Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

Next Tuesday I’m going to start teaching high school seniors creative writing. I guess we’ll find out if J.D. Salinger still means something to kids today. He meant a lot to me.

Whenever I’m asked who my influences are, I’m always a little embarrassed to say, mostly because I’ve never been all that avid a reader of fiction. I’ve done my assigned share, but my answers still tend to be suspiciously stock: I like Nabokov. I like Tolstoy. I read a lot of Steinbeck when I was young. Roald Dahl definitely had an influence. I like some Fitzgerald (not all). Joyce, of course, is a pain in my ass. Sometimes I admit I liked J.D. Salinger.

Why should this be an admission? Because it’s too obvious, I suppose, but the fact is, I enjoyed Salinger much more than any of those others, something his passing yesterday brought into stark relief. He at least is the one who provided me the purest, most unaduleratedly pleasurable reading experiences of my life, and I’m not just talking about Catcher. In fact, that’s the one I’m talking least about. I’m talking about the others, which I place in no particular order, but whether I had Raise High in my hands, or Franny and Zooey, or pretty much any of the nine stories -- or Catcher -- I felt more personally and intimately engaged than I have ever felt with any other author. There was never a single word of struggle between the two of us. Salinger’s wit, his intelligence, and his abiding leeriness of his own intelligence and the intelligence of his favorite characters -- the sense throughout that what makes them so engaging is what spells their spiritual doom -- all of that spoke to me, in my formative years, directly and immediately and to a constant involuntary nod of assent.

And it’s certainly not surprising that this should have been the case. After all, I was known on occasion to come home from boarding school -- to an apartment in Manhattan, no less. We had a tub. I had a sister. I may not have been all that curious about where the ducks go in the winter, but I can see why someone might be. The point is, my reasons for enjoying Salinger were the oldest in the book: I related to him. His settings, his tone, his characters were all the same as I was surrounded by, and so I found in him a friend, an advisor and confidant, someone I liked hanging out with even if all I got out of the exchange was a bouquet of parentheses. They remain one of my favorite gifts.

But Salinger has had a more lasting impact on me as well, influencing me and the course of my writing more directly than any other writer living or dead. To anyone glancing at my output, that might sound a little strange until one accepts that influence can happen in one of two ways. One way is to be influenced toward something: We see something we like; we want to do that, too. (God, how I wish I’d gotten to play jai alai just once) The other is to be influenced away from something, even when that something is something that excites us, stimulates and speaks to us directly (and if the reader is wondering why I spoke of Joyce as being “a pain in my ass,” this too would be the reason.) Sometimes when we encounter art that moves us on that level, our reaction is simply to want to say thank you, to confess that even as much as it inspires us to want to create, what the artist has offered is so good, so true, so absolutely the sort of thing that we ourselves might have wanted to express if the artist hadn’t come along and expressed it much better than we ever could have, we cede that path. We set down our pencils because it would feel presumptuous of us – of me -- to think that I have anything useful to add to what (say) Salinger had to say about the lives and sensibilities of spiritually aspirant, slightly insane late 20th century metropolitan easterners with Buddhist wings and Judeo-Christian shoes who are a little too clever for their own good and know it.

I don’t imagine Salinger would have been comfortable with that reaction to his work. There is something cardinally stupid about it – the idea that honest voices ever compete. I know that and I knew it all along, but it’s not something I can really change at this point, and the truth is, if I could go back and devote myself to a more domestic setting and find a voice to compare with his, I don’t think I would. Salinger, by inhabiting the rooms of my youth as magnificently as he did, opened the window to my imagination and shoved me out, and I’m glad for it. My fiction has taken me places far more exotic than I ever dreamed I’d go – sometimes for better, often for worse. Often the road has been slow and fraught, and Lord knows I have gotten lost from time to time, but for all those same reasons it has been a tremendously rewarding and surprising journey to me – it has been my life -- and I know that I would never have taken it if not for the man who died yesterday.

That said, it should be said that he, in his Zen-like wisdom, having ousted me, also invited me back in – to the room where I drink my coffee, I mean -- and I knew that too when I set out. Cruelly, he left us all mid-sentence, depriving us the pleasure of knowing what becomes of that voice as it grows into its middle and later years. But to me that was a kind of gift as well, the knowledge that if, in my middle years, I should choose to climb back in the window, at least I needn’t fear his shadow. There will be space, and I intend to take it, yes I do I swear I will I swear that was the plan all along.

My only hesitation is in knowing that he never actually did stop writing. The now famous safe is there with the manuscripts inside. If it turns out that what he’s done in the mean time is even a fraction as valuable and funny and human as what he left us some fifty years ago, then that is another path that I will happily, gratefully cede.

May it be so, and may your immortal soul rest in peace.