went into a momentary sidetrack, perhaps I need to spend more time consulting with my local spiritual trainer to put me back onto Brahmin-track.

If anything at all Jerome David made me wish I was a neighbor of the Glasses. He was somebody I would trade all my Mickey Mantles to sit down and chat with the guy. I really would have loved to tell him how much I thought he pushed personality and time bomb-ticking sentiments over the edge. He plumbed into a new layer of youthful unconscious giving us unfiltered, wry frankness— a hairline between tragic comedy. There’s that part in “The Catcher in the Rye” when Holden admits that Somerset Maugham is a pretty good writer, but isn’t the kind of guy he’d want to call up on the phone to shoot the breeze with, but Thomas Hardy, now there’s a guy I’d love to ring up. Salinger’s characters drop bits of insight as if leaving behind a trail they will someday need to get out of the woods. Before the reader knows any better he’s foraged lifetime’s worth of confessions. We’re torn between hoarding it or mouthing it off to whoever. Certainly not J.D because he enlisted to be a hermit and I’m not saying that in a bad way I really love my solitary confinement.

In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” there’s a dwarf camped in the backseat of the limo Buddy Glass is riding in along with the estranged bridal party. Our eyes are glued to that stovetop hat propped on the dwarf’s head as if the supreme adaptive edge for all mankind is hidden beneath the ill-fitting Brobdingnagian-sized hat. It’s as if Salinger wanted to defy the Chekhovian maxim show and shoot. One who has chronicled the Glass family through their many incarnations saw the gun go off in “A Perfect Day for Bananfish”. But while there is a whiff of self-immolation in much of his confessional prose Salinger, the writer, sweats it out through his unbearable lightness of being. He doesn’t Hemingway, Plath, or Foster Wallace his way off this mudball. He goes on. No public readings, podcasts, barnstorming tours, no Charlie Rose or Oprah interviews.

Just think of him as the complete antithesis of failbetter. Where do you set the bar after the Glasses and the Caulfields? Lit scholars can mock him worship him he deserves stones and psalms, but whatever you do you cannot put down one of his books and not mumble to yourself, bastard.

If you nuked his popularity and served his prose as a cold burrito you are still left with raw sustenance— moon juice. He’s on a quest to reveal the sound of one hand clapping. He is the crown prince of people. If Michelangelo forever changed the way we looked at the human form then Salinger dug under the skin and showed every foible. He examined the stuff of humanity under an electron microscope. In “For Esme— With Love and Squalor”, the young soldier makes a little boy furious then want to kiss him on the cheek. Sure that soldier’s motivation was to get his big sister in the sack, but this is Salinger’s brilliance. He’s a writer of love letters. Brothers write love letters to sisters, mothers, brothers, his epistolary style stretches ad infinitum.

Some years back, I actually traded messages by way of the bathroom mirror as sort of a tribute to “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”. “Emulation is one of the highest compliments, but it is also juvenile” writes Stephen Kuusisto in his seminal memoir “Eavesdropping”. My copycat impulse reified. Instead of swiping J.D’s words I enacted scenes. Maybe I don’t judge a man by his suitcases, but I pass judgment on the books he palms, the way he orders his coffee, and what type of haircut he wears. I’m not only suspicious of phonies I have my own silent restraining order imposed on them.


  1. A lovely tribute, JG.
    Salinger was a particularly unique addition to the life of letters and words. His "electron microscope" was a powerful device indeed, especially when coupled with words. It seems he was truly beyond this world before his time was up, and yet, he endured. Cheers to that.
    (And to judging a man by his books.)

  2. Many thanks Jen. Its seems to me that sometimes we are afraid to admit we love one of these larger-than-life figures. Maybe it comes from toling through the academic life. And letters, they are not as forgotten an art as many make them out to be. For the most part, all this cyber and text communication if really about reaching out.

    P.S Congrats on your completed MFA

  3. I'm wondering what will become of the unpublished manuscripts that were supposedly locked away in his safe.

    I read a memoir by Joyce Maynard, in which she details a brief relationship she had with Salinger, while she was living in New Hampshire...'way back in the day. She mentioned that locked safe.

  4. Thanks for writing this. Of course, part of the reason for those sales figures is that Catcher continues as assigned reading for many high schools, which is probably the best thing that ever happened to summer reading lists. As I recall it was the first assigned reading I ever enjoyed (I am a Boomer) and I believe it remains so for many of the current generation. That in itself is a great legacy.