I think it would sound cliche to say that the literary world lost an amazing writer this week, but the cliche would make the fact nonetheless true. J.D. Salinger passed away this week at the age of 91 after decades of living as a recluse in my wife’s home town of Cornish, New Hampshire.
I, like many, knew almost nothing of Salinger’s work after Catcher in the Rye. Recently, though, I became exposed to him through the recommendation of a friend and an accident involving chocolate. Several months ago, a friend was giving me critique on a short story I was in the process of finishing. He recommended a story with which I was unfamiliar: A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which was part of a collection called Nine Stories. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, and, being interested only in that specific story, found a copy of the collection and sat down to read the story over a cup of coffee, with the intention of re-shelving the book after. My cost-saving grad student ways hadn’t completely left me.
The description that my friend had given Bananafish as being the “perfect short story” resonated with me as I marveled at the precision with which the story was written. The body language of the woman described in detail, the squirmy, uncomfortable feeling in the dialogue between the protagonist and the child on the beach, the weighty symbolism of the mythical Bananafish, the abrupt suicide at the end that was described eloquently and without gratuitous violence, leaving me stunned and staring at the last sentence. Something I was glad to have read.
A few days later, I returned to Barnes & Noble and took the book from the shelf again to read the next story, curious to experience more of Salinger’s prose. This time I accidentally stained a page with chocolate from my drink, and decided that the only ethical thing to do was purchase the book instead of re-shelving it. I’m so glad that I did so, because stories such as The Laughing Man, to which I discovered a fascinating connection to some anime I enjoyed, left me digging for the message behind the metaphor (ironically, something Salinger would likely have not wanted). Others, such as the simultaneously abrasive and poignant For Esme–with Love and Squalor, left me with profound sorrow and adoration. The underlying theme of the loss of humanity in war is difficult to miss in Salinger’s work. I’ve since read all of his published collections of the “Glass Family fiction,” save one difficult-to-find short story that I’m hoping to lay hands on soon. Watching Salinger’s search for faith through the course of these works was riveting, although his faculties appeared to be loosening a bit by Seymour: An Introduction. Sadly, I don’t think he found the faith for which he was searching by the time these works were finished.
Salinger’s rhythm and cadence stay in your ear long after you’ve read him, and his characters, not to mention his New York, linger like an aftertaste with all their implications to ponder. I hope there were more manuscripts, as has been rumored, and that those will find their way to publication now. I’m in even more hope that, in reading them if and when they do see daylight, I will discover that Salinger found his way to the faith he desired.