S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 April 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Stained-glass Window

 

[]

So Franny comes home after her

collapse, trying to sort the

whole thing out; she's

desperately confused about both

her spirituality and her acting

career. She ends up talking on

the phone with her brother

Zooey. Many years ago, Zooey

tells her, by way of therapeutic

intervention, he was on his way

to appear on a radio show. But

before he could make it out the

door, his sainted older brother,

Seymour, made him stop to polish

his shoes. Zooey was furious:

"The studio audience were all

morons, the announcer was a

moron, the sponsors were morons,

and I just damn well wasn't

going to shine my shoes for

them." But his brother makes him

do it anyway - for the unnamed,

otherwise undescribed Fat Lady.

And now he knows who the Fat

Lady is, and the fact of her

identity solves both of Franny's

problems: "There isn't anyone

out there who isn't Seymour's

Fat Lady," he tells his sister.

"Don't you know that? Don't you

know that goddamn secret yet?

And don't you know - listen to

me, now - don't you know who

that Fat Lady really is? Ah,

buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ

himself. Christ himself, buddy."

 

You have to wonder why Charles

Ruff didn't think of this, but

never mind.

 

Today, of course, the Fat Lady -

Christ or no - can pretty much

just go fuck herself: Since

1965, the writer who brought

this encompassingly human

consumer of media product into

being, one Jerome David

Salinger, has drawn his precious

self in like a vampire fleeing

the dawn. No books - and, aside

from threats to litigate, no

public pronouncements - have

dribbled out of the writer's

well-fenced house in remote New

Hampshire for more than 30

years. Salinger's unrelenting

withdrawal from quotidian

existence brings to mind Dorothy

Parker's inability to actually

start a conversation with James

Joyce, despite several near-

encounters. "Guess he's afraid

he'll drop a pearl," she finally

muttered.

 

[]

Except that Salinger is

apparently afraid of dropping an

entire necklace. Recent reports

suggest somewhat breathlessly

that the relentless recluse has

authored 15 original novels

since ducking behind a shield of

"no trespassing" signs; a

neighbor claims that Salinger

stores his precious output in a

sturdy safe, not far from his

typewriter. None of the

purported novels appear to have

seen the blight of pay; if a

publishing house has reviewed

the manuscripts, some discreet

Manhattanite ought to be working

as a White House plumber.

 

The rest of the world,

meanwhile, keeps talking. At

least one person who should be

in a position to know insists

that he's pretty sure what the

unpublished books are actually

about, and here's where the

story goes sour: Assuming

bravely that the experts have it

exactly right, J. D. Salinger

has churned out more than a

dozen different meditations on

... the cloyingly precious Glass

children, seven bourgeois

bodhisattvas who show up on the

printed page, like rejected

protagonists from the first

draft of a Whit Stillman

screenplay about life in an

ashram run by Susan Sarandon's

favorite self-help author as a

boot camp for latent haiku

geniuses who hate the internal

combustion engine. (Chris

Eigeman will play the skeptical

visitor, who tries to sell them

telephone service.)

 

The curious thing about a safe

crammed with fecund-rate Glass

family stories is that Salinger

was supposed to have withdrawn

in order to create some sort of

closely marshaled, towering

accomplishment - a transcendent

something that a writer could

spend an entire lifetime

building, one diligent word at a

time. This, at least, was an

idea suggested by Salinger

himself.

[]

In a 1947 short novel -

published in its entirety in the

December issue of Cosmopolitan

to much reader protest -

Salinger described a doomed,

dark-tempered poet named Raymond

Ford. Ford, as the title of the

work reiterates, lives primarily

in The Inverted Forest of his

imagination; the excellent

Salinger biographer Ian Hamilton

describes Ford as the writer's

first "literary martyr." The

fictional poet has written just

one book - winning every major

poetry prize and universal

critical adulation - and it may

very well be the most

extraordinary thing ever slapped

between two covers. It even

threatens to bust beyond the

normal rules of physics and take

off into the firmament: "All the

while she was getting dressed,"

Salinger tremulously told

readers, "she felt Ray Ford's

poems standing upright all over

the room. She even kept an eye

on them in her dressing-room

mirror, lest they escape into

their natural, vertical ascent."

 

So pure it floats, apparently.

 

In another short novel/long

story, Seymour, an Introduction,

the title character is a

dear-departed suicide, a dead

poet whose nearly breathing

words rest, protected, in the

hands of one of his surviving

brothers. One of the 184 short

poems, the brother tells us, is

"as heartening a paean to living

as I've ever read." And he may

just allow someone to publish it

one day, he adds.

 

So then, of course, the highest

task for a writer is to craft

some heartening, ascendant

poetry, a single stunning volume

that says everything final. Neat

art-imitating-life detail:

Raymond Ford marries an actual

woman but runs away to cavort

with a callow, silly girl. The

poet explains himself to his

forsaken wife: He is, in short,

just, like, too deep to be really

present in ordinary human

relationships. But the girl -

who is, no kidding, named Bunny

- isn't smart enough to keep him

from descending into that

inverted forest. "She lets him

be a child," Hamilton

extrapolates. "That is to say,

she makes no attempt to

penetrate or appropriate his

mystery." She just waits, goes

the punchline no one could have

foreseen, to write a shitty

memoir about her year in his

house. It turns out Raymond Ford

sticks his finger down his

throat whenever he eats ice

cream.

 

[]

But here's the kind-of-sad,

kind-of-funny punchline:

Salinger repeatedly describes

the most incredible fucking

poetry ever written by any human

being ever ... but he never

places any of it on the page. In

Seymour, Salinger helpfully

explains - writing in the first

person, as Seymour's brother

Buddy - that he's conveniently

been "forbidden by the poet's

widow, who legally owns them, to

quote any portion of them here."

And (aside from two turgid

verses) Ray Ford's poetry

presumably can't be quoted

because of its natural tendency

to fly around and stuff.

Salinger is an avid literary

pornographer who turns strangely

silent when its time to actually

get naked - a sure sign of

someone who can't perform in the

sack.

 

But the notion of Very Pure

Poetry isn't the only shimmering

ideal that Salinger projects,

searchlightlike, into the dark

night sky of insensitive

humanity. And more important, it

isn't the only projected ideal

that he can't quite live up to.

There appears, throughout

Salinger's writing, the notion

of a love-drenched caring for

humanity as the highest kind of

art. His most famous protagonist

yearns to be a "catcher in the

rye," standing cliff-side in a

field of grain to stop children

from hurtling over the side,

which sounds like a really bad

government job of some kind.

Seymour Glass - who preaches love

for the archetypal Fat Lady,

writes the most heartening paean

to living ever, and eventually

puts a bullet through his head -

is "a ringding enlightened man,

a God-knower," who selflessly

withholds his poetic essence

from public view because he

doesn't believe it sufficiently

reflects his honest gratitude

for things like "our eight-

cylinder American cars" and the

US Army; he's afraid he's

created something snotty, poems

that wouldn't stir the wonderful

and deserving local librarian.

(Probably not: On the afternoon

of his suicide, Seymour writes a

heartfelt, deeply kind haiku in

Japanese on the desk blotter in

his hotel room.)

 

"And I'm reminded too that once,

when we were boys, Seymour waked

me from a sound sleep, much

excited, yellow pajamas flashing

in the dark," Buddy explains.

"He had what my brother Walt

used to call his Eureka look,

and he wanted to tell me that he

finally thought he knew why

Christ had said to call no man

fool." (Because no man wouldn't

roll over and go back to sleep

if their brothers woke them up

for that?)

 

Not that Salinger himself has

ever been Christ-like about

calling men fools. In his

fiction, Salinger constantly

sneered at targets like "the

Beat and the Sloppy and the

Petulant." His list of Approved

Human Types was obviously pretty

short. Reviewing Franny and

Zooey in 1962 for Partisan

Review, Leslie Fiedler put it

just about perfectly: "(H)is

protagonists travel a road

bounded on one end by school and

on the other by home. They have

families and teachers rather

than lovers or friends, and

their crises are likely to be

defined in terms of whether or

not to go back for the second

semester to Vassar or Princeton,

to Dana Hall or St. Marks. Their

angst is improbably cued by such

questions as: 'Does my date for

the Harvard weekend really

understand what poetry is?'" No

one undergoing a crisis in any

story by J. D. Salinger need ever

have missed a bath on the way to

his or her suffering; no one who

has missed a bath need ever have felt

welcome to appear. The crises of

Salinger's fiction are the

crises of people who are better

than people like you.

 

Or as Salinger puts it in The

Catcher in the Rye: "Anyway, I

keep picturing all these little

kids playing some game in this

big field of rye and all.

Thousands of little kids, and

nobody's around - nobody big, I

mean - except me." Thousands of

people around, and nobody big

but me.

 

[]

And Salinger's life, back when

he was still participating in

it, mirrored the contempt that

showed up in his fiction; the

writer was hell on nearly every

editor, publisher, critic,

colleague, and friend he ever

encountered. Hamilton carefully

recounts more than a few

episodes of the Enlightened

One's sneering contempt for

Lesser Beings who - like

Franny's kicked-in-the-pants

boyfriend - Didn't Understand

Poetry. At what became the end

of Salinger's career - or at

least the start of a long

intermission - his

well-documented disgust for the

literary equivalents of the

studio audience, the announcer,

and the sponsors (morons, all)

led him to abandon his

obligations to the Fat Lady. But

he doesn't seem to have thought

his own notion all the way

through: Isn't everyone the Fat

Lady?

 

And so there's a distinct

internal contradiction running

through the Delphic leavings of

the public J. D. Salinger, a

peculiar irony that doesn't seem

to be inconsistent with the

crabbed and ingrown course the

man's own life has taken since

1965: If J. D. Salinger's safe

really is crammed with

unpublished manuscripts, we'll

expect the eventual publication

of one strangely cold book after

another, describing the utter

superiority of the compassionate

soul.

 

At least it'll be fiction.

 
courtesy of Ambrose Beers
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 





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