J.D. Salinger

January 28th, 2010

Why I Love JD Salinger

My friend Kim gets news before I do.  So she shot me an email a few minutes ago, to tell me that JD Salinger had just died.  I’ve said to her in the past that his Nine Stories is probably my favorite book in the whole world, so she asked me if I wanted to write something about him for our bookstore blog, and maybe include my reasons for loving that book so much, since she didn’t have the same passion for it.  Salinger isn’t about Catcher in the Rye for me, I should be clear on that.  I read it once, didn’t like it, haven’t reread it.  But Nine Stories . . .  My god.  Nine Stories.

How do you tell someone why a book gets to you on some deep emotional level?

It’s one of the books that made me want to be a writer, I know that much.  And I know that every time I write a patch of dialogue that feels real to me (not as often as I’d like), I think about JD Salinger and how no one has ever written more realistic dialogue, dialogue which sounds like what people might actually say–but resonates in ways that stay with you for a long time.

And then there’s the Glass family.  Or should I say, first and foremost, there’s the Glass family, who are more real to me than most of the people I know.  Seymour and Buddy and the twins and Franny and Zooey and Boo Boo.  Did I leave anyone out?  Probably.  They weave in and out of Nine Stories, sometimes front and center (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”) sometimes off to the side but still influential (“Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”).

Oh, man.   “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.”  What woman can read that story and not weep for what she thought her life was going to be as opposed to what it is?  In that story, Eloise remember being in love with Walt Glass (who died during the war) and then looks at her life now, married to a guy who’s nowhere near as sensitive or smart as Walt was.  Miserable, drunk, disgusted with what she’s become, she is suddenly, savagely cruel to her own daughter.  And then she says to her friend, desperately, tragically, “I was a nice girl . . .  wasn’t I?”

Well, now I’m crying.  Salinger has that affect on me.  Seven words, that’s all it took.  Seven words–something someone might actually say–and an entire tragic life is summed up, right there.

Then there’s “For Esme–with Love and Squalor.”  All the horrors of war and how it can destroy a man’s soul–and the redemption a small, intelligent, and loving little girl can offer.  There isn’t a drop of sentimentality in this story.  Just the sense that there’s still something decent in the world, despite all evidence at times to the contrary.  We’re never told who the soldier in the story is.  I suspect it’s Walt Glass.  If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.  I haven’t studied Salinger in school ever, just read him on my own and I’m doing this mostly from memory, so I may have some “facts” wrong.

Not all the nine stories are about the Glass family but (in my opinion) the best ones are.  Why do I love the Glass family so much?  They’re brilliant.  They’re half-Jewish, half-Irish.  They’re a big, loving family and they all talk too much.  They look out for each other, the older ones advising and hectoring the younger ones, but they’re also desperately alone at times.

When I was in high school, my best friend compared my family to the Glass family.  We’re not really like them–they’re twice as large and brilliant.   But I think I did relate to the Glasses on some personal level because I came from a big noisy moderately intellectual family. And when I read Franny and Zooey, the way the big brother abuses, insults, and nurtures his little sister felt so right to me–so much the way my own big brother treated me (and my son now treats his little sister)–that I compulsively read and reread the second half of that book for years.

This passage from Franny and Zooey gets to me like nothing else: the little sister has been “playing Camille” as her brother puts it, not eating and compulsively reciting prayers in some sort of twenty-year-old’s search for spirituality.  Their mother (Bessie) is worried about her and has been trying to take care of her.  And her brother makes this speech:

“You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup–which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings to anybody around this madhouse.  So just tell me, just tell me, buddy.  Even if you went out and searched the whole world for a master–some guru, some holy man, to tell you how to say your Jesus prayer properly, what good would it do you?  How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?”

And that, right there, is why I love JD Salinger.

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