"The greatest mind ever to stay in prep school," Norman Mailer said of him, and for a lot of people, that's pretty much the line on Salinger. He wrote The Catcher in the Rye, then went off to live in the New Hampshire woods. He was -- as he wished -- pretty much ignored, until an idiot decided "Catcher" was some kind of reason to murder John Lennon. A brief flare of interest followed, then it was, once again, back to obscurity. "I pay for this kind of attitude," Salinger said, in a rare interview. "I'm known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I'm doing is trying to protect myself and my work."
His work couldn't be better protected. Nobody much reads Salinger now. He refused to do the things authors need to do to keep their name before the public. And his best-known writing is too mannered -- "Catcher" reads like a parody of itself. That's not entirely Salinger's fault; his style was so influential that it's been appropriated by several generations of admiring writers. And so much time has gone by since its bombshell success in the 1950s that many readers actually think the imitators are the real deal, in much the same way as young fan rock fans thrill to Lenny Kravitz and ignore Hendrix.
I can't re-read "Catcher" for biographical reasons. I hit puberty, went off to a boarding school as third rate as the one in "Catcher" and devoured Salinger's novel all in more or less the same season. My reality was not Holden's. He was a privileged kid from New York, a screw-up, a deliberate failure. I shared his distress with phonies and snobs and fools, but I was far too intent on shimmying the greasy pole of success to empathize with his spiritual crisis.
So I moved on to the short stories. There are about two dozen of them, and they are uneven. The one consolation: They're Salinger's transition into adult characters, especially the seven now-grown Glass children.
The Glass kids are at the center of Franny and Zooey, the one Salinger book I can re-read every year. With the exception of a short story, it's the last fiction Salinger has published -- and we're talking 1961 here. I encountered the book a few years later, when I was callow and confused. It didn't take. Anyway, back then, nobody much liked "Franny and Zooey." Surprised? Here's Joan Didion:
'Franny and Zooey' is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger's... predilection for giving instructions for living... It is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.
I can see how readers at the start of the go-go Kennedy years could have found these two stories silly. In "Franny," the youngest Glass goes to New Haven for a football weekend with her Yalie boyfriend. Over lunch, he talks about his Flaubert paper and his intellectual superiority. Franny, distracted and unable to eat, tries to tell him about some books she's been reading --- "The Way of a Pilgrim" and "A Pilgrim Continues on His Way" --- and the "Jesus Prayer" she's been reciting. At the end of the story, she faints. When she returns to consciousness, she's mouthing the prayer.
"Zooey" begins a few days later. Franny has returned to her family's New York apartment. She's taken to the couch, seemingly in the midst of a full-tilt breakdown. Which wouldn't make her the first Glass kid to confront mental instability. Seymour, the eldest, shot and killed himself. Buddy, a writer, lives in the woods and has no phone. And as for 25-year-old Zooey, he's an actor with the kind of tics that don't enhance a career.
The heart of "Zooey" is a long conversation about spirituality -- about living correctly in a world that could care less. Zooey has this conversation with his mother while he's in the bath, he has it with Franny as she sobs on the living room couch, and, finally, he goes into Buddy and Seymour's old bedroom, picks up a phone that has not been used since Seymour's death, and, pretending to be Buddy, calls Franny.
At the heart of this conversation is the passage which seemed way over the top in the 1960s and may seem overly sentimental to you now. It concerns "It's a Wise Child," the radio show that featured the oh-so-bright Glass kids. One week little Zooey didn't want to go on. Seymour told Zooey he had to. And, as Zooey recalls, Seymour went on:
Seymour told me to shine my shoes...I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again -- all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don't think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and -- I don't know. Anyway, it seemed goddamn clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.
It made sense for a reason that I won't share here. But that explanation lights Franny up. And it lights me up every time I read it.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler