Well, it’s been a bad week for authors. As of Thursday night, three fairly well-known writers had died: Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States; Louis Auchincloss, who had several novels and non-fiction works under his belt; and of course, the week’s best-known casualty, Zelda Rubinstein, who played the diminutive psychic in Poltergeist. I know she wasn’t an author, but I ran out of writers.
Well, except for J.D. Salinger, of course. Salinger, who shuffled off to eternity at the age of 91, may have had a ton of brilliant backlog sitting in his office, waiting for his literary executors to release decades of work unto a somewhat interested public (he hadn’t published anything in 45 years, but apparently hadn’t stopped writing), but he will be best known for his one novel, the celebrated Catcher in the Rye. I’ve not read any of his short stories, but I have read the story of Holden Caulfield, disaffected youth and decrier of phonies. Since that’s all I know of Salinger, I have no strong opinion of him as a writer. Based on Catcher, however, I’m not really interested in reading more, because I hated that damn book.
More to the point, I really hated Caulfield. I read Catcher when I was 16, which seems to be about the right age to read it, and I couldn’t stand that guy. Whiny, pretentious, and worst of all, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe him as a character; all I could hear was the voice of an author trying to capture what he seemed to think youth wanted or needed to hear. In short, I put down the book with the strong impression that Caulfield doth protest too much, that he was decrying the traits he saw strongly in himself. If I thought Caulfield was that self-aware, I’d have given him the win on points, but I didn’t and don’t.
Of course, the fact that I had such a strong reaction to the book is, in a backhanded way, a compliment to Salinger’s abilities. If the book itself sucked, I would have forgotten it entirely, because stuff that’s just poorly done gets sluiced from the memory quickly enough. No, at the heart of it, I look at Catcher in the Rye the same way I see A Confederacy of Dunces: books written with passion and skill devoted to protagonists not worth the effort. Of course, among those readers who have read both, I expect this to be a minority opinion: fans of either novel tend to be quite passionate, and I’m not interested in keeping people from reading them or trying to change minds about them.
When you find something that speaks to you as a reader—a poem, a short story, a novel, what have you—it becomes a part of you in a way that is hard to define and harder still to look at dispassionately. The words stop being entertainment or literature or even art; they become Truth, they slip into the foundation of who you are. For many, Catcher in the Rye is like that, and I wouldn’t change that for anyone. I myself can’t see it, but I have other books that fit into my cornerstones, works like The Things They Carried and Flowers for Algernon, just to name two. Why these two and a handful of others, I doubt I could tell you. I can tell you what I think now, but that’s like naming the scorch marks after the thunderbolt.
Salinger pulled off what most writers dream of doing, even if it they don’t think of it in the same terms. He tapped into something elemental in our culture, and he did it in a way that has aged well: teens are still identifying with Caulfield, more than fifty years after he first appeared in print. People obsess about his book, sometimes unhealthily so; ask Jodie Foster sometime. Even if he had never written anything else, that singular act of magic is worthy of note, and I have to give the man his props, and salute him on his way to wherever it is we all go when the lights go out for good.