I doubt that anything I could write could add much to the many words spilled out since J.D. Salinger died last week (this Wall Street Journal article was good, as was this Washington Post piece about a failed book deal with Salinger; and Slate has a number of excellent pieces). But Salinger was my first literary idol, so while his death was unsurprising (I had his birthdate memorized so noticed on January 1 that he was getting pretty old), it still hit me hard.
I read The Catcher in the Rye first when I was 13ish, and thought it was fine, though I believe I was disappointed because it wasn’t “dirtier.” Then I read it again in high school and was, of course, knocked out. In the years after, I became insufferable.
“I think everyone should read The Catcher in the Rye at least once a year,” I would declare. (Guess I’m still insufferable as I hear myself saying the same thing now about The Great Gatsby.)
“I couldn’t date anyone if he didn’t absolutely love The Catcher in the Rye.” (I think I picked up this philosophy from one of the characters in Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, but it seemed smart to me.) So, I forced Salinger onto several boys, all of whom claimed to “absolutely love” the book. Phonies!
I grew up—a bit—and, ironically, while the man I married did read Salinger for me, he didn’t absolutely love it (he may have called Holden self-absorbed—!!), but I loved him anyway, and that was probably the beginning of my (finally) growing up.
But quite a bit before that, one summer, I maintained a deep flirtation with one of the boys who worked at the movie theatres I was filling in at; he was an usher, and I sold popcorn, and back then, there was only one movie playing at a time so while the movie played, there was a lot of time for talk and teasing. He wasn’t anyone I thought I could ever be serious about—he was in a fraternity, which both intrigued and disgusted me—and he wasn’t especially ambitious or intellectual. He didn’t read much. But he was cute, and, as I said, there was a lot of time to talk.
I had brought in my paperback of The Catcher in the Rye to read one slow afternoon, and after some inciting incident or another, it turned out that the other usher scribbled all over the pages. I was not blameless in this in incident—it involved language like “you wouldn’t dare” as a pencil hovered over a page, “okay, I dare you”—but I was still angry that my book had been defaced.
The next day, my boy brought me a brand new copy of the book (the edition with the reddish cover and the yellow typeface on front and back). I thanked him profusely, and then he said, “Look inside.” And there, on the title page, where an author actually would sign a book, he had written in surprisingly polished handwriting: “To Leslie, H. Caulfield.” Yes, he even got the comma!
I still have this book.
In the end, I guess I’m just as “self-absorbed” as Holden, as this anecdote has little to do with Salinger and more to do with me…and yet, without Holden, without Franny and Zooey and Teddy and Esme and all those crazy Glasses and the dusty copies of The New Yorker that I paged through and all the “S” sections of used book stores I searched, vainly hoping for an overlooked first edition—and that Iowa boy who saw me, truly, briefly, perfectly—without all that, I’m not entirely sure who I would have become.
“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”