You Can't Even Be Upset About 91, You Really Can't.

One of the things that surprised me most about Salinger's death is that I wasn't expecting it.The crumby guy was 91, for chrissakes! (Okay, I'll stop my weak Holdenizing here.)

My reaction to the news moved quickly through what I now understand as the five stages of Salinger grief:

  1. Nooooo! When will the shocking deaths of cultural icons stop??!! (<30 seconds)
  2. He was 91? Why wasn't this on my radar? (10 seconds)
  3. Woohoo. Now maybe we'll finally see some more writing! (a few hours)
  4. I hope it's not all like "Hapworth 16, 1924," though. (fleeting, guilty seconds)
  5. I'm trying not to think too much about his personal life, with all the urine drinking, teen chasing, and speaking in tongues. (intermittently, as the internet eulogized throughout the night)

I first read Catcher in the Rye when I was around 17, only because a classmate - when we were all sharing our favourite books - said his favourite (Catcher) was banned at our school. (Later I would notice it with all the other paperbacks, on one of those rotating spindles. As someone who regularly had to request the witchcraft books from behind the counter to check them out, I was a little underwhelmed. Of course, now I'm surprised that a public high school in Texas even had mass-produced pre-Wiccan hoke.)

My Creative Writing teacher read us the beginning of Franny and Zooey one day - I wish I could remember how she framed it - but I don't think I clued in that this was the same guy. (I just remember how she kept saying that Franny had "the Love Experience," and I thought she meant sex, but what teacher would bring that up? These kids today - they don't know how good they have it when the English teacher next door to me has them conjugate "to orgasm.")

I loved Catcher, of course. I was a miserable teenager myself, constantly bewildered by Why People Suck So Much. I also loved Franny and Zooey, maybe even more from the gut, maybe because if Catcher helps you point a finger outward (Phoneys! Creeps!), F&Z turns the finger around to yourself, looking for a cure, hoping and dreading that Franny's muttering-without-ceasing on the sofa will come to something.

Nine Stories was total catnip from the first moment that I realized the other Glasses were waving at me from most of the tales. That said, I am the one person, I think, who didn't wet my pants over "For Esme, with Love and Squalor." I didn't identify with Esme, despite my own precocious maturity, and I definitely didn't identify with the moonstruck soldier. If anything, although there's no way I could articulate it at the time, I felt like the third wheel while reading.

"A Perfect Day for Bananafish" was terrific, though. That I got. That I foisted upon my own students when I started teaching. (And so my heart is broken now, to see one of them - nearly done with college now - commenting on another teacher's wall about how they never read any Salinger but perhaps now will.) My photocopy of the story (copied and pasted from some long-gone site online, although for Salinger I might have retyped it all) was front-and-back sided, but with the last few paragraphs on a page by themselves. I ripped this last page off and gave all the Modern Lit students yellow butcher paper. Cut out fish, I said. Write the ending to the story, I said. (And this is how we get the classroom decorated.) Then I gave them the sheet with the proper ending. No one saw that coming.

And of course, after all that, Raising High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction couldn't be anything but aces. Oh, would there ever be more?!

I don't reread Salinger any more; I know it too well. It would be like reliving instead of living. I wish I could say that it's Buddy or Zooey that stayed in me, but at least it's not Franny anymore. (For years my nickname on BBSes was "Franny" or, if they insisted on a "real" name, "Frances Salinger." With at least one sysop, this had all the subtlety of when Audrey Horne tries to work in the brothel as "Hester Prynne," but I played dumb anyway.)

No, my heart is a mix of Seymour and BooBoo, and I like to think it's mostly BooBoo now, but Seymour shows up when the idiocy of the world is so great that I'm sure it's all a play, and if I oversnark, well, I'm just following the script. (I enjoyed "Poor Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut" as much as the average J.D.-lovin' bear, but c'mon, nobody dresses up as Walt or Waker at the internal SalingerCon.)

After Salinger's death my mind raced to think where I could wedge Catcher into the AP Lit schedule. The crazy things you do in grief, right? As if I would ever risk all the baggage that comes with an assigned book. ("Bananafish" was risky enough. I stopped teaching it not just because I stopped teaching Mod Lit so I could be part of our short-lived Sophomore Teaming - shudder - but because the kids didn't like the story, and that was harder for me - with my visions of being the Coolest English Teacher Ever - to handle that it was for them to endure.)

I feel unoriginal and immature these days when I say how much I loved Salinger's work. I feel like I have to explain that I feel in love as a teen, of course. But, if I had never read Catcher, and if I picked it up for the first time today, I am certain it would still rock my socks.

I'm not sure I want to be the catcher in the rye any more. In fact, it's probably for the best if I get out of the rye field entirely and distract myself with a can of Pringles or something. But if you ever wanted to be the catcher, and if you never got that far, then there is no better way than Salinger to find sympathy for the madness.

30 January 2010 |



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