Friday, January 29, 2010
Let's just bury Salinger, not praise him
During his life, Garbo-like author J.D. Salinger wished to be left alone and I was more than happy to oblige him. I tried to stop thinking about him in high school shortly after they made me read “Catcher in the Rye.”
The perennial favorite of homicidal malcontents and high school English teachers everywhere, the book did nothing for me.
I like books that feature protagonists with whom I feel like I could sit down and enjoy an afternoon of convivial drinking and perhaps a fragrant cigar or two. Guys like Capt. Augustus McCrae and Jake Spoon from “Lonesome Dove” or John Joseph Yossarian from “Catch-22.”
When I say I’ve spent many hours with guys like Holden Caulfield you might think I was once a licensed psychiatrist. Not true.
It’s just that, thanks to Salinger, disaffected Caulfields are everywhere.
Ian Fleming gave us a dynamic indelible character with a license to kill.
Salinger’s greatest contribution was an irritating character with a license to mope.
Certainly, there are many worthy reasons to go through life in a constant bitch. Living ain’t for sissies.
But there was no reason for Salinger to be like that and that’s my beef with the author who went through life as our national literary blister. His spent his post-Rye days shooing away interviewers, prospective publishers and hounding lawyers to sue anyone who dared reference his work.
You can write a book about a moody and depressing anti-hero, but when it succeeds beyond your wildest dreams you had better dare not become one.
One of my favorite interviews of all time was with hack crime writer Mickey Spillane, with whom I had the pleasure of engaging in a minor correspondence after I did a story about him that revealed a surprising side to the guy who created cold-blooded dick Mike Hammer.
And shame on you if you snickered at my usage of the word “dick.” In Spillane’s day it was a perfectly respectable reference to a man who practiced the detective trade. It wasn’t until later that it became a pejorative reference to the male sex organ and a subject for another day.
I found out that Spillane was a door-knocking Jehovah’s Witness. It’s true. From his home in lovely Pawley’s Island, S.C., the thrice-married brother would go door-to-door and preach the gospel of a religion that one of these days I just might give a try.
I loved the thought that this world famous author, a star from a series of hilarious Miller Lite beer commercials in the 1970s, would show up and politely ask strangers if they had a moment or two to discuss their eternal salvation.
Was it odd, I asked him, that he’d made a fortune selling more than 225 million books based on a ruthless character who killed without remorse while in private life he preached a loving and kind religion.
“Not at all,” Spillane told me. “Too many writers mistake a trade for an art. I tell stories. Sure, they are stories about sex, murder and deception, but there’s lots of stories like that in the Holy Bible, too.”
Like Hemingway, Twain and Steinbeck, our greatest American authors, Spillane engaged life with gusto. When he died in 2006, not a single story referred to him as “reclusive,” the adjective most used to describe Salinger.
Well, now his reclusiveness is complete.
I think our greatest writers inspire us to live. Not write. When I read Twain, I don’t feel like sitting all by myself and making up stories. I feel like going out and laughing with family and friends. I feel like enjoying the gift of life.
Salinger inspired lots of people, too. He inspired people to believe that giving into the grim burdens we all experience was a mantle to wear with petulant pride.
The papers are full of stories today about how Salinger soured and wrecked relationships throughout his life and will be buried in the next day or so in a grave that will long go unmoistened by tears of those that knew him best.
Many stories will mention that when John David Chapman killed John Lennon in 1981 he was asked, man, why did you do it?
“Catcher in the Rye,” was all he said.
So if he’s one of your literary heroes, I hope you enjoyed him for the artistry of his work and not because you relate to his miserable characters or because of the author’s misanthropic example.
You can enjoy the book, but the guy was just a cold-blooded dick.
And I mean that one in the most modern usage.