Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Perfect Day for Salinger

Today's news of the death of J.D. Salinger will no doubt bring many tributes to Holden Caufield's creator, who famously hasn't published a word since the New Yorker printed the mammoth, "Hapworth 16, 1924," a letter from the ridiculously precocious seven-year-old Seymour Glass. Since that June 19, 1965 issue, not a word. Salinger's sole printed output is one novel, one short story collection, and two collections of four novellas.

Obituaries will dwell on Salinger's most enduring work, "The Catcher In the Rye," the story of Holden Caufield's extended escape to New York City. I came to Salinger, and "Catcher" late. Instead of discovering the teenage protagonist in my adolescence, I was a 26-year-old on the eve of my wedding. Why so late? Those of you who remember the eighties will recall the almost mystical stigma that briefly hovered over "Catcher" after John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, and then Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley, were arrested with copies of the book, Chapman going so far as to read passages in court as he was sentenced. There was something about the book, in it's simple scarlet cover, it seemed, that drove people nuts.

By the time I finally got around to reading it, I was fully aware that it wasn't some voodoo novel with the power to unhinge, but the imaginings of a frustrated teenager on the borders of adulthood, enjoying the first flush of freedom. At times, he enjoys himself. At others, he seems disturbed that there isn't more to it. He has the reaction of a child - a child who opens a gift on Christmas Day, only to find it's a pair of socks.

But my deeper connection has been with Salinger's Glass family stories, the most famous of which are "Franny" and "Zooey," collected together when finally published in book form. In the Glass family characters, Salinger fixates on the lingering ghost of Seymour, who killed himself in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Seymour appears as a golden child - indeed, all the Glass children, of course, were stars of a radio program called "It's a Wise Child." Seymour is an almost messianic persona who grows into an awkward adult, his wedding the source of anxiety in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." For example, Seymour is remembered as having said "that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next." By the end of his published output, Salinger strayed far from conventional narrative fiction and created characters capable of long, philosophical digressions and investigations, with only the individual character tics there to urge the reader onward. Stories occasionally take on a mystical Christian property, especially "Franny" and "Zooey," which both deal with the concept of the Jesus Prayer.

"When you don't see Jesus for exactly what he was, you miss the whole point of the Jesus Prayer. If you don't understand Jesus, you can't understand his prayer — you don't get the prayer at all, you just get some kind of organized cant. Jesus was a supreme adept, by God, on a terribly important mission."

Salinger's understanding of Christianity is unmistakably Eastern, with its emphasis on the meditative aspects of faith as a path to secret, inner knowledge. This almost Buddhist conception makes his characters seem distant, even as they are teenagers and young adults trying to impress with profanity and borrowed erudition. What we know of Salinger's private life points to him as a searcher - someone who experimented with Christian Science and Dianetics, among many other things. But his use of religion in his stories seems to copy the kind of consciousness with which teens approach the supernatural - intrigued by the possibility of forbidden or unspoken knowledge, attracted by the idea of wisdom, and a simultaneous wish to cast off dead ritual and take up intriguing practices.

But in the Glass stories, we get a picture of Christ which has had lingering effect, both good and bad, in popular culture. We get a slightly aloof, all-knowing Christ who is the greatest adept in the world, capable of overflowing love but seemingly detached from our knowing Him. We pursue, but we are not guaranteed of overtaking him. We wrestle not with an angel, but with the shadow of a certainty.

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