the dirty pretties
J.D. Salinger was a strange, looming figure in my life before I recognized his many-varied significances in American literary culture. My grandfather John was the first to claim his genius, one afternoon in the living room where I eventually grew up. He had a leather recliner, which smelled vaguely of tobacco, and was the same shade of brown. His feet half-up, the slanted afternoon sun casting his side of the room in a slight shadow, I wanted to know why his book had no pictures, and could we please read How the Grinch Stole Christmas now?
And he told me that sometimes grown-ups read chapter books, which were far superior to picture books because you could make the pictures in your mind. I believed everything he said, so I then asked him what was happening in his book. He was reading Franny & Zooey.
He told me that Franny was feeling very sad, and described her state in a way that made me picture her as a ghost, as though she’d left the world for despair. I was afraid of feeling like Franny, and wondered why someone would write a story about such a sad girl. (I don’t know how old I was when this memory takes place. Best guess is 4-5, because John died when I was 6, and I had moved on from the Grinch to the New Kids on the Block by first grade.) By 6th grade, I bought Tails because it had a WBRU screamer of the week single (Do You Sleep?) and a Salinger reference in the band’s name. I was working on the “big geek” thing early, clearly. Despite having never read a word of his writing, ghostly Franny (who had morphed into a Courtney Love-esque character, how wrong was I?!) still came to me from time to time.
So, my real introduction to Salinger came in Ms. Weston’s last period English class, in 9th grade. And then, I met Holden Caulfield. His cynicism, sarcasm, and anxiety mirrored my own, just as it did most people in the class. After that, I dug out Bup’s first-edition (!!!) Franny and Zooey, sans paper jacket, unfortunately. Franny made more sense to me in 1999; 9 Stories followed, and I pieced together bit by bit the Glasses and the Caulfields and the grand loveliness of their imperfections. Some of those stories influenced me politically before I fully understood the real-life implications within them. At 15, you’re invincible and impenetrable–the heroes of Salinger’s writing were anything but those things, and thus infinitely less egoist. As an egoist teenager, it is impossible to bond with characters whose defining characteristics are reflective of perceived flaws within. Holden had flaws and embraced them rather than capitulating to some peevish, conservative neck-vein. My inner badass rejoiced, while my outer badass dyed my hair purple.
So, when it showed up in my google reader during lunch last week that Salinger passed, the sense of surreality ran strong around me. Yeah, he hadn’t published in 40 years, but who cares? I immediately turned to my favorite poem of all time, Billy Collins’ Marginalia:
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil–
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
So, that’s it, really. I’m sad. But I have a first edition Franny to console me.