Thursday, January 28, 2010

If You Really Want to Hear About It….

….J. D. Salinger is dead, and that makes me a little bit sad. I know he was about a million years old, and a difficult man, but I’m still sad. The Catcher in the Rye is one of my favorite books of all time. It was the first novel that made me see that literature could speak to me on a level other than pure entertainment.

Before discovering Salinger, I’d always liked reading stories, but I don’t think I understood until then that a book could be expected to have something to say about the human condition. The realization that I, as a girl growing up in small-town New Hampshire, might be thinking some of the same thoughts as a boy wandering the streets of McCarthy-era New York City, was mind-blowing.

If that seems like a banal thing to cause a mental meltdown, please note that I was only about 11 or 12 at the time. I also ask you to remember what it’s like to be that age—just old enough to start to suspect that people are not always as they seem, but young enough to believe that you might be the only person who has figured this out. Think how much you might have appreciated having a streetwise older brother figure to assure you that you’re not imagining it; that people really can be phony sometimes.

I’ve re-read The Catcher in the Rye several times over the years, and I take a little something different from it every time—which is not surprising considering that I was Holden’s little sister’s age the first time I read the book, and now I’m old enough to be his mother. At the age of 12, I thought Holden was a very cool, wordly guy. Later, I realized that he’s kind of a brat. Eventually, I began to understand that he’s very troubled, and maybe even a little insane.

The thing I keep coming back to every time, no matter how I’m currently feeling about the protagonist, is gratitude to Salinger for having been the one to show me how literature is supposed to work. I’m also grateful to him for having created the remarkable character of Holden Caulfield. Though Holden, like Salinger himself, was not always completely likable, he is memorable.

The news that the author of The Catcher in the Rye has died makes me sad because in a way J. D. Salinger’s death is also Holden Caulfield’s death. Though no one really expected a sequel after all these years, now all hope of ever seeing Holden again is completely extinguished. It’s always sad to lose someone who was important to you when you were young, even if they were troubled, and even if your feelings about them have changed over time.

Rest in peace, you goddam madman genius.

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