Sunday, January 31, 2010

Salinger, et al.

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!"


Joel said...

I definitely appreciated "Catcher in the Rye" a lot more the second time around.

For me at least, "Catcher in the Rye" was to books like "Citizen Kane" or "Casalanca" are to films. It's been built up so much that you can't possibly enjoy it the first time you encouter it. You're just thinking about how you thought it would be something more.

The second or 3rd time through though, you're not looking for something to blow you away, and you can appreciate the beauty in the subtletly of it a lot more. At least that's how it was for me, with "Citizen Kane", "Casablanca" and also "Catcher in the Rye."

DarkoV said...

I'm with you in the "Underwhelmed" category. I was already in the high school era when this class-ecchh! was de rigeur reading in a few of the English classes (pain of Pains, I took 2 English classes that EACH required this to be read...let's just say there were enough of us with non-saccharien tongues who wrote a cabal critque of this book and nailed it to the teacher's desk) along with this book (which I actually liked a lot and felt more in touch with even though I had no boarding school/ high end high school years experience to empathize with).
I've read the rest of Salinger's output as well, thinking I must have been missing something. And I was...I was missing, actually misuising, my reading time reading Salinger when I should have dumped him and gotten into Vonnegut earlier than I did in high school! Now there was a guy to capture youthful desries/indiscretions/enthusiasm!

Both of my kids have read Catcher (though NOT this version, which brought me much more pleasure) without my prodding (nor a teacher's as it was off the high school list by the time they attended).

As far as coming-of-age books, here's the one that I did push/cajole/force on my kids and I'm happy to say that the oldest considers it one of his favorite books.

Funny thing...another book that was on my high school list (and not on my kids') is a book both of them love and one that was lying on my bookshelf but never hoisted onto them.

yahmdallah said...

I was happily never assigned this for a class, so I ended up just reading it myself. As first, I loved the snarky, whiny first person narration, but it really started to drag for most of the middle. However, when I got to the end and his breakdown, I liked it again.

Had I expected it to be a wondrous book, I probably wouldn't have liked it.

But by the time I around to it - late in my undergrad as a Lit/English major - I'd read so many books that had been overpraised that I no longer fell for the hoopla.

To date the only assigned book that blew me away when I wasn't expecting it to was "To Kill a Mockingbird." I'd be interested to see if anyone who's ever read that book honestly disliked it.

And, I eventually reconsidered "Wuthering Heights" which I HATED when I had to read it in high school. Now I think it's pretty amazing.

Whisky Prajer said...

JS - relating Catcher to Casablanca is a move that has some resonance with me: when I first saw Casablanca I was gobsmacked by all the cliches ... until it dawned on me that the movie had inspired the cliches. But Citizen Kane? I dunno. I saw it in the theaters when it was re-released for some anniversary or other in the 90s, and there were moments that sent shivers down me spine. Still do, too.

DV - I'm wondering about some of the links: I can't get the first one, and the title you "push(ed)/cajole(d)" etc on your kids is still Catcher In The Wry. Surely not? As for Hesse, his pleasures really are best discovered in early adulthood, non-force-fed, aren't they?

Y-man - the Bronte sisters (and Jane Austen, really) were both utterly loathed by Yours Truly in high school, and are following that exact same trajectory toward deepest reverence as I get older. I have to say, it all gives me hope for this whole "maturing" business.

Whisky Prajer said...

I should add ... I'll be sure to post my thoughts on this late reading of Catcher. More anon, I'm sure.

DarkoV said...

Woah!! Thanks, WP. THat link should have been to this book. No Bob Ueker wasn't that good....