As news of J.D. Salinger’s death spread across the internet today, I couldn’t help but feel deeply saddened. Yes, he hasn’t published new work in 45 years. Yes, his reclusive ways may have overshadowed his literary talent. But goddam could the man write.
Say what you want of him: Many call him overrated or think his books are too dated to hold up to today’s standards, and accounts of Salinger the man paint him as everything from ornery to completely nuts, but there’s no arguing his brief time spent in the limelight of American publishing had a great impact on books and writers for years. Some even claim that The Catcher in the Rye paved the way for what would become Young Adult literature. I think that’s probably stretching it a bit, but there’s no doubt the novel has influenced the lives of countless teenagers.
Like me.Like so many before me, I first read The Catcher in the Rye as a high school student. I was one of those annoying kids who looked forward to much of the required reading. I remember really enjoying Catcher, but not significantly more than other classics at the time. It wasn’t until I got a little older and read Salinger’s collections that I was able to appreciate how truly great a writer he really was.
In the years since first reading him, I’ve often returned to his stories. Like Holden visiting the museum in Central Park, each trip back to Salinger’s works finds me different. I’m no longer constantly on the hunt for phonies (at least, not quite as much). I no longer think being a part of the Glass family would have been the coolest thing in the world. But no matter what truths I’m able to pull from each reading, Salinger’s skill with the language and fantastic voice remain as strong to me as ever, and are the types of writing I long to find in projects I work on as a literary agent. As an example, here’s one of my favorite sentences I’ve ever read. It comes from Buddy Glass’s description of his brother in Seymour: An Introduction. Buddy says:
My brother, for the record, had a distracting habit, most of his adult life, of investigating loaded ashtrays with his index finger, clearing all the cigarette ends to the sides—smiling ear to ear as he did it—as if he expected to see Christ himself curled up cherubically in the middle, and he never looked disappointed.
Labyrinthine? Sure. Too many commas? Maybe. But that’s my kind of sentence, a sentence that says so much about two characters, Seymour in the actual description and Buddy in the cadence and style, in such a short amount of words.
That’s mostly enough from me. For extra Catcher in the Rye-related reading, I recommend two distinctly different takes. The first is Frank Portman’s YA novel King Dork. The title character (aka Tom Henderson) hates Catcher with a passion, so much so that he’s convinced there’s a conspiracy among high school English teachers to pull kids into the “Catcher Cult.” Tom can’t get away from the book, however, after he discovers cryptic messages written in the margins of his dead father’s tattered copy.
For a more positive reaction to the novel, I recommend Bret Lott’s essay “The Most Fragile Book,” originally published in The Writer’s Collection and later included in his collection Before We Get Started. In the essay, Lott talks about first reading TCITR in Creative Writing 101 as a community college student, and taking new meaning from the story at different points during his life. Nice, touching piece, especially for Salinger fans.
While I’m truly sad to see Salinger go, I hope his death will lead to the publication of some of the work he’s written over the last nearly 50 years and help repair his mostly tarnished image. A few more hours spent with the remarkable Glass family would make 45 years of seclusion worth it for me.
In the end, 91 years ain’t so bad. For the rest of us, let’s listen to the advice Zooey Glass (pretending to be his Buddy) gives to his sister Franny: “You’d better get busy, though, buddy. The goddam sands run out on you every time you turn around. I know what I’m talking about. You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.”
Take it easy, Jerome David. I hope in death you get your own honorable goddam skull like Yorrick’s.