With Love And Squalor: An Appreciation Of J.D. Salinger

Last night, like probably half the reading world, I re-read Catcher in the Rye. It was my old school edition, the burgundy paperback with yellow writing we all had, filled with earnest 12-year-old annotations:

I'm sure, upon hearing the news of J.D. Salinger's death, fans began amassing at the Central Park Lagoon, and the carousel, and other Glass-and-Caulfield-related landmarks. Personally, I made a point of pausing in front of the Natural History museum, after leaving my psychiatrist's office, which combination felt like a fitting tribute. As soon as the death started making the rounds, the paeons began appearing on Facebook, and #RIPJD quickly became a features hash on Twitter. "Raise high the roof beams, carpenters," read the Gchat status of one of my friends and "You 're free of the phonies," said another.

Salinger's death was a shock such as I can only liken to Michael Jackson's, which makes no sense since one was a 90-year-old recluse, rather than a young man who was a deliberate part of our daily fabric. And yet, he was so much a part of everyone's life as to be a cliche of youth. (I know I wasn't immune; I've always felt a particularly fierce gratitude to the author for, silly as it sounds, writing the best half-Jewish characters in all of literature.) Allusions to Salinger were generally embarrassing. I remember a magazine spread touting the "new Holden Caulfields" (a bunch of young actors), while the protagonists of Igby Goes Down and Indecision were touted as his heirs. The Royal Tenenbaums was clearly and obviously in thrall to the Glass family. One of the most cringe-inducing moments in 500 Days of Summer is the protagonist's wonderment that he and Zooey Deschanel's character share a love for Bananafish - which is presented (along with the Smiths) as a rareified bit of quirk rather than a middle-schooler's rite of passage.

Whereas some youthful infatuations - with certain bands or bits of pop spirituality - can be dismissed for their triteness, a love of Salinger is different. It doesn't need to be said because it's obvious: of course everyone loves his work, because it's worth loving. The youthful contrarian may dismiss it, but that's dumb too, because you can't read all his work and then dismiss it: it's too good. Whether it's For Esme, or The Laughing Man or, yes, Bananafish or Catcher in the Rye, there is something to speak to nearly everyone, and there's so little of his work that millions of people are going to share those passionate infatuations. (I've never heard anyone claim that Seymour, An Introduction was their favorite but I'm sure somewhere someone has, if only to seem interesting.)

But Salinger, more than almost anyone else, kept it an almost masochistically unrequited love. He clearly had no interest in the pilgrims who flocked to his retreat, and probably could care less about how his work changed lives or influenced art. He wouldn't care that people are Tweeting or walking past museums. And while his reclusiveness has been regarded by some as an act of selfishness, when you think about it, it's the most generous thing he could have done. What we knew about the man, after all, we wished we didn't - the weirdness and creepiness and peculiar diet. In this sense, he did us all a favor. He let us form the books and characters in our own image, let them stand alone, and I think this is not incidental to our sense of identification. That every idiot and your worst enemy should feel exactly the same proprietary kinship with his characters that you do is as it should be, and that's no mean achievement. Many people are going to write much more clever tributes than this (Michiko Kakutani, who famously dared to tarnish the Glass family years ago, has a dispassionate appraisal of the author's career in today's paper), but I wanted to give thanks for that - for the generosity to let the books be all things to all people.

On that note, the other day I met a guy on the street. "If I was gonna talk to you it was now or never," he said, by way of introduction, "and I can see from your face that you wish it had been never." After that I felt bad, and he was clearly a lot younger than me and harmless if weird, and it was broad daylight, so we walked together to the subway. His name was David. He was obviously an enormous fuckup. He talked incessantly and told me he'd been kicked out of community college recently and was living at home. His mom was a big activist, which had made him apolitical. His dad lived "somewhere in Asia, not sure." He was also sleeping with a "cougar," and also a girl his own age, even though she was "a cornball and a social-climber." She was insecure, "but maybe she should be - that sounds bad, but maybe that's okay, sometimes - because she doesn't have her own shit going on. I mean, she's into shit, but she doesn't have her own shit." He didn't like to read but, and here he produced, Mark David Chapman style, a copy of Catcher in the Rye (the burgundy one) from his backpack. "That's some shit, right there," he said, and replaced it. It occurred to me then that he was sort of much more of a logical heir to that book than all the preppy fashion-spreads and disaffected actors put together, and something about it made me very happy. "Well, I'll be seeing you," he said when we reached the subway (although this was obviously not true) and got on his bike to go to "the Jewish Center, because on Thursdays they have free cookies."


Of Teen Angst And An Author's Alienation
[NY Times]