February 4, 2010

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Who’s the poser now?
JD Salinger: Jan. 1, 1919 – Jan. 27, 2010

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where and when I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and how much the book meant to me as a kid, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

But, like Holden Caulfield did, I will.

I was in seventh grade. It was at my aunt’s house. It was Christmas time. My cousin, 15 years my senior, was just about the coolest person in the world to me back then — not saying much, I suppose, for a Catholic school product who grew up in a working-class Buffalo suburb. But he drove a Chevy Nova and listened to Bad Company on a tape deck, so when he recommended The Catcher in the Rye I jumped on it.

And on the day I closed that book, and looked up at my parents in a very different light, I was transformed. OK, not transformed in the nihilistic anger-for-the-sake-of-anger let’s-burn-this-city-down way, but I did identify with the alienation of youth and distrust of the adult world.

I read all of J.D. Salinger’s work then, which took about half a day because there wasn’t much. “Nine Stories” is a much better work and influenced a whole new round of literary voices like Philip Roth and John Updike. And “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise the High Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” cemented Salinger’s perfect dialogue and style. But it was The Catcher in the Rye that opened my eyes to rebellion, and a couple years later when Mark David Chapman gunned down John Lennon with a copy under his arm, that just proved to me how dangerous that book was.

Then, about 10 years ago, as an adult, I read the book again. What was I thinking? Get a haircut and a job, slacker. And it wasn’t just the natural repulsion any reader with a few years under his belt would feel toward Catcher’s main character, it’s that the book is just not that well written. Salinger’s use of italics and Caulfield’s descriptive repetitions grow worrisome. In the end, it’s Caulfield, of course, who’s the “poser.”

So, I turned to another favorite Salinger pursuit — the fact that the man disappeared from public life, in our state. He froze himself in amber, at his moment of greatest celebrity, not only assuring his literary immortality, but guaranteeing that generations of Catcher wonks, nerds, nihilists and grad students would try to find him. And try they did. But Salinger hid himself, and used local townsfolk to throw off the scent. The curious were sent on wild goose chases, Salinger became the Howard Hughes of New England, much ink was spilled on guessing whether he was writing under a pen name and on lawsuits trying to protect his name.

In short, the mystery of Salinger became a large as the works themselves.

And now, in death, Salinger once again has the last laugh. He wasn’t hiding. He was just living, shopping at the local food mart, befriending the locals, attending church potluck suppers. He wasn’t a recluse at all. He was just a townie.

How anti-nihilistic. How clever and simple. What a poser. — D. J. Szczesny