I came late to the fiction of J.D. Salinger -- quite possibly too late. I'd seen his plain red paperbacks on just about everyone's bookshelf, and thought there was something pointedly biblical about its lack of ornament (much like the common cover to Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet). Since I was already over-familiar with the pseudo-piety behind this aesthetic, I was never curious as to its contents. If you want to appeal to me, resorting to the opposite extreme can only help. Dress it up! Do the jig!
Then I landed the job at the bookstore. From my very first day, we were beset with special orders for "the new J.D. Salinger book" -- Hapworth 16, 1924. It wasn't "new" at all, of course; just a reprint of an old New Yorker story anyone could scrounge up at the city library. Regardless, for months we were one of countless stores calling the Hap-less publishers, who had no updates to give us beyond, "It should be shipping soon." Finally we were told -- verbally, wearily -- that Hapworth was not to be. Four of us divvied up the customer call-backs, then got to work on the phones. I can't remember just how many calls we made (several hundred, certainly) but my ear and dialing finger were sore by day's end.
The entire folderol finally prompted me to purchase a copy of Catcher In The Rye, which was now sporting a plain white cover (a slight improvement, I thought). With visions of SCTV promoting "'Catcher In The Rye' Rye!" I made myself comfy and cracked open the book. This is the first I've admitted it, and I know I'll be disappointing more than a few good friends, but I was underwhelmed. It being the beginning of the 90s, most of the novels I was reading consisted of an almost-visible author peeling away irony after irony in an effort to discover or obscure the truth (example). When I finished Catcher, I wasn't at all sure if Salinger was aware of Caufield's own apparent phoniness. Since this wasn't a puzzle I cared to solve, I was happy to shelve the book as "read" and be done with it.
It's a first impression that's stuck, unfortunately. I hope to give the book another read-through in the next month or two, just to see if parenting adolescents has changed my receptivity to the material.
In the meantime there are two other authors who also passed away this week, who left a deeper first impression on me: Howard Zinn and George Leonard. Zinn needs no comment, really: having been raised a gutless pacifist, Zinn's collective histories were naturally blended into the educational mix (I was quite pleased to see Nicholson Baker recently pick up the standard).
Leonard, on the other hand, might be a bit off the beaten track. He wrote regularly for Esquire in the late 80s, where I first encountered him. His book Mastery (A) is something I still reach for from time to time -- one of the few self-help titles I've found actually helpful. And his enthusiasm for Aikido was infectious enough to get me enrolled for the better part of a year. As I grew older his style struck me as perhaps a little too West Coast Ecstatic to be finally persuasive (Tony Schwartz caught Leonard in a slightly more pensive mood (between wives, if I'm not mistaken) when he researched this book). But Leonard's writing was part of a stream that pushed me outward in my young adulthood, and I'll always be grateful for that.
Post-script: more on "doing the jig!"