Help me! I’m in a mood. I’ve got the J.D. Salinger blues.
I may as well start at the beginning.
Twice a week I walk by the Revolutionary Bookstore on 26th street between 6th and 7th avenues. The store has an inviting outdoor table of used books. Inside, the sales people are soft-voiced, as though in a funeral parlor or on a movie set. They always try to steer me to books about communism. One day I am dismayed to see a handsome clean-cut graduate student type pull a bulky hardcover book about violent revolution off the shelf. (I hope it was research for school.)
I agree there needs to be some sort of revolution (mine would be peaceful) in this country. Sick homeless people sleep on our sidewalks while billionaires pollute with private jets. But I do get it when Bill Maher asks, “When are we going to start killing bankers?”
Alas, in the Revolutionary Bookstore, I’m turned off by posters and campaign buttons on the walls, featuring a venerated leader and his megalomaniacal pronouncements.
Nonetheless, I’ve discovered that this only-in-Manhattan store sells really inexpensive, superb secondhand fiction.
My first find at Revolutionary Books is a $5.00 immaculate if used copy of the novel Catcher In The Rye (published in 1951). This first-person soliloquy of teenage sorrows, written by the late J.D.Salinger, was my big favorite in junior high school.
I try to pace myself re-reading this book from my childhood, but it grabs me by the throat and won’t let go. I finish it at 4AM.
It turns out I’m just a piece of a trend: people buy 250,000 copies annually of this classic.
Oy, what a sad sad book. Its author Jerry David Salinger was so sensitive and reclusive that acquaintances say it was as if he had no skin on his body. He was obviously an imperfect choice to interrogate enemy soldiers during World War II. He wound up in the bin.
In the novel, teenager Holden Caulfield’s father is a prosperous businessman whose wife is a different religion. In real life, Salinger’s father was a rich Jewish cheese manufacturer, his mother Scotch-Irish. Pencey Prep, one of many bleak sites of Holden’s self-destructive experiences, is probably based on Salinger’s student days at Valley Forge Military Academy.
How could I have missed when reading Catcher In The Rye as a kid that Holden Caulfield was in a fatal downward spiral because of the recent death of his beloved and nearly perfect brother. This is perhaps part of the reason why Holden obsesses on the suicide of a classmate who jumps out a window while being tortured in unspeakable ways by Holden’s dorm mates.
Again, book lover beware: this is no children’s book. Its amazing prose reeks of loss and impending disaster that seeps into your soul. I’m thnking young people screen out the horror, they have so little experience of death. I recalled only that Holden Caulfield saw a lot of people as phonies, and that he was a rich Manhattan teenager.
Probably exactly like Jerry Salinger had been.
A day later I return to the Revolutionary Bookstore determined to find a cheerful book that will banish the residue of gloom and doom from Catcher in the Rye.
I pay $1.00 for a funny mystery novel by Susan Isaacs called After All These Years. That night I ignore TV and Google as I read the witty best-selling book about spunky Rosie Myers, a schoolteacher and mother. Her filthy rich husband leaves her for a younger woman the morning after he throws their over-the-top (read vulgar) 25th anniversary party.
One night a grieving Rosie goes to the kitchen of their lonely mansion for an ice cream fix. In the dark she trips over her husband, dead on the floor with a carving knife in his chest.
Rosie, the prime murder suspect, ducks arrest and goes underground to find the real killer. She discovers good sex, icky facts about her husband’s secret jet-set life, and seeks the help of old friends, one of whom she should’ve married.
Of course the novel is fun. But it doesn’t help my mood. Desperate, I buy her latest book, As Husbands Go, about another witty woman whose “perfect,” rich husband, this time a Park Avenue plastic surgeon, is murdered in a hooker’s apartment.
But I am still absolutely haunted by Catcher in the Rye. I guess that’s why it’s art.
Honestly, I almost wish I hadn’t re-read it with the wisdom of adulthood. I’m not good at catharsis. I welcome any and all suggestions about how I can lift the Jerry Salinger curse. I want to forget Holden Caulfield’s futile search for meaning and peace of mind.
It cuts too close to the bone.