Monday, February 1, 2010

With all your might

I'm truly sorry. But it has happened again. And I can only hope that next week when you stop by to read, no one will have died. But someone did, and I feel I must take a moment to tell you why this matters to me.

Salinger is dead. I have no scholarly insight to offer you; I can only tell you that his voice formed the writer I am and the writer I am becoming. It is and has been his lyrical, cynical, judgmental, patronizing, puzzled, thoughtful, idealistic, bewildered, lonely erudite voice that has echoed in my heart and ear for more than two decades. And I cannot believe that he is finally and forever gone, and with his death, that creative voice is now silenced.

There is nothing much to be said about the life or lifestyle of the man, Jerome David Salinger. It neither impressed nor altered my soul. He sounded like the worst kind of misanthrope who took patronizing to new levels. Besides, he was 91. It was probably as good an age to die as any. But I am not here to write about his life, his choices, his reclusiveness. Only, his voice.

No longer will words be plucked out of the universe and set carefully in certain orderly lines that in my view were meant to be written, meant to be read. When Zooey comforted his sister, Franny, and tried to draw her out of her stupor of the Pilgrim's prayer, he shared his idea of Jesus- a man who would join you for a glass of gingerale at the kitchen table. And ask for only a small glass.

Here was a Jesus that I understood. Here was a brother I understood. Here was a writer I understood.

I'm traveling just now, and my copies of Salinger's books, the used paperbacks, the early hardback editions that my brother found for me, are on the shelves in my living room, nestled between Douglas Adams and Jennifer Crusie. And I can't touch them, can't thumb through them, skim, dive in, remember a time when they were brand new to me, when I had yet to have read them, or even thumb through my dog-eared photocopy of "Hapworth 16, 1924" and remember the day I discovered it even existed.

It wasn't Catcher in the Rye that drew me; nor Nine Stories, whose stories saddened me as one by one, the Glass family let me down, those fictional, former contestants of It's a Wise Child who had seemed so precious and so wise in other stories. And "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" nearly killed me - though as a college student I understood both the lure and the hubris needed for suicide. Just not his. Not Seymour's.

No, the clarion call of JD Salinger sounded for me through Raise
High the Roofbeams, Carpenters/Seymour: An Introduction
and Franny and Zooey. Here was the birth of my writing, and the solidification of my faith. I too wanted to write stories that could make their own way to the editor's desk by train with only a wax paper-wrapped sandwich and thermos of coffee for company. My stories too would one day make other passengers somewhat uncomfortable, I hoped. I felt his words. I understood in my teen-aged heart the Zen of shooting marbles. I wanted to tell Zooey that I would only ask for a small glass of ginger-ale, too.

I was in college when I first discovered his books, published in those solid, plain covers of white and green, mustard yellow, maroon. No frills. No pen and ink drawing of Holden, no shy watercolor of Franny. Just stripped down and serious. I wanted serious, something true and real, no gimmicks, no guile. I was 19 or 20, and really, who is more deep, who has more understanding of how the world works than a 20 year old? And who spoke to me about what really mattered? JD Salinger. Or more accurately, Buddy Glass.

I understood the Glass family. The paths that wove through the stacks of books in their apartment in New York City resonated with my childhood, binding my fantasies to my reality. An apartment crowded with brilliant, opinionated children, books and the smell of cooking meat and cigarettes. Elder siblings handing out reading lists to the younger, privacy invaded even in the bathtub, parents more than a little bemused by their offspring. This was the voice my heart heard.

Salinger in the flesh has never lived up to his alter-ego, Buddy Glass. Should I care? Allow his actions and pretensions rather than his writing to define his genius? Truth be told, the foundations have been laid too long and too solidly in my thoughts and writing for me to ever be released from the affect (some might say taint) of his voice. And I can only join with the cyber-wake in raising a glass- of whiskey as rye is a bit more difficult to come by these days- to salute the passing of the voice of JD Salinger.


  1. Nicely done, Marjanna. What a lovely tribute. I haven't read as widely or been influenced directly by Salinger. However, I do find the man fascinating. I enjoyed reading your post. :)

  2. Absolutely brilliant post Marjanna! I never really understood his work but your examination of it makes me want to give it another try.
    Thank you...

  3. Good post. Lets hope next week's blog can be about a writer who's actually still alive.

    I'm posting this comment annonymously, just to see how it works.


  4. Marj, I tried to leave a comment on facebook but it vanished into the ether...

    So to repeat myself, I really enjoyed your piece, I found it elegaic and thought-provoking. It brought home to me the significance of the death of a writer, any writer, and that wierd alchemy by which they change our lives, transcend time in that their published work lives on, and allow us to transcend time in that we can find a connection or alteration, from work that existed before we were born...

    By the way, only recently did I rediscover that Salinger was the progenitor of one of my all-time favourite phrases, describing oily puddles as "gasoline rainbows".