Nine Stories

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A Year in Reading: Darcey Steinke

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First published in 1942, The Little Locksmith, by Katherine Butler Hathaway, is a book of great charm and grace. I don’t think I’ve read a book as intensely charming since, as a teenager, sunning myself on the deck of my ranch house, I read Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. Charm, that most illusive of literary qualities only affects me when it is undercut by deep sorrow. It’s hard to imagine a story that begins as grimly as Hathaways. In 1895, a doctor straps five-year-old Katherine to a board so she won’t become a hunchback. The story moves through her struggle to find a meaningful life despite her bodily limitations. She is honest about her frustrated sexual desire and her longing for a house of her own. Hathaway writes with precision and spiritual dignity, giving advice that jumps off the page and directly into the heart. “It is only by following your deepest instinct that you can lead a rich life, and if you let fear of consequences prevent you from following your deepest  instincts, then your life will be safe, expedient and thin.”

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A Vanished World of Readers: On Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year

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In the fall of 1995, Joanna Rakoff dropped out of graduate school and returned to her parents’ home in the suburbs. “I want to write my own poetry,” she told her college boyfriend, “not analyze other people’s poetry.” Three months later, having done little more than allow her mother to buy her a wool gabardine suit and put her name in with a placement agency, Rakoff landed a plum job as an assistant to the president of a storied literary agency whose clients had included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, and Agatha Christie.

Though Rakoff never names it in her memoir, My Salinger Year, the literary agency where she worked was Harold Ober Associates, and her boss – again not named – was Phyllis Westberg, whose most famous client was J.D. Salinger, author of the classic young-adult novel The Catcher in the Rye. When Rakoff arrives at Harold Ober in January 1996, the agency does not own a single computer. Agents still track submissions on little pink file cards and Rakoff spends much of her day behind an IBM Selectric typing correspondence recorded for her by Westberg on a 1960s-era Dictaphone machine.

Rakoff’s work is largely secretarial, but it pays $18,500 a year plus benefits and affords Rakoff, now a successful journalist and writer in her 40s, a valuable apprenticeship in the tight-knit world of New York publishing. For readers like myself, who are old enough to have begun their careers in the analog era, Rakoff’s tale carries with it a strong whiff of nostalgia. Like Rakoff, I was a humanities major with great artistic ambitions and little notion how to make good on them, and like Rakoff, I fell backward into a low-paying entry-level job in the culture industry. In my case, despite not having written a news story since high school, I wound up as a reporter at a local newspaper, an experience that gave me on-the-job training I am still using more than 20 years later.

But if you are now 23, the age Rakoff was when she started at Harold Ober, you may have been hung up by this fact: They paid her $18,500 a year, plus benefits. Granted, that’s hardly a lavish salary, just $28,000 in today’s dollars, but it beats interning for no pay, which is how most anyone in Rakoff’s position — college-educated and bright, but without relevant experience or contacts — can expect to start out in publishing today. I would go so far as to suggest that this helps explain the sleeper success of My Salinger Year, which has already gone into its third printing and been sold to the movies.

Every year, droves of smart young people from America’s best universities come to live in Brooklyn and work in New York publishing, just as Rakoff did 18 years ago, drawn at least in part by an image of working in hushed, book-lined offices where art and commerce meet and famous authors regularly drop by for martini-soaked lunches. What they find is an industry beset by tectonic shifts in technology and consumer leisure habits, in a knife fight against a certain Seattle-based e-tailer that now controls a third of its business. Against this backdrop, Rakoff’s tale of Dictaphones and gabardine suits, in which a literary agent could say in all seriousness, “I don’t know what an electronic book is, but I’m not giving away the rights to it,” can sound like a fairy tale set in a mythical land.

Of course, part of the joke of My Salinger Year is that the literary world Rakoff enters exists nowhere but at Harold Ober Associates. By 1996, the tech boom was underway and a generation of younger people, including Rakoff, had grown up using computers, but Harold Ober is still a world of paper in which even form letters must be individually typed by hand and the office photocopier is considered newfangled. “Until just a few years prior,” Rakoff writes, “assistants had typed every letter in duplicate, inserting into their typewriters a paper sandwich consisting of a thick sheet of creamy letterhead, a slender black wisp of carbon, and a piece of soft, pulpy yellow paper on which the carbon imprinted a copy of the note.”

The quaintness of the agency’s office fixtures — the dark-wood paneling and dim lighting, the heavy black desk phones and the “statuesque” receptionist answering them — is matched by its old-school business culture. Westberg, who swans into work at 10 “swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses, her head with a silk scarf in an equestrian pattern,” doesn’t believe in multiple submissions and abhors publisher bidding wars, which she considers “uncouth.” “We send things out to one editor at a time,” she tells Rakoff. “We match writers with editors. We have morals.”

Morals Westberg may have, but her stodginess is costing her clients — except of course for J.D. “Jerry” Salinger, whose hit books from the 1950s and ’60s, including Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, are still keeping the lights on. Save for a single brief appearance, Salinger remains an off-stage presence, a distant voice on the phone calling from his compound in Cornish, N.H. Disgusted by modern publishing and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of appreciation his work provokes in his most ardent fans, Salinger has walled himself off from the world, declining to publish the novels he claims to be still writing and refusing to even look at the stacks of letters from readers hungry to share their problems with the creator of Holden Caulfield, American literature’s great cynical romantic.

This leaves Rakoff, as the assistant to Salinger’s agent, the unenviable task of sending letters informing his readers that their literary hero doesn’t want to hear their praise or their problems — a job at which Rakoff fails magnificently. Refusing to simply retype the form letter, whose original dates back to 1963, Rakoff begins composing letters of her own, dispensing consolation and advice as she sees fit. Some write to thank her, while others fume at her presumption, but as a gesture, her espistolary mischief makes sense. Though the pages of My Salinger Year are lousy with writers, at heart this is a book about readers, professional and unprofessional, who hunger for communion with the remote and often troubled authors they revere.

For all her limitations as a literary agent — and they are legion, if Rakoff’s account is to be believed — Westberg is a dedicated professional reader who sees her role in life as fostering an atmosphere in which literary talent can thrive. “For my boss, the Agency was not just a business,” Rakoff writes. “It was a way of life, a culture, a community, a home. It was more in common with an Ivy League secret society or — though it would take me time to see the extent of this — a religion, with its practices defined and its gods to worship, Salinger first and foremost.”

What Rakoff doesn’t say, because anyone who would read an insider’s memoir of the book business already knows it, is that it is precisely these professional readers who have been hurt most by the collapse of the old model of publishing. In the short term at least, the digital age has been a gift to nonprofessional readers. Books, which before chain stores were often expensive and hard to find, are now cheap and available at the push of a button. Readers also have more access to writers than they ever have, to the point that it’s hard to see how a shy, reclusive writer like Salinger or Thomas Pynchon could build a readership in an era of Facebook friending and constant book tours and signings.

Writers, of course, bemoan the withering of the publishing industry, and to a degree they are right to do so. Tight profit margins for publishing houses mean fewer book contracts and smaller advances. But do writers really have it so bad? Without a doubt, there is a gaping hole in the market for writers whose work falls between the plot-driven, Zeitgeisty fiction major publishers still pay big money for and the more literary, craft-driven fiction that ends up at indie houses. These so-called midlist authors, whose toil pays off not in a blaze of bestseller glory, but over the long haul in slow but steady sales, are now being shunted into self-publishing — or more often, are finding themselves recalibrating their work toward the more viable poles of the literary/commercial divide.

Still, thanks to self-publishing and the rise of MFA programs as a subsidy system for poets and literary novelists, writers today have more paths to publication and more ways to make money as writers than has ever been the case. A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.

Think for a minute of 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff at her humming Selectric typing those form letters to Salinger’s fans. Today, fans communicate directly with authors or with each other online, and if one does route a message through a publishing house or literary agency it is typically deleted unread or farmed out to an unpaid intern. The same goes for Rakoff taking her boss’s correspondence from a Dictaphone. Today, agents and editors handle their own email and use their assistants to screen out people they don’t want to deal with. That’s a real job, as anyone who reports on the publishing industry can tell you, but it’s a lot less work than typing thousands of letters.

Publishing is hardly alone in seeing its lower ranks eviscerated by time-saving digital devices, but in the book business the problem is particularly acute and widespread, affecting not just agents and editors, but critics and booksellers. The top positions in each field still exist and can be well-paid, but the gateway jobs where generations of young people learned the trade, are being devalued or outsourced. In publishing, it’s the near-mandatory unpaid internships that make it so hard for anyone without rich parents to enter the business. In criticism, it’s the blogosphere and reader sites like Goodreads that outmoded the books page in all but a few newspapers and magazines. In bookstores, it’s Amazon that has digitized the recommendation role that well-read independent booksellers play in the lives of their customers. You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting harder to make a profession of it.

At the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff leaves Harold Ober to be a writer, but not before she experiences the thrill of being a professional reader when she helps Westberg sell a story for one of her clients. “Rationally, I know that it’s just a business transaction,” she tells her college boyfriend. “But I can’t help feeling that there is more to it: I brought this story into the world. People will read it because I placed it. Until I placed it, the story belonged only to the writer. Now it will belong to the world.”

In a final twist that will not surprise many, Rakoff reveals that around the same time she left the literary agency, she ditched the nogoodnik writer boyfriend she was living with in Brooklyn, and now many years later, after a failed marriage, she has reunited with the college boyfriend to whom she poured out these first thoughts of readerly pride. Frankly, I found Rakoff’s account of her affairs outside the office less compelling — and less believable — than those of her days in the hopelessly outdated offices of Harold Ober. I was also put off by the book’s coyness in declining to name its central characters, especially since she has identified the major players in earlier versions of the story that can be found with a few keystrokes on Google.

But it is hard not to be charmed by her sepia-toned portrait of a time when a smart young woman in possession of no more than a decent wool suit and rudimentary typing skills could be acculturated into the profession of reading. Maybe it’s just as well that those jobs are going away. It was a sexist system, and a deeply conservative one. Young would-be publishing professionals may find it hard to get paid to learn their trade, but they’re not spending their days fetching coffee and doing things the old way just because that’s the way people have always done them. But it’s a loss, too — one Rakoff captures with elegance and humor in My Salinger Year.

For Sonny – With Love and Sympathy: Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life

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Before I say anything about Kenneth Slawenski’s compelling but adoring biography of J.D. Salinger, I have a question: does anyone really, really understand just why Seymour Glass blows his brains out at the end of  “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? The editors of The New Yorker didn’t, although they eventually published it. John Updike didn’t, but that didn’t keep him from calling the story a classic. Vladimir Nabokov thought it was an “A-plus story” but never said why. The story was published in 1948, three years before The Catcher in the Rye, and it’s been confounding readers ever since.

You remember what happens. A married couple, Seymour and Muriel, are vacationing in Miami. Muriel, pretty but vapid, sits alone in a hotel room, drying her nails and talking on the phone to her mom, who wants her to come home. The mom thinks Seymour is crazy. She cites instances, says something about the army releasing Seymour from the hospital too soon. Muriel shrugs it off and talks about fashion. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach talking to Sybil, a little girl he has come to know. They talk about Muriel, whom Seymour doesn’t seem like. Apropos of nothing, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot. Seymour and Sybil take a raft and hit the waves. He tells her about bananafish, which crawl into underwater caves, eat so many bananas they can’t get out, and die. Sybil claims to see such a fish and Seymour suddenly decides to go back to shore. He heads for his hotel room. On the elevator up, he accuses another guest of staring at his feet and being a God damned sneak about it. He goes to his room, sees Muriel asleep on the bed, puts a gun to his head and fires. End of story.

WTF? Critical analysis seems to turn on the little girl’s name: Sybil, therefore Sibyl, the mythological seer. Slawenski, a good if somewhat stiff reader of Salinger, offers an even more complicated theory that suggests Seymour spent too much time reading Eliot and Blake. Both ideas may be perfectly correct, but they ignore the fact that Seymour packed the gun to begin with, beside which Eliot and mythology just seem like so much literary filigree. Presumably, Seymour feels trapped, like the bananafish, but the events of this day offer less than perfect motivation. It’s not clear even Salinger knows why Seymour killed himself, because he keeps coming back to it in subsequent stories, as if there’s something he forgot to say, some detail he meant to add.

The story is the kickoff to Nine Stories, a classic collection distinguished by ambiguity and ellipsis. It was also the beginning of a long journey. In the 25 years of Salinger’s publishing life, Seymour was his constant companion, evolving in seemingly autobiographical ways as the author became more immersed in Eastern philosophy. He’s the brilliant spiritual loner, too preoccupied with the next world to connect with this one, and in death he becomes a ghost his family cannot exorcise. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour’s little sister has a nervous breakdown on the road to spiritual perfection. In Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, a hilarious social comedy, brother Buddy recalls the disastrous events of Seymour’s wedding day. In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy circles around his memories of Seymour, trying to make some sense of him. It’s Salinger’s most direct effort to say who, what or why Seymour is, and it’s a numbing experience; little more than an endless ramble, and quite the longest novella ever written. Buddy mentions a short story he wrote in the late forties, where Seymour “not only appeared in the flesh but walked, talked, went for a dip in the ocean, and fired a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph.” But the Seymour of the story, he says, was actually more a reflection of Buddy himself, written not long after Seymour’s death, after the both of them had “returned from the European Theater of Operations.” The story, he says, was written using a German typewriter.

In other words, Seymour (or Buddy, who seems to be channeling him, even though he gets little more than static) was tormented by what he saw in the war, as Muriel’s mother suggested, specifically in Germany. That seems like it should be the last word, except that it’s not. We still have Salinger’s bizarre final testament to Seymour: “Hapworth 16, 1924“, which landed with a thud when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, taking up a whole issue and marking Salinger’s final publication.

It’s composed of seven-year-old Seymour’s impossibly brilliant 65-page letter home from summer camp, in which we learn that he has already died and been reincarnated several times. It was a strange, unbelievable prequel: the young man who killed himself in a Miami hotel room was actually a homegrown Dalai Lama! As character development goes, it feels desperate. It was also a retread, as the young Seymour isn’t all that different from the title character of Salinger’s story “Teddy,” another child genius touched by some kind of Zen-like divinity.

After that, the clock stopped. Salinger was dead as a writer but, in his Seymour-like way, lives on. His books have never gone out of print, and his earliest and best work remains distinct, irreplaceable, and influential. By the time he got to Hapworth, alas, he had eaten his last banana. He was 46, holed up in a remote house in tiny Cornish, N.H., living off royalties that by the mid-1980s were bringing him about $100,000 a year. He devoted what turned out to be the next half of his life to saying nothing and saying it loud enough for all the world to hear. Rumor had it he still wrote and even completed a few novels, but that remains to be seen, or not seen.

Reading Salinger’s biography is a little like reading the fiction: the more time you spend in his company, the more anxious you are to leave. As far as telling the story, this book has a lot of merit. Slawenski collates all the known facts, tracks his movements over the years, and shows how his art was shaped by both World War II and religion. He does an especially good job of putting Salinger’s experiences in context, particularly where his military years are concerned.

On the other hand, he lacks detachment. He doesn’t hide the warts, but he doesn’t always notice them. To paraphrase Updike paraphrasing Salinger, he loves the author more than God does. He does a very thorough job, however, and it’s not his fault that his subject turns into such a fusty, frosty, petulant bore.

The book starts off quite interestingly, as Slawenski presents a young man who was a little like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of Salinger’s most famous novel: born to an affluent Manhattan family, he attended prep school, and was a bit of an outsider. Far from being a self-loathing manic-depressive, he was arrogant and cocky. The family called him Sonny. He was tall, lanky, affable enough to serve on the entertainment staff of a cruise ship, and he got dates. Among his early conquests was Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright, whom he found attractive and classy but also vain and dull. When she dumped him for Charlie Chaplin, he turned her into Muriel Glass.

Readers know Salinger on the basis of the four slim books he allowed into print, which together give the impression he’s never been anything but mature and polished. The 22 stories that make up Salinger’s apprentice work apparently tell a different story; as described here – and Slawenski makes one wish they don’t stay uncollected forever – they were largely commercial fiction that showed promise and occasionally impressed the right people.

When the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941, Salinger was poised to enter the big leagues. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the magazine postponed publication for five years; the story of a rich kid on a date in Manhattan, where he does a lot of drinking, talking and crying, suddenly seemed irrelevant. While the delay was a crushing blow, it probably helped Salinger in the end. He joined the Army and took his character Holden with him. He would see extensive action in the war and participate in key events: he was in Normandy on D-Day, when a full two-thirds of his division was wiped out, spent a bleak winter fighting off Nazi forces in the Hürtgen Forest and, thanks to his command of the language, even worked in counterintelligence as his regiment moved into Germany.

“The notion of J.D. Salinger rushing from house to house, seizing villains, and grilling them under naked lightbulbs might appear absurd to us today but that is exactly what happened,” Slawenski writes.

After thinking he had seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, he helped liberate Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.” In the end, he would receive five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor.

Through it all, writing in barracks and foxholes, he was finding Holden’s voice. What began as a series of stories would eventually be shaped into one long picaresque tale about a troubled kid with a messianic complex, wandering through Manhattan, pondering society at its most phony and the city at its most vomity.

“I know this boy I’m writing about so well,” he told an early editor. “He deserves to be a novel.“ The story took on a tragic dimension; the specter of dying young – like Holden’s brother 10-year-old brother Allie, who remains forever innocent — hangs over the novel. The novel’s famous final lines were Salinger’s own answer to why he would later find the war so hard to talk about: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

The novel that resulted, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of narrative first person voice: self-observant but not always self-aware. Holden reveals himself in ways he fully intends – cynical, smart-alecky, funny, romantic – and ways he doesn’t, exactly; he’s immature, annoying, and at times a bit of a phony himself. He speaks in a jazzy, rhythmic argot of goddam, moron, “like a bastard,” “kills me,” “depressed the hell out of me,” and ”sexy,” which can mean either attractive or horny. It’s a voice as genuine as Ishmael, Huck Finn, Humbert Humbert, or anyone else you care to name.

The war affected other Salinger stories as well. Like Sergeant X in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” Salinger suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, in a strange life- imitates-art-imitates-life twist, he supposedly fell in love with his first wife, Claire, because she embodied his imaginary war orphan, Esme, and would serve as the inspiration for Franny Glass.

During this time, Salinger, who was raised in a joint Catholic-Jewish household and had embraced Zen Buddhism, studied the 1,000-plus pages of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, which completely changed his game. It was the book that proclaimed the gospel of Vedanta, a monotheistic religion that absorbs a lot of religious traditions, “accepting all faiths as being valid as long as they lead to the recognition of God.” As Slawenski explains: “The aim of Vedanta is to see God, to become one with God, by looking beyond the shell and perceiving the holiness within” – all of which he started working into his fiction from that point, most successfully in Franny and Zooey.

The two long stories that make up this novel have a fascinating publishing history, as both were published separately in The New Yorker and one almost didn’t make it. Fiction editors William Maxwell and Katherine White couldn’t stand “Zooey” and rejected it. Editor William Shawn not only overruled them, but also worked on the story with Salinger for months. Both stories were a huge success with readers; much less so with critics, who found both characters a couple of preening, self-absorbed, condescending ninnies – views which Norman Mailer suggested “may come from nothing more graceful than envy.”

I think the novel is the best exposition of Salinger’s own religious quest, and in a curious, roundabout way reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; it erases the line between “religious novel” and “novel about religion.” It’s also very energetic. Slawenski ably digs away at the novels Vedantic ideas, but he misses the fact that it’s so dramatically, irrepressibly alive. He misses Franny, the greatest college girl in American Literature, with her spiritedness, her “irreproachably Americanese” figure, and her thoughts running a mile a minute as she burns through one cigarette after the next.

Speaking of which, it’s one of the greatest cigarette-smoking novels ever written. Everyone smokes like a freight train; every cigarette has character, every puff has an idea. Smoking is what releases the torrent of thoughts between the two characters as they thrash out the possibilities of praying without ceasing. Zooey drags on his stogie “as if it were a kind of respirator in an otherwise oxygenless world.” It may also be the first novel where there really is such a thing as chicken soup for the soul.

If Slawenski doesn’t always feel the verve of Salinger’s fiction, he does feel his pain, which is considerable. The man was besieged by enemies from every corner. Over and over in this book, I found myself wondering: how it is that a brave, dedicated Nazi-hunter, a genuine inglorious basterd, could get so completely sidetracked by editors who make suggestions to his precious copy or reject it, or publishers who want to pimp out his books with crass covers, or a crummy Hollywood adaptation of a story, or media invaders or readers showing up on his lawn. For a veteran of Hürtgen and Dachau, it seems like small potatoes, and nothing unusual for anyone bent on being a successful writer. But J.D. was simply not the kind of guy to weather the frustrations and get back to his typewriter. He lived in a small world that demanded unswerving loyalty. If you’re an agent like Dorothy Olding, who protects his privacy with your life, or an editor like William Shawn, you’re on the side of the angels. If you’re Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, who bungled an anthology that Salinger was banking on, or his English publisher Jamie Hamilton, who made the mistake of letting a bad paperback cover slip his notice, you’re alienated forever. Slawenski is so quick to take Salinger’s side in all this that at times he sounds like a posthumous enabler.

As far as the facts go, I found little to question outside of one: the news that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, inspired Lolita would likely come as a surprise to Nabokov, who was writing his masterpiece at least as early as 1947 (longer than that if you include the early draft from 1939).

Anyone looking for clues to Salinger’s lost years is going to be disappointed: 40 pages covering 45 bland years of marital battles and legal troubles. Perhaps that’s all there is. Maybe, as Buddy Glass once said, “where there’s smoke there’s strawberry Jello, seldom fire.”

Saving Salinger

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Recently, I took a train to Princeton University in search of two lost J.D. Salinger stories about Holden Caulfield’s family.  “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” and “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” have never been published in the nearly sixty years since Salinger wrote them.  Princeton’s Firestone Library now protects the only known copies.

The librarian at the front desk had me pegged as a Salinger fan before I even opened my mouth.  I suspect it is a meek and eternal frustration in my eyes, one otherwise known only by members of the Green Party and Mets fans.  My colleagues have been known to laugh out loud when I say that Salinger is my favorite author.  The literary criticisms I’ve brought into my classroom are almost universally negative and thirty years out-of-date.

Only my students ever seem to love Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye half as much as I do.  Yes, they see Holden as superior, obnoxious, and immature – but they respect that he holds nothing back.  He does not simply wear his heart on his sleeve, Holden’s heart is his sleeve.  His whole self is enveloped in this bloody but still beating muscle.

But, perhaps like Holden, I fear they will soon grow out of it.  They will soon hear the same dismissive slights as I have – that Salinger is overly precious, terribly smug, and above all, not serious.  Just a minor, young adult writer.

For fifteen years, I dreamed of the discovery of a massive treasure trove of brilliant novels upon Salinger’s death.  But months after his obituary had been printed, I’d gotten tired of waiting for something to appear.  I’d come to Princeton to find proof of Salinger’s early genius and write some essays that would settle the matter for good.

The Princeton librarian had my photograph taken for an ID badge and I signed a form promising not to damage the rarities.  I was instructed to lock up my bag and wash my hands.  Off-handedly, the librarian added, “You can bring your laptop in if you want.”  I could hardly believe my ears but I did not stop to ask questions.

Inside, I was given a sharpened pencil and three sheets of bright orange paper.  Another librarian pulled Box 14 out of a cabinet.  Inside was Folder 26.  All that distinguished Salinger’s folder from the others was a red label along the edge, reading: NO PHOTOCOPYING.

Anxiously I flipped through dozens of old issues of Story and Collier’s.  These were hard to find online but most I had read before.  Then, at last, I found what I’d come for: two typewritten manuscripts, complete with typos and smudges.

“The Last and Best of the Peter Pans”, the earliest known Caulfield story, features Vincent (Holden’s brother “DB” in Catcher) and his mother arguing after he discovers she has childishly hidden his Army draft survey in a silverware drawer.  At one point, Vincent yells that it is as if she is trying to stop a child from falling off a cliff by asking a man without legs to catch him, a line which, for any Catcher fan, is a delight.  Vincent soon realizes that his mother can’t help the way that she is – like Peter Pan, she cannot grow up, and so he finally forgives her.

The title of the second story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” refers to a short story written by Vincent and read aloud to his brother Kenneth (Allie), who dislikes the unnecessary meanness of his ending: a bowling ball is thrown through a window by an angry, cuckolded wife.  Kenneth reminds Vincent that he can write stories where good things happen, so why not?  Vincent rips up the story and takes Kenneth out for steamers.  The little brother goes swimming in the ocean, but the waves batter the boy like so many bowling balls.  The next part is beautiful but I can’t do it justice in paraphrase.  I will confess that I found myself tearing up, hoping the other researchers wouldn’t notice.

Inspired, I cracked my laptop open, intending to begin writing a brilliant defense of my favorite writer.  It took a moment before I realized that no alarm bells had sounded.  What if I began to retype just a few scattered lines from “Peter Pans”?  If anyone came to yell at me, couldn’t I easily claim to just be taking down a few quotes?

Could I copy whole paragraphs, then pages?  If I swallowed my thumb drive, would the files survive a little internal digestion?  I envisioned angry librarians smashing my laptop to pieces.  I’d have to hit “save” every ten seconds.

Some time passed before a new librarian arrived and made a beeline for me. “You’re not allowed to use your laptop with the Salinger,” she informed me.  Heart pounding, I closed it up.  How much, I wondered, could I manage by hand?  By the time I lost my nerve and fled, I was checking over my shoulder all the way to the train for trailing Princeton Security.  On the way home I stared unhappily at the gaping holes in my notes.

I called Salinger’s literary agents and asked them what sort of permissions I would need to write some essays about the unpublished stories.  “I have to say no,” said the man on the other end of the phone, “to anything involving the Salinger estate.”  No matter what I asked, this was all he would say.  Then, just to be sure I’d gotten the point, the man apparently called Princeton, got my contact information from the forms I’d signed, and e-mailed me again, just to be sure I knew that he had to say no to anything involving J.D. Salinger.

That night, my wife asked me what old J.D. would think about my adventures.  How would he feel about a fan travelling across state lines to get ahold of his work?  He’d be on my side, I insisted.  I have been a lifelong defender of his name and a studier of his craft.  I’ve read and reread, notated and underlined, interpreted and reinterpreted.  But I was not some joyless, phony, unpleasable critic!  I’d always stuck up for Salinger – a man who had hardly ever stuck up for himself.

She didn’t buy it and, really, neither did I.  Salinger wouldn’t have given me a pass just because I knew the name of the short story collection that Vincent/DB wrote (The Secret Goldfish), or what Ginnie Maddox kept in her pocket for three days (a dead Easter chick), or what Esmé sent Sergeant X in the mail (a broken wristwatch).  Salinger never wanted or needed me to stick up for him.

Still I wished I could show my colleagues what I’d seen.  If they could just read those stories, I thought, they would understand why Salinger will always be a major writer to me.

In the Princeton folder I’d also found a letter from Salinger to an editor, explaining that he was tired of writing stories where his characters lay broken apart at the end.  He wished he could write stories that put their pieces back together again.  It is the same urging that Kenneth delivered to Vincent in the story.  It is one I would make to my fellow writers.  We can write anything, so why write that which delights only in misery?

Yes, maybe pretending that this world is anything other than miserable is futile, but like hiding your son’s draft card in a silverware drawer, this pretending is an act of love.  It is impossible to save children from falling out of the rye, but that doesn’t keep Holden from wishing that he could.  You have to dive into the ocean, Salinger tells us, precisely because it is full of bowling balls.  It is having hope which requires real guts.  So wear your heart on your sleeve and if it bleeds, let it, so long as it still beats.

A week later I was back on a Princeton-bound train.  Again, the librarian needed no indication of what I’d come for.

My compromise with old J.D. has been this: as much as I’d love to prove his genius, I haven’t written any of the essays about the stories that I’d hoped to.  Only this, which contains no information which is not already available in Salinger’s few biographies.  The stories are there for whoever wants to go and read them.  Whatever I did or did not save on my laptop, I’ve shown to no one.  Not my colleagues or my students.  Those stories are my Secret Goldfish, my dead Easter Chick, my busted wristwatch… and they are safe with me.

Bonus Links: J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010, Salinger in Vienna

(Image: D.B. was here from sevenhungrybadgers’s photostream)

A Year in Reading: Adam Levin

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Like any number of people who love fiction, I tend to re-read my favorite books. It is not, however, common for me to read the same book twice in one year, and yet this year I’ve read two books twice—Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities and Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels. I want to say that these books remind a reader that his life is fleeting, that he’ll be separated from everything he loves pretty soon, that he’ll disappear forever and rot and be forgotten, but I worry that might sound like overstatement (if not—ick—oversharement), or, even worse, that it might lead you, the Millions visitor, fellow lover of fiction, to assume the books are unfun reads, when, in fact, they are playful and joy-bringing. What reminds you you’ll die is their in-your-face aliveness, their assured immortality.

Novy’s The Avian Gospels is a novel in two short volumes about a foreign boy in an unnamed city-state that borders Hungary and Oklahoma. The city-state is run by a despot, its local Gypsies invent first- and second-wave ska, the boy falls in love with the despot’s daughter, and when a plague of birds descends upon all of them, only the boy and his father (who are much at odds) can protect the city-state from total destruction, for the boy and his father can both control birds. Just to be clear: the foregoing two sentences contain no spoilers. All I’ve described is in play by page 20. Did I mention this novel’s really funny? It’s funny in the way Blood Meridian is funny, and American Tabloid, and In the Penal Colony.

The only kind of book that’s harder for me to describe than a good collection of short stories, is a great collection of short stories, and Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a great collection of short stories. As in Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair, Salinger’s Nine Stories, and Hannah’s Airships, the subject matter in The Awful Possibilities varies widely, piece to piece. There’s the story about the girl who’s kidnapped by kidney thieves, the one about suburban hardcore rappers, the motivational-speaker-who-needs-a-new-wallet story, and the set of instructions for abusing your child that’s told by….See? It’s hard. I’m having a hard time. I’m doing TeBordo’s work very little justice—about as much justice as I’d be doing Mark Twain’s if, in summarizing Huckleberry Finn, I said no more than, “It’s a book about this kid.” I’m thinking that the only hope I have of even beginning to get across how stellar the experience of reading The Awful Possibilities is, is to give you the beginning of The Awful Possibilities, then get out of the way and say goodnight:
Imagine you’re planning your own school shooting. Imagine you have good reasons, and it’s none of that I-play-too-many-video-games-and-listen-to-Marilyn-Manson-because-no-one-likes-me bullshit. You’re in tenth grade and you do okay in classes and you’ve got plenty of friends for what it’s worth but it’s not worth much to you. You live in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Iowa. There are no Jews in Brooklyn, Iowa. Keep that in mind.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

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Salinger in Vienna

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Back when I was an undergraduate English major with plenty of time on my hands, one of my favorite activities was to wander through the deserted stacks on the fourth floor of my university library (where all the fiction lived) and pluck from the shelf any book that caught my eye.

One spring day in my sophomore year I felt drawn, for whatever reason, to a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949.

As I scanned the index I noticed with great surprise and excitement that the book contained a story by J.D. Salinger that I hadn’t read before. It was called “A Girl I Knew.” Greedily, I slid to the floor, crossed my legs, and flipped to page 248, ready to start right in. The only problem was that there was no page 248. In fact, in between John Rogers’ “Episode of a House Remembered” and Alfred Segre’s “Justice Has No Number,” there was nothing. Some sneak had gone and ever-so-carefully removed the Salinger story with a razor.

Worse things had been done in the name of Salinger, I knew, but still I was vexed. The story’s simple and wistful title had me curious, and my discovery seemed somehow predestined.

That semester I was taking a class called “Later Twentieth Century American Literature.” The professor was a short, nervous, extraordinarily kind Fitzgerald scholar from Darlington, South Carolina who, unlike most members of the faculty, wore a jacket and tie everyday. His passion for literature was so great that he would usually remove the jacket within the first three minutes of class, revealing a curious but endearing pattern of sweat stains. Though Dr. Mangum had been teaching many of the same books for upwards of thirty years, he could not have lost a drop of his enthusiasm; nor was he the dreary sort to insist upon purely textual readings of the classics.

And so, when we read J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Dr. Mangum told us in his charming, slightly stuttering drawl all about Salinger’s life and known eccentricities: his predilection for much younger women. His mixed feelings about his half-Jewish heritage. His hermetic existence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The pack of cutthroat New York attorneys he’d hired to track down and sue anybody who attempted to circulate, either in print or on the internet, bootleg copies of his uncollected magazine stories. The theory that the post-traumatic stress disorder he acquired from his particularly horrific experiences in WWII is what led to his eventual seclusion.

Starting in 1940 when he was only 23 years old, and not yet the cult figure who’d penned The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger began publishing short stories in a variety of commercial and literary magazines including The New Yorker, Story, and Good Housekeeping. Salinger remained vehement through most of his life that, with the exception of those collected in Nine Stories, none of his other short magazine fiction – a total of twenty-two pieces – would ever be put into book form.

Evidence suggests that Salinger chose to safeguard these stories not because he doubted their quality, but out of spite towards both the world of publishing and the world at large. Several of these “Uncollected Stories” (as they are officially known by Salinger-philes to distinguish them from the “Unpublished Stories,” the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of stories that Salinger may or may not have written in the final five-plus decades of his life) deal directly with the war, and a few, like “A Girl I Knew” are thought to be autobiographical.

Though I didn’t feel like breaking the law in pursuit of some ramshackle, Xeroxed copy of the “Uncollected Stories,” I saw no moral dilemma in tracking down an un-butchered copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949 where I could find “A Girl I Knew.”

I made a trip to the Richmond, Virginia public library, which at first revealed another TBASS: 1949 in which “A Girl I Knew” had been ever-so-carefully razored out. But after sending a recalcitrant librarian to the basement to retrieve yet another copy of the anthology – which had been apparently been gathering dust since about 1950 – I was able to read the story. I wasn’t sorry that I’d gone to the trouble.

While a few of the selections in Nine Stories had seemed a bit flat to me (“Teddy” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” come to mind) I found “A Girl I Knew” to be positively brimming with humor, pathos, and romance. It managed, in a mere 12 pages, to make me both laugh out loud and to cry.

The story itself is simple. It could be classified as a love story, though a strange one, in which the word love is never mentioned, the lovers never so much as hold hands, and the only verbal exchanges between them are formal, awkward, and embarrassing.

It is an almost painfully realistic rendering of the sort of crush one has while young, the harmless sort one can reflect on later in life and think, without bitterness: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”

The twist that makes this story a tragedy is that our young heroine is a Viennese-Jewish girl, born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the real genius of this story, to me, the real kicker, is that even if there had been no Hitler, no war, the protagonist and the girl would not have ended up together. They lived on different continents; when they met the narrator was too young and self-involved to really desire commitment; the heroine, long before Nazi troops invaded Vienna, had married another man.

Part of the sadness here comes, of course, from a young woman being robbed, senselessly and viciously, of her life. But it is sad, too, in the way it deprived a young man, a man who hadn’t even known her that well, the luxury of remembering her without bitterness, of being able to ask lightheartedly: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”

The story is told as reminiscence, and the tone, to start, is light. It begins:
At the end of my freshman year of college, back in 1936 I flunked five out of five subjects. Flunking three out of five would have made me eligible to report to the Dean’s office for an invitation to attend some other college in the fall. But men in this three-out-of-five category sometimes had to wait outside the Dean’s office as long as two hours. Men in my group – some of whom had big dates in New York that same night – weren’t kept waiting a minute. It went one, two, three, the way most men in my group liked things to go.
Our precocious, underachieving narrator is a young man called John; his name reveals that he is neither a Caulfield nor a Glass, though he could easily belong to either family. “At eighteen,” he recalls, “I was six feet two, weighed one hundred and nineteen pounds with my clothes on, and was a chain-smoker.” When he returns to his family’s New York home, the news of his expulsion preceding him, he is greeted by the butler, who looks “tipped off and hostile.” His mother lectures him about applying himself. His father, a stern, no-nonsense type, wants to put him straight into the family business.

However, lucky for our young narrator, going directly into the family business means sailing for Europe to learn “a couple of languages the firm could use.” After our gaunt, slightly disaffected protagonist arrives in Vienna (and gets over his disappointment that the city does not, in fact, have gondolas) he proceeds to have a grand time: skiing, ice skating, hanging out in the lounges of posh hotels, writing insincere love letters to girls back home.

But then, intruding upon his blissfully non-committal existence, comes Leah, a sixteen year-old girl who lives with her family in the apartment below his. He is taken with her immediately. One afternoon he investigates some mysterious singing he hears coming from outside his window. The source, he discovers, is a young, beautiful girl, standing on the downstairs balcony “almost completely submerged in a pool of autumn twilight.”
She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.
In the four or five months our narrator spends in Vienna, he and Leah meet a few times a week. Every meeting takes place in his sitting room where they drink coffee and have long painful conversations in which he speaks awkward, halting German and she in rudimentary, heavily-accented English.
“Uh. Ist die Fenster – uh – Sind Sie sehr kalt dort?” I would ask solicitously. (Is the window – Uh – Are you very cold there?)

“No! I feel very warmly, sank you.”
Only once do they meet outside their apartment building, and this happens accidentally, when John bumps into her at the cinema one evening with a young man, who, he learns during their next meeting, is her fiancé.

We begin to feel a bit sorry for Leah when we learn that her father has arranged a (presumably unwanted) marriage for her. (“‘My fahzzer is wedding us when I have seventeen years,’ Leah said, looking at a doorknob.”) At 16, she works five days a week in her father’s cosmetics plant, work she doesn’t enjoy. Of course, this is merely grim foreshadowing of what her life will become.

When John leaves Vienna for Paris, “to master a second European language,” he doesn’t tell Leah goodbye face-to-face, but in a note. He promises to write to her and to send to her a copy of Gone With the Wind; he never does either of these things. “I was very busy in those days,” he recalls.

He returns to America and re-enrolls in college. “About the same hour Hitler’s troops were marching into Vienna, I was on reconnaissance for Geology 1-b, searching perfunctorily, in New Jersey, for a limestone deposit.”

For years he tries in vain to learn whether Leah has escaped Vienna. In 1940, at a party in New York, he meets a young woman who had gone to school with Leah, though she isn’t sure whether or not Leah has gotten out of Vienna. She only wants to talk about “a man in Philadelphia, who looked exactly like Gary Cooper.”  This attitude of cold indifference is one he runs up against continually.

Eventually our narrator joins the Army and ends up back in Europe. After the war has ended, he is finally able to go to Vienna and he learns for certain that Leah has been killed.

Biographical records show that Salinger spent several months in Vienna before the war, working for his father’s meat importing business. While there he boarded with a Jewish family, who later all perished in camps. Little is known about them.

At the end of “A Girl I Knew,” John visits his old apartment house in Vienna, which has been converted into American officers’ quarters. He begs permission from a staff sergeant to go up to his old room, just for a moment, so he can look down onto the balcony and see the spot where Leah once stood.

On Rereading J.D. Salinger

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J.D. Salinger’s books speckled New York this week, as a chorus of readers gave the author an impromptu final salute. Spotted on the subway, 11:15 on Saturday night: Nine Stories en route to  Coney Island, devoured with a pencil in hand. Monday morning on Broadway it was Catcher in the Rye in a cafe window seat, words imbibed between sips of coffee. As I write this, I imagine there’s someone seated at a dimly lit hotel bar in Midtown, downing a cocktail and keeping company with a dog-eared Holden Caulfield.

I too was reading Salinger last weekend, for a second time. I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and followed it with Franny and Zooey, appropriately, in college. I never experienced the Salinger epiphany that so many do, but I was compelled to continue reading his work. Holden Caulfield voiced his angst and frustration with far more insight and intelligence than any teenager I knew, and I admired his courage to escape. But he also left me somewhat estranged.

My desire to identify with Holden–and who doesn’t read Catcher in the Rye to identify with Holden?–underscored our vast differences as much as it made him a companion or guide. Literary liberation and rebellion for me, rather, took the form of Nora leaving in A Doll’s House and Margaret Atwood’s female leads. By the time I read Catcher in the Rye, its colloquialisms seemed “phony,”  to sling Holden’s favorite insult. His lingo had long ago ceded to other teenage argot. This alone I could have forgiven.

But Holden also embodied adolescent maleness so completely that he left no room for a frustrated girl of a commensurate age. To be fair, he left little room for anyone else. His alienation was the point. The female characters were colored by Holden’s conflicted desire. They were either vulnerable (like and Jane and Phoebe), a source of ambivalent attraction (Sally and the hotel prostitute), or playthings (the Pencey mother on the train and “stupid girls” who dance well). I doubt it’s a coincidence that most of the tributes to Salinger have been penned by men.

Holden’s hang-ups with shoddy suitcases also came between us. Of the ones owned by his former roommate, Dick Slagle, Holden said, “it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs–if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do.” Perhaps it’s because I wondered how my suitcases would measure up that his complaints about privilege, phonies, boarding schools, and New York apartments seemed distant and intangible. Rereading now, though, his insights about class and wealth, and the divisions they create, strike me as more truthful than I then cared to admit.

In spite of his faults, I admired Holden for his audacity to pick up and leave and to always speak his mind. He could be clever, insolent, and charming, simultaneously. He knew he had a precious window of time on the cusp of adulthood, where he could shirk responsibility and leave, say with Sally, until the money ran out. And he was was still young enough to believe that everything would work out in the end.

It occurs to me that I’m judging Holden more like an old friend than a character in a novel. This is perhaps the largest compliment I can pay him, and Salinger, too. Holden himself said that what he most wanted from a book was the sense that “when you’re all done reading it, you wish that the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger, more than most authors, gave his readers that feeling. He implored not only Holden but every weary, cynical teenager reading his novel with Mr. Antolini’s admonition: “you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then start going there. But immediately.” He echoes this in Franny and Zooey, too, when Zooey tells Franny,“if you don’t at least know by this time that if you’re an actress you’re supposed to act, then what’s the use of talking?”

Salinger may have secluded himself for the second half of his life and escaped society in a way Holden only yearned to. But his voice has and will continue, in his death, to resonate through his fiction. He gently nudges his readers at times, and at others he grabs them by their lapels in an attempt to rouse them, to tell them they must decide what kind of skull you want when they’re dead. Get to it, he’s saying, don’t waste time.

Surprise Me!