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Few people forget what they were doing or at what point in their life they first read J.D. Salinger. It's something like the literary version of the Kennedy assassination or the O.J. verdict or.uh, just go ahead and insert your unrelated and inappropriate pop culture reference here. If you happened to come across The Catcher in the Rye or Nine Stories or Franny and Zooey as a teen, his work probably came across as a revelation, reinforcing your adolescent beliefs that no one understands you, that you see the world through a different set of eyes than your peers, that the awkward rites of passage that you're trying so hard to pretend you don't care about really don't matter because you're not like these fools. As my boy Holden would say, they were all "phonies", anyway.

Either that, or maybe you were a pretty well-adjusted kid who beat up kids who felt like this.

As for myself, I fell somewhere in between. Like most, I first bumped into Salinger in high school, but my discovery was more the result of an accident than of the school's curriculum. While I loved books and plowed through anything I could get my hands on, I didn't know anyone who read or had the slightest inclination to ever do so. Basically, I had no idea about what was out there (yes, this was before the day of the Google search), but knew that there had to be something, post-Hardy Boys mystery, that I liked. Time and again, I'd wander the shelves of my school library with little success in finding anything that stirred any interest. I knew that I was looking for something with a little kick, something that talked my talk, something that would save me from having to read The Sun Also Rises or The Hobbit for the sixth time -- but exactly what I didn't know. I figured that some of that guy Hemmingway's stuff was good, but his other stuff left me cold. I went through a Jack London phase, but he was a bit too robust for me much of the time. Then, on a shelf in the back of Mr. Getman's math class, I stumbled on this little, ripped up burgundy colored book called The Catcher in the Rye. Just like Jerry Maguire had his girl with "hello", Salinger had me with "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like." It took a few more words for Salinger than it did for Maguire, sure, but I can be a pretty hard sell. Mostly, I liked the cut of this Holden kid's jib - he was a smart ass, a punk who saw through the pretensions of the world with a clear-eyed sneer, a kid who wanted to rebel, but against what he wasn't exactly sure. In short, he was a kid just like me. Who knew they let people like me write books!

After ripping through Catcher that night at home, I soon made my way through 9 Stories, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Franny and Zooey. The last title I didn't like so much, but since this guy had exactly what my 15 year-old persecution complex was looking for, when I was done I went back and read 'em all again.

When I finished them all again, though, I was stuck. As I had surely just read the be all and end all of world literature, what else could I possibly read? I looked back to Nine Stories for a clue, and there on the copyright page, good old J.D. saved me again. The acknowledgements mentioned that some of the stories were first published in something called The New Yorker, so having nothing else to do, I checked the periodical section of the library for this exotic-sounding weekly - and lo and behold, here I am years later with a worthless liberal arts degree under my belt, poor eyesight, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Thanks, Mr. Salinger!

This sad and rather typical tale is repeated time and again (with the occasional gender variation) in With Love and Squalor, a new book edited by Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller featuring 14 contemporary writers commenting on the works of the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger. The book comes as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the publication of Catcher in the Rye, and although Salinger hasn't published a word of fiction since 1965, his silence still manages to loom large over American letters like a line of imposing rain clouds that refuses to break (or, the sound of one hand clapping?). Thankfully, unlike the accounts of Salinger's life published in recent years by his bitter and rather confused daughter (love and kisses, daddy!) and former lover and serial bore Joyce Maynard, this book concentrates on the writing rather than digging up the stories of Salinger's strange eating habits and fondness for teenage girls. Though there are a few references to the odder revelations of Salinger's life, (his alleged urine-drinking comes up only twice) they're made in an offhand way and are meant more in fun than as gossipy items intended for the publics morbid consumption.

Billed as "fourteen of the most vital voices in the contemporary American fiction scene pulling no punches." (whoa, there, some copywriter needs to lay off the Power bars), the book is a fun read, adding a bit of personal biography to the volume of literary Salingerian criticism. The most engaging pieces are those in which the writers rely more on personal experiences rather than literary analysis, and a few of the pieces come complete with a little self promotion, as writers mention how their own work (complete with quotes from their novels) was influenced by Salinger. Minor stuff, and pretty harmless overall, though, I assure you.

Amy Sohn, in her piece "Franny and Amy" delivers one of the more entertaining pieces of the collection as she manages to weave the narrative of "Franny and Zooey" into the story of a bad couple of dates in New York City, while Charles D'Ambrosio wins the "Buzz Kill Award" of the collection for framing his essay around the suicide of one of his brothers and the attempted suicide of another brother years later. I guess every day is a perfect day for bananafish.

There is much in this collection that I could point to as great, lively, writing - but some of the best comes in four pieces in particular: Thomas Beller's "The Salinger Weather", Thomas McNally's "The Boy That Created the Disturbance" (which features one of the funnier flatulence stories I've read) , "An Unexamined Life" by Benjamin Anastas, and "The Peppy Girls of Friendswood, Texas" by Rene Steinke, whose title could easily be the title to a Salinger story itself.

McNally makes some novel observations in his piece concerning 'minor characters', both in Salingers fiction as well as in our own lives, pointing out how Salinger manages to express quite a bit about a character by describing some minute characteristic; while Beller treats the "weather" of a Salinger story and how we are affected by a writers worldview long after we finish reading their work. Beller nails what is so magical about the best literature here, and opens up the way a book like Catcher can seem like it was written specifically for you while doing the same thing for people completely unlike yourself all over the world. "Sometimes' Beller says, 'there is something about a writer's voice and worldview that has a clarifying effect on your own self-perception." Sound familiar, anyone? Anyone? Thought so, and that's the essence of Salinger, right there.

Exactly what Beller describes is what Salinger does best. He is far from being a technically brilliant writer spinning complex plots and exposing great truths; rather, like a guy who throws a nasty curveball, he works in more subtle ways, painting the outside of the plate and getting you to chase the ball. Maybe his dropping out of sight is the best thing that he could have done for our appreciation of his work, and why we continue to chase him out of the strike zone in search of more.

-- Paul McLeary

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| December 2001 | Issue 21
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