Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Zichrono L'Vracha

To those who actually look to my blog regularly, I humbly apologize. The following is a small eulogy for one of my favorite writers, and it's undergone heavy revision for more than a month.


J. D. Salinger was a ghost.

I could only approach him through his printed works. He shrouded himself and his ideas in an appealing urbane aesthetic. Salinger was elusive; the only glimpses you can catch of him were fleeting at best. He hid himself in the small nooks and crannies of his stories, the small moments, but the stories were almost entirely small moments.

Like most adolescents that befriend Salinger, I made his acquaintance in high school. My first pass through The Catcher and the Rye was enjoyable, but by no means a special experience. Then I read it again with the guide of an incredible English teacher, and Salinger won my adoration.

But it wasn't until my freshman year of college that I found in Salinger a soul mate. The first time I came home was Thanksgiving break and only because the whole college was closing up for the holiday. My sister drove me and my hefty laundry bag all the way down to Exit 3 of the New Jersey Turnpike. I gritted my teeth the whole way. My relationship with my parents was not at its best, and I didn't want to be at home. For a suburbanite, the escape from the situation was natural: I drove myself to Barnes & Noble.

I prowled through the fiction section and my eyes locked onto a slim white volume called Nine Stories. I grabbed it from the shelf and settled myself on one of the comfy chairs in the back of the store. Not even 4 pages into the first story, it became a perfect day for A Perfect Day for Bananafish. I read well into the night. I had the Beatles' Revolver on repeat on my isolation Pod, convinced Paul McCartney's "For No One" was about Eloise from Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut. The store announced for the last time that it was closing while I stood in line at the cashiers' counter. I walked out with not just Nine Stories, but Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction and Franny and Zooey too (I subsequently discovered that my mom had already bought these books years ago when she was in school).

At home, my multivariable calculus homework lay neglected on the ottoman. The Glass Children were in the living room, and they commanded my attention. Their broad intellectualism, quasi-spiritual crises, idealism, eastern philosophy, and diction made me nostalgic for a life I never had. I wanted to throw on a tweed jacket over an oxford buttondown, move to the Upper West Side ca. 1952, and discuss Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in a dimly-lit jazz bar.

But it was deeper than that, because the Glass children were grasping for something deeper, something pure. They longed for a transcendence from the mundane. They were coping with the loss of their eldest brother, Seymour (who commited suicide at the end of one of Salinger's most brilliant and enigmatic short stories to be published in The New Yorker, A Perfect Day for Bananafish). Whatever voids I felt in my own existence, I assigned them to whatever was bothering the Glasses and Holden Caulfield.

As my college years rolled along, I turned to Salinger again and again for solace. In my senior year, I picked up Zooey hoping to relive the faux-nostalgia and perhaps even mine treasures I had missed on the previous readings. However, once I reached the extended dialogue between Zooey and his mother, Bessie, in the bathroom, I had to put the book down. I couldn't bear to witness the brilliant Zooey berating his mom with patronizing cruelty. With all his intelligence, it seemed that all he did was mock the people closest to him.

What happened? Did I somehow miss the blatant misanthropy on the first four passes through the story? All the elegance and smatterings of Eastern philosophy and Buddhism struck me as impractical and out of touch with reality. I thought I had an unbreakable intimacy with Salinger, and now I felt alienated by his writing. It felt like an ended relationship. In the beginning you can talk to the other about anything, and after it's over you can hardly find a thing to say.

Salinger was a ghost long before he passed away. Hidden away in rustic Cornish, New Hampshire, he spoke only occasionally to his world audience. Maybe he was just as alienated from us as I was from his writing. But to the outside world, it appeared he was dead. Little did we know he spent all those years of solitude writing to himself and no one else, a heart stirred to beating life.

Salinger's writing ignited me with a directionless passion and so, with what seemed to be no alternative, I chased after him. On a bright summer's day, I drove from New Brunswick to Princeton looking for him in the unpublished stories of Holden Caulfield that he entrusted to the Firestone Library. I remember that day sitting on the roof of the library on one of the trimmed but prickly green grass pastures, a nice cool breeze tossing my hair. I was far enough from the street that the fiddling crickets could be heard more clearly than the street traffic. The sun's rays warmed my skin and seemed to freeze time. I decided then to give up looking for Salinger. The lovely weather and locale convinced me to just be happy with the moment. And then like a good ghost he came to me and I've kept his words close since: Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of holy ground to the next. Is he never wrong?

Just go to bed, now. Quickly. Quickly and slowly.


1 comment:

  1. This writing is moving and so true! Might not be exactly where you were heading, but your words remind me that each day, each breath we take is an opportunity. I believe that we make the choice of how each moment we meet is spent. I'm glad you take chances to enjoy what G-d gave you. Thank you Salinger and thank you Jordan.