For Salinger–with Love and Squalor

I was 13 when I dug out a battered burgundy paperback from a musty box in my parents’ garage. The mustard-yellow type on the cover read “THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.” I dove in. Although prep schools, disillusionment, and 1950s-era New York City were all topics that surpassed my 13-year-old rural understanding, the prose itself knocked me out.

Salinger’s style was rhythmic and conversational, profane and lyrical; he used italics the way composers used dynamic markings. When I wanted to deliver a stinging barb, I took to quoting Holden Caulfield to the offending party: “You’re a goddam prince, Ackley kid.” Nobody ever got it, but it always made me feel better.

Come to think of it, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE was my introduction to New York City. When I first moved to New York, “vomity smelling” cabs and Central Park felt familiar to me; after all, I’d seen them through Holden Caulfield’s eyes first. And when I played my first gig at the Rainbow Room, all I could think of were the dopey girls (“They were drinking Tom Collinses–in the middle of December, for God’s sake.”) who danced with Holden to the corny sounds of the Buddy Singer band. The band I was singing with was pretty corny, too, if you want to know the truth.

I was 16 when I read FRANNY AND ZOOEY for the first time. A well-intentioned guidance counselor had just cautioned me against pursuing a career in music. She’d been a star in her high school, too, she told me, but a professional singing career required more than just a love of applause. I’d do better, she intoned, finding a stable career and keeping singing as a hobby.

Now, I knew she was full of it. I knew that my need to sing was rooted in something far deeper than a love of applause. I also knew that I’d never–ever–be satisfied with singing as a hobby, for Chrissake. But it was Zooey Glass, my all-time favorite character in American literature (hell, in all literature), who articulated and confirmed what I’d been suspecting:

J.D. Salinger

“…half the nastiness in the world is stirred up by people who aren’t using their true egos…Scratch an incompetent schoolteacher–or, for that matter, college professor–and half the time you find a displaced first-class auto mechanic or a goddam stonemason…Nobody who’s really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for any goddam hobbies.”

These days, as a hobby-less singer, I still turn to Salinger and his beloved Glass family for inspiration. When I don’t feel like performing, when I am incensed over yet another person who doesn’t know the difference between a “cover” and a “standard,” when I read that Rod Stewart’s latest butchering of the Great American Songbook has gone double platinum, I think of Seymour Glass somberly telling his brother Zooey to shine his shoes “for the Fat Lady.” In the last few pages of FRANNY AND ZOOEY, Salinger makes a singularly beautiful, compelling case for creativity and, above all, connection:

“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s…Somewhere along the line–in one damn incarnation or another, if you like–you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings…The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act.

…I don’t care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, in can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine. But I’ll tell you a terrible secret–Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady…Don’t you know that goddam 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.”

J.D. Salinger, thank you for everything, but most of all, thank you for the Fat Lady.

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2 thoughts on “For Salinger–with Love and Squalor

  1. I am sad to say that I have never read a single J.D. Salinger book. After reading this post, I am bumping “Frankie and Zooey” to the top of my “to-read” list. Thanks for sharing your experiences with his books.

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