Enigmatic author J.D. Salinger died today at 91.
I first read “The Catcher in the Rye” in high school at a turbulent time in my life. The book’s dull maroon cover and yellow colored title made it appear like a bland paperback, something trivial and dull. When I read the book, I thought Salinger’s use of language, his frankness and Holden Caulfield’s anger, tapped into my own adolescent crisis. Between those pages lurked my own flustered teenage id in the sad tale of a runaway prep school brat.
Caulfield represented a jaded, bitter American youth who railed against the phonies and authority in society. His own tortured trip into the city plays out like a frustrating travelogue of angst and self-loathing. He was the lone wolf growling at what he perceives as an adult world suffocating itself with convention. However, as a lone wolf, Caulfield doesn’t have much of a bite.
Caulfield is a pretentious whiner, a drama queen so immature he chooses not to confront responsibility but wallow in a pitiful gulag of his own making. If Caulfield wasn’t a spoiled prep school douchebag, he’d be a serial killer living in the Midwest.
I’m sure at the time of its publication “The Catcher in the Rye” was a sensation, but now it appears a bit dated and unbelievable. Caulfield’s flaw is not that he doesn’t change; it’s that he just doesn’t give a shit about changing. He’s the master cynic, a petty snob casting a jaundiced eye at everything.
The book sells 250,000 copies each year and is required reading for many high school literature classes. It’s also one of the most banned books in schools.
Salinger led a nearly hermit-like existence, living in solitude in his Cornish, N.H. home after the attention he received from “The Catcher in the Rye.” Though he published short stories and other works, “Catcher” stands out as his magnum opus.
Who was J.D. Salinger? Was he an eccentric recluse blinded by his own success, a misanthrope dwelling in a crumbled house of cards or a titanic genius whiling his life away in peace?
Did he create a book that defined the anger and resentment of youth, an adolescent hatefest borne by his own flawed personality?
Some of the greatest minds are insane geniuses toiling in total darkness, occasionally letting the light filter through the curtains. Birthing this literary juggernaut of the 20th century wasn’t easy. Coping with its success and criticism requires an iron fortitude.
Salinger coped by running away, cloistering himself from society, the one-time literary celebrity who lived in seclusion.
Whether you like “Catcher” or loathe it, you’ve got to give props to Salinger for creating a unique novel for its time.
Many writers (like me) long for such inspiration, when the clouds part and the words all tumble out onto the page arranged in perfect order. When the story comes together and everything fits so perfectly. When words on a page convey powerfully gut-wrenching emotion. When this happens, you know you’ve written something marvelous.
Every new rejection letter from a publisher has me doubtful if I’ll ever hit that lucky stride and write anything worth reading. Yet I can’t give up. I’ve spent decades writing, bumping the stories from my head onto the page. I’m not going to be a shrinking pessimist like Caulfield.
I’m still looking for my “Catcher.”