Thursday, January 28, 2010

Yes, We Have No Bananafish

I can still remember sitting in the study hall at my oppressive Catholic high school, dressed unbecomingly in a regulation red polo shirt, matching red knee socks, and a stiff blue flame- (and boy-) retardant skirt, reading my copy of the Catcher in the Rye.  On flickering TV screens in the corners of the room, Channel One, an advertisement-laden infotainment program, blared Mountain Dew commercials at top volume; a few rows ahead, some kids whispered and played poker across a desk.  No one spoke to me, and with good reason: I was hideous, with hair like a clown wig, a face like a pizza, and a smile like a jack-o-lantern's since, by some fluke of biology, I had never developed two of my adult teeth -- two teeth that, even more unluckily, should have been positioned in the front of my mouth.  Most hours of the day, I was miserable.  I hated the hypocrites who forced us to watch television at school but gave us too much work to watch it at home, the asshole chemistry teacher who told struggling students they'd wind up flipping burgers, the classmates who, when given five minutes of free time before the end of the school day, literally talked around me, leaning over my desk to joke as though it were an unoccupied credenza.  Yet, in that moment, I was happy.  I didn't have many friends, but one of them, I knew, was Holden Caulfield.

Yes, like many literary young people, I loved Salinger's work as a teenager: The Catcher in the Rye, of course, but also Franny & Zooey (my favorite at the time), Nine Stories, Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction.  I was so obsessed that, early in college, I spent far too much money on two volumes of his uncollected short stories, which I promptly devoured; certain of those ("The Long Debut of Lois Taggett," "The Inverted Forest") top even his more widely published work, in my estimation.

The point of this post isn't to dig into the nitty gritty of Salinger's work, as I've tried to do, however ineptly, with the other reviews and commentary I've put up on here before.  Maybe I'll do that eventually, but this time, I'd like to say something less analytical.  Something more like: thanks.  Thanks for making me feel less like shit, JD Salinger -- for making me feel like there was a place in the world for someone like me.

I'll add just one quick aside.  Some critics consider The Catcher in the Rye the first young adult novel. This idea riled me as a teenager: just because the protagonist was my age, did that make his concerns any less profound, the scope of the novel any less ambitious or philosophical? I'd still disagree with anyone who considers Catcher "simply" or "merely" for adolescents, who's willing to dismiss it because of its subject, but now I do see why the reading of it as YA makes sense. Unlike, say, Edwin Mullhouse, which sees childhood fundamentally as metaphor (for creativity, for passion, for adult life), Catcher provides the reader no such distance. Throughout his work, Salinger is obsessed with children and teens, their wisdom and the immediacy of their perspective. The respect with which he treats his narrator, not despite his age but because of it, is apparent from the first page (it's equally true of the other young people, especially Franny, elsewhere in his fiction).  And in that sense, he is writing for young people, not just about them.

Or, I suppose I should say, he did write for them, until today.  Rest in peace, Jerome David Salinger.  You beautiful, beautiful man.

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