J.D. SALINGER (1919-2010)
I worked with an actor at a restaurant in Vancouver. Actually, he was a theatre student posing as a bartender. In Vancouver every bartender is an actor, every barista a fashion student, every bookstore clerk an English student, and every labourer a musician. He was slim, boyish, and diminutive. He had curly black hair and a thick beard, and all the ladies loved his sly grin and irreverent humor. He was a Vancouver hipster. And he taught me how to blend together the discordant parts of my life into a melange of artistry, superficiality, and playfulness.
I used to read up at the bar ledge in the afternoons after my shift drinking stolen pints of beer in the greying coastal midday. One afternoon, he pulled out of the back pocket of his oversized blue jeans a small book with a half-red and half-blue cover.
“Read this and tell me what you think,” he said. He tossed the book onto the bar ledge with a smack pretending to start a little. He always stood disarmingly back on his heels, shoulders down, hands hanging in a black serving apron.
“What is it?” I shot back while glancing up from a brick-shaped paperback of The Brothers Karamazov. I moved my hand in between my beer and a basket of fries for the little novel.
“J.D. Salinger short stories. Do you know him?” He had a way of not showing much emotion with his youthful face but sticking you with his blue eyes, fixed.
“I read Catcher in the Rye years ago while doing my undergrad. Not for class or anything,” I reported.
“Yeah,” his eyes widened slightly. “This is the book, man. This is the guy right now,” he said nonchalantly.
“Yeah, read “Bananafish” first.”
“I would be interested to know what you think,” he stared.
I flipped the Salinger collection — Nine Stories — over in my hands, and fanned the pages front to back. A green tab fell out somewhere near the middle.
“Ya,” he shrugged. “I would like to get that back soon too. I’m, uhh, thinking a lot while I read.” And he winked a little.
Salinger had, for one reason or another, gripped the youth of my generation. Young people, like me, who were overeducated and underemployed. It wasn’t for any specific reason or for any higher learning, it was nothing that sophisticated — hipsters don’t really take anything too seriously, choosing instead to colonize the hip or sentimental outcrops of any piece of past celebrity nostalgia. And the more colorful the life, the harder the crush. Stars like, Johnny Cash, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, and Steve McQueen, have all been repackaged and reproduced in blogs, tumblrs, t-shirts, and tattoos, by my generation’s unquenchable thirst for mementos of a generation who lived untethered to the tedium of suburbia. Who stood for art. Who fucked up and took no quarter. Like the Gods, we don’t identify with them but instead want to be as close as possible to them, and we honour them the only way we know how — by putting them on a t-shirt.
Salinger is one of these authors; but unlike Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or any of the other great American Modernists of the Lost Generation, we are not really sure why we love him so much. I think we glorify Salinger because he is excruciatingly close to Hemingway but not really like him at all. After, going to private school in New York, Salinger was drafted into World War II and even shook hands with Hemingway on the beaches of Normandy. But Salinger’s life is not nearly as colorful as Hemingway’s. Salinger was a recluse most of his adult life, and a spiritual wingnut. After the success of his first novel Catcher in the Rye (1951) Salinger moved from uptown New York City to the rurals of New Hampshire. He practiced Zen Buddhism for a little while and even dabbled in dianetics (that is early Scientology) for a stretch. He married four times, twice to women nearly forty years his junior. And he stopped publishing altogether by the 70s. But Salinger’s writing was never as spare, and never as instructive as Hemingway’s either, as he chose to write about themes that Hemingway would have probably found childish like adolescent alienation.
Take Catcher in the Rye for instance, a novel about a 17-year-old boy, Holden Caufield, who gets kicked out of private school the weekend before Christmas break and goes wandering around New York City alone. It is Salinger’s most famous work, miles more approachable than the collection of short stories he would publish a couple of years later. For this, it is taught widely in high school. It is also his most infamous work, it was banned for lewd content in the United States and was, probably most disheartening, the book that inspired Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon (as an aside — after Chapman shot Lennon he sat down on the sidewalk and read the novel until the police arrived). Because of this, I have always read the novel looking for why it was banned or why Chapman found John Lennon to be “like the phonies” Caufield despises in the book. And, as always, I never really find an answer to that.
If Catcher in the Rye is anything, it is a singular piece of fiction — there is not much like it before and not much that resonates with it afterward. It is Salinger through and through: a delicate cut of the postwar teenage psyche, a continuous camera’s shot of 1940s New York told through sparklingly crisp dialogue sequences that Hemingway wished his novels would have had. It is the portrait of a youthful mind. It is sentimental. It is antagonistic. And it is a classic. It was during this close reading for my comprehensive field exam did I really notice how complex of a character Holden really is. So, as I read, I wrote down notes on a yellow legal pad I keep close beside me while I read, words that describe Holden. It goes like this:
Impatient, agitated, irritable, indifferent, schizophrenic, callous, insensitive, articulate, observant, neurotic, impulsive, imaginative, bored, energetic, a loner, sarcastic, pathological liar, impersonator, antagonist, a little insane, psychotic, suicidal, hyperactive, brilliant, nostalgic, adolescent, strange, poetic, crass, unrefined, rough-around-the-edges, caustic, bourgeoise, honest, dishonest, uneasy, scared, and horny.
In other words: a teenager.
The thing about Holden Caufield is that every time you read the novel there is a part of him you identify with, and that is an uneasy feeling because, well, so did Chapman. But, the first time I read Catcher — way back in University — I wasn’t yet disillusioned with the adult world and was still picking fights with my insensitive peers, Holden knew exactly what I was talking about. This time, though, I was a little more taken with his rebuke of temperance “phonies” and moved by his pleas for passion from the adult world. But mostly I felt sorry for him.
Salinger’s short story collection is not as consumable as his novel. His style is more erratic, his characters less fully produced; but his dialogue is just as clear and his pitch perfect. “For Esme — with love and squalor” is perhaps my most treasured of the nine stories, a vignette about an American soldier who befriends an English choir girl as a pen pal just before shoving off to Normandy. It is about how war makes life squalid, and how love buckles under this pressure. There is the mischievous “Teddy” which is the last story in the collection, about a boy genius who claims to be a reincarnated spirit. On a cruise ship he has a long debate with a biology student about pre-destination and cultural conditioning before racing off to meet his accepted death. And there is the tense “Down at the Dinghy” which, I think, is a tale of the fine measurements of being a female head-of-the-house and having a mentally challenged child. And there is of course, “Perfect Day for a Bananafish.”
I know now why Josh asked me to read that story first. It wasn’t because he was introducing me to something or someone I didn’t already know, and it wasn’t because he knew the answers to some questions he might have already made up about the piece; but because the short story breaks every rule and literary convention that precedes it while simultaneously maintaining an uneasy tone that reverberates the emotional instability of the main character.
It is the type of story that you could, on any clear afternoon day, throw down in front of someone and ask rather simply:
“What do you think?”