Friday, January 29, 2010

When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god J. D. Salinger is dead

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger died this week at age 91.

I think I read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when I was in junior high school. So my memory about the plot is dim at best. I know it involved a character named Holden Caulfield who was kicked out of prep school and then spends a few days wandering around New York City drinking and cavorting with hookers. I remember being impressed that our teachers were letting us read a book that had swear words and prostitutes in it. But that is about all.

Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, about 7 years before I was born. So I don't really remember relating to its reported themes of teenaged rebellion and alienation that has kept it a hot seller even now. And since I grew up in Boise, I also couldn't relate to the narrator's experience in New York City. The Big Apple and the Famous Potato have very little in common.

In one sense, I have always put Catcher in the Rye in the same category as Moby Dick. You read them because they are assigned by an English teacher rather than because you have a burning desire to immerse yourself in teenaged angst or religious allegory.

Though some people obviously are obsessed with Catcher in the Rye. Mark David Chapman (may he rot in hell) said the book contained the message that led him to murder John Lennon. John Hinckley, Jr. used it as one justification (in addition to trying to impress Jodi Foster) for shooting Ronald Reagan. And George Bush senior said the book was a major inspiration to him.

None of these testimonials really sell the book to me.

I think what fascinates me about J.D. Salinger is that he became an author boasting that he was going to write the great American novel and become famous. When he actually did, instead of basking in the limelight, he went "Oh, shit, what have I done." Then he bought a 90-acre estate, built a tall fence and spent the rest of his life peeking out from behind drawn shades.

I didn't even know J.D. Salinger was a recluse until I read the book, Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. The book was made into the film, Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner. In both the book and the film, the main character hears voices telling him to build a baseball field in the corn field's of his Iowa farm. When he does, the ghosts of baseball greats including Shoeless Joe Jackson come to play every night. The voice then tells him to kidnap a reclusive writer in New York City and bring him to watch the games played in the ghostly ball field. The author kidnapped in the book version was J.D. Salinger. The movie version copped out and changed him to a fictional reclusive author played by the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones. I assumed J.D. Salinger threatened a law suit if they portrayed him in the movie version.

I find it ironic that Salinger's obsessive desire to avoid media attention actually kept him elevated as someone the media wanted to focus on. If he had just been open to media attention, they probably would have forgotten him.

I too, used to boast that I was going to write the great American novel. Then life happened and here I am blogging with 10 million other invisible writer's trying to be heard. And from my perspective, achieving a little bit of Salinger's fame wouldn't have been such a bad thing. At least he could afford a 90-acre estate and sit back and survive on book royalties.

At this point, I don't think I could pull off a novel that captured the teenaged angst market. And you can't swing a dead cat without hitting some plot that exploits middle-aged men lamenting some life path they wandered off from. So if I'm ever going to achieve any level of fame I'm going to have to hurry up and find a niche writing market that isn't oversaturated. And again, judging by the interest in my blog post about how happy clams really are, maybe I should crank out a novel about the Secret Life of Clams.

But I digress.

Anyway, regardless of his odd reclusive nature, J.D. Salinger sparked the imagination of millions of readers over the years. I hope that in the afterlife he finds himself in that field of rye playing life guard to keep children from falling over a cliff (you'd have to read Catcher in the Rye to get this reference). Rest in peace Mr. Salinger.


R. said...

I read Catcher in the Rye when my then girlfriend was reading it in one of her advance placement classes. What a waste of trees. I'm glad I underachieved my way through high school so I wouldn't have to deal with that POS.

Moby Dick: Allegory or no, Ishmael's narrative really touched something inside me. It reminded me of the times my father and I would go walking in the forest together, but alone with nature.

Time said...

I suppose Catcher in the Rye was innovative back in the early 1950s, but as with most innovative things, it seems quaint now that it has be around for nearly sixty years.

And you are in good company with Moby Dick. Elvis used to read out loud from it on stage. Of course, he was whacked out on perscription drugs at the time.

R. said...

Huh. And here all along it has been prescription drugs that keep me from being whacked out. My goodness, does that make me the anti-Elvis?