J.D. Salinger Memories

posted in: Columns by Mark Chester | 0

OK, here’s another “goddam” J.D. Salinger story to add to the fray about his passing which has been written to death, already. 

Holden Caulfield would say, “another phony writer exploiting me.” I’m no different either. Just looking for an angle.

Catcher in the Rye was quite a painful experience for me.

I read it in a hospital bed recovering from an emergency appendectomy, literally splitting my sides laughing. I needed some extra days to just heal from the surgery. Reading about Holden Caulfield’s adventures didn’t exactly keep me in stitches!

I was sixteen years old then. I morphed into becoming “The Question Mark”, a variation of Salinger’s ex-preppie narrator character. It was an out-of-mind experience. I began to question authority, my parents, the world – myself. For me Catcher in the Rye was more than a “coming of age” read; it was a “growing into rage” episode during my adolescence.

High school in the mid 1960s was a pivotal and poignant time for this adolescent.  One Christmas school vacation, I didn’t exactly “run away” from home; I just took a train to Grand Central station without telling anyone. A day later I called to check in with no explanation.  I had no plans in New York City, other than to drop in on friends I knew living in Long Island, Brooklyn and Westchester County. I was channeling a Holden Caulfield adventure.

Arriving in New York, I miraculously, bumped into my friend Sammy and his mother right there in the center of Grand Central station by the information kiosk. I knew Sammy from my very early days growing up in Baltimore, where I used to re-visit after moving to western Massachusetts during middle school.

Imprinting on the Caulfield persona, instilled a self-confidence in me, an independent soul; I had no fears about meeting new people, seeing new places; wondering and wandering about life, gave me an adventurous spirit. I’m still the ever “wandering Jew” even now in my sixties. Salinger, too, was born of Jewish heritage.  What’s with our wandering already? Is it just in our genes, anyway? Soon I’ll be eligible for Medicare. Holden would call it, “Who-really-cares?”

Do you ever wonder what Salinger looked like?  The only photograph I’ve seen that seems to exist is the 1951 publicity shot taken for the release of Catcher in the Rye. (Though the February 8 issue of the New Yorker magazine ran a few of him with a Lillian Ross remembrance piece.)

I think that because no one really recognized him except for a few, that he actually lived a normal public life – perhaps under an assumed credit card name, - than the hermit he was perceived as.

I wonder, too, how one becomes reclusive, or develops a propensity for not wanting to be around people.  I can’t imagine myself not traveling and being among others. I live to observe diversity, ethnic faces, modes of dress, people’s body language interacting, emoting with others. I use a camera to record such observations.

Salinger used his mind, imagination and writing for creating conversation and character; his branding of snap shots of people, places and the human condition touched 65 million book buyers, worldwide, since its publication.  Translated: that’s a lot of film and a huge digital file.

Another roguish fictional character that struck a chord with me was Sebastian Dangerfield created by writer J.P. Donleavy, from his book, The Ginger Man, published in 1955.

Sudden thought: Do you think Holden and Sebastian were fraternal twins born in different years? Or maybe J.P and J.D. were brothers separated at birth? And why do people use their initials, anyway?

Also an anti-establishmentarian, Dangerfield is an Irish Trinity collegian with a chip on his shoulder; he wears tweed jackets patched with immorality, dishonesty and deceptiveness on his sleeves.  While I don’t exactly identify nor believe in him, Sebastian Dangerfield has an independent streak. I read the book in college at Syracuse; but after that fall semester, the change-of-scenery syndrome hit me, as did those single-digit temperatures; so I drove back to the U. of Arizona, re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road; another writer for fodder of finding oneself.

Of the various journalists’ impressions that celebrate, honor or remember Salinger, Adam Gopnik’s in the February 8 New Yorker resonates my sentiments:
 “…Yet though he may seem to have chosen a hermit’s life, Salinger was no hermit on the page. And so his death throws us back from the myth to the magical world of his writing as it really is, with matchless comedy, its ear for American speech, its contagious ardor and incomparable charm…As for Holden Caulfield, he is so much a part of the lives of his readers that he is more a person to phone up than a character to analyze…”