A preliminary question: If you went out and found a really good sculptor, sat him down and said, “Make me a Salinger,” where would he begin the chiseling?
I don’t think he would start with the nose, though it’s a nose of Mt. Rushmore proportions. He’d skip the thick, dark eyebrows and the slicked-back hair; if he knew what he was doing, he’d disregard the face entirely. We’ve seen that face a good many times this week, between the smug black-and-white snapshot that graced almost every obituary and the four color photographs the New Yorker came up with (most of which show J.D. playing with somebody’s son—as if to sweep the man’s misanthropy under a sun-dappled Kodachrome rug.) These pictures are enough to convince me: Salinger belongs to that category of people whose faces resemble their inner life in no way.
A discerning artist, a real Rodin, would give up any hope of straight-up representation. What’s left? A full alphabet, in expressive italics, is one idea, but if anyone wants to build a monument anytime soon, I’d vote for one humble set of parentheses, unaccompanied by any inscription.
Because Jerome David Salinger was, first and foremost, an artist of the aside. Of the delicate, superfluous description, the obiter dictum, the insouciant sideways phrase. It is in no way incidental that he spent his last four decades in rural hermitage, publishing nothing: that is to say, living—for an author—in the most immaculately parenthetic way.
A brief parenthesis, if you will. I hope you will pardon, at this point, an entirely autobiographical intrusion.
I have had, I believe, a charmed relationship with the work of J.D. Salinger. The eighth-grade English teacher at the smallish boys school in Manhattan where I wasted a good part of my childhood was a man of impeccable taste, at least in one thirteen-year-old’s eyes.
He told us he’d once quoted Catullus, in the Latin, as a dive bar pickup line. He’d wept the day that Beckett died.
When it came time to introduce us to Salinger, Mr. Hauser skipped over Catcher in the Rye and put Nine Stories in our hands.
And so my acquaintance with the author did not begin with the outdated, overrated, fairly irritating creature known as Holden Caulfield (whom most of us are gypped into meeting long before his infinitely better-sculpted cousins), but with a man called Seymour Glass, who in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” “walk[s], talk[s], [goes] for a dip in the ocean, and fire[s] a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph,” to quote a synopsis that the author wrote much later. It remains one of the most striking, enigmatic stories I’ve ever laid eyes on; I can close my eyes, cue it up, and watch it as easily as any of my most lucid memories.
A word about death. Rilke has a theory that our deaths grow within us, that—like pregnant women—we carry them daily right up to the very point of dying. Let’s consider one death in particular: not the 91-year-old death of J.D. Salinger, which grew to ripe completion and fell gently from the tree, but Seymour’s suicide at 31, a death that Salinger himself reached up and plucked while it was still sour and green.
Simply put, it isn’t common that an author kills off his best character within fifteen pages of that character’s creation. Although Seymour Glass haunts almost every story that comes after him (the Glass family, beginning with “Bananafish,” slowly became Salinger’s sole fictional obsession—at least four of the Nine Stories mention them, in addition to four novella-length works), he never again appears in the flesh: the subject of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters is Seymour’s wedding day, but the groom remains absent—he has a sort of manic crackup, declares himself “too happy” for the ceremony, and fails to show up.
We can think of Seymour as a sacrifice: Salinger’s oeuvre grew around his suicide, the way a pearl takes shape around some irritant—a grain of sand, say—in the mouth of an oyster.
The author found it necessary, in the end, to place his favorite creation in parentheses, put him in an urn. Or it could be the other way around: perhaps “Bananafish” was the one straightforward statement and everything else—all those stories of mourning—parenthetic annotations on the suicide. Salinger, at the beginning of Seymour: an Introduction, confirms it in a way: “I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I’m afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of early-blooming parentheses (((())))”
One last digression. Forgive me, please.
The year after I first read Salinger was an interesting one. I went away to prep school in New Hampshire and dropped out promptly; I started name-checking Holden in casual conversation, came back to Manhattan and eventually—through a suite of minor delinquencies, psychiatric acrobatics, and so on—ended up at what, in polite language, you could term a Reform School.
What does this have to do with Salinger? The school occupied an old mansion in the Berkshire Hills. The place was styled after a castle and rose up on granite ramparts from a marsh. It had three stacked terraces; on the highest of these, someone had built a plain wood one-room extension. Since it wasn’t part of the original building, you could open your bedroom window and look out into it; it was neither inside nor outside. We really had no use for it, so somebody had named it God’s room—and we left it to Him.
And it was, in some odd way, a spiritual realm. The ceiling paint was peeling, and the walls were marbled with mold. The sunlight always came in dusty, and you had the feeling of being in a superfluous and therefore sacred place.
In the last week, we’ve heard two main critiques of Salinger. First, that he was in some way wrong to withdraw from the world. Second, that in the years after Catcher in the Rye, as he became more and more absorbed in the Glass family, a rift had grown between his writing and the world; that he fell inappropriately into fantasy.
I don’t see it that way. I think he chose to live in God’s room, and that he had every right to live there.
It is strange to mourn a man who, for all intents and purposes, disappeared forty years before his bodily death, difficult to find the fitting sentiment. But who knows if he would have wanted us to mourn him? He might even resent the attention, from his perch in a different sort of God’s room.
According to his agent and all other knowledgeable authorities, there has been and will be no service. In lieu of flowers, please send one (1) bouquet of wilting, late-plucked parentheses to somewhere in Cornish, NH. That is all.