Friday, January 29, 2010


Reclusive author J.D. Salinger died yesterday at 91. If you know me a little bit, you know how I love "The Catcher in the Rye." Holden Caulfield has needed a hug for more than 50 years.

How strange it is to express sympathy for an adolescent in a novel. Less strange is that we hurt for Salinger, who let us know his elder self only as an uptight diary writer tucked away in the New Hampshire mountains. He appeared to be the logical conclusion of Holden's few wandering days. In the worst of ways, Salinger seemed to never grow up.

Reports of his life vary. They say that he wanted to control people and held the world in contempt. His daughter wrote that he said she should have an abortion because she had no right to be a mother. She also said he drank his own urine. All this is a far cry from what I know about Salinger. All I can think is that he was Holden.

I read "Catcher" a few years ago. The plot of the book did not matter to me. The real story happened before the narration began. His brother died years before. He messed up at school. He despised most of his peers. He was afraid to talk to girls. I could relate to less than half of his experiences, but I liked to listen to his voice. He was the most genuine narrator I ever read.

More than a decade earlier I had fallen in love with the film "Field of Dreams." The film was about Ray, a man who followed his conscience to a game of catch with his late father. Along the way he met Black Sox player Joe Jackson, retired ballplayer Archie Graham and Terence Mann, a frighteningly disgruntled ex-writer stuffed into a disheveled apartment in downtown Boston. Ray's conscience told him to take Mann to a Red Sox game, so he drove to Boston from his Iowa farm. Mann slammed the door in Ray's face and minutes later let him in to chase him with a crowbar.

In my adult life I strolled through a used bookstore in downtown Asheville and found a copy of the original novel, W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe." I was pleased to find that J.D. Salinger was the writer in the story. The film's director probably wanted to use Salinger as a character but could not. Salinger was famous for not wanting to be famous.

I forget how, but the film's Ray cooled Mann into offering him a cookie and, yes, going to the Sox game. Then the writer followed the dreamer to Minnesota to find the elderly Graham, who got his first and last career at bat as his younger self back in Iowa at the farm. Mann eventually disappeared into the Iowa corn to see the unknown. We never knew his purpose.

But not quite so goes Salinger. He never stirred us with a final, gripping monologue on America or youth or love like Mann did. He probably never offered anyone a cookie, and maybe nobody ever asked him for one. He went quietly because he wanted to. And here I am saying that I like the man. I know nothing about him except for the things he wanted me to know about him.
"That's all I'm going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I'm supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don't feel like it. I really don't. That stuff doesn't interest me too much right now."
~Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye"

No comments:

Post a Comment