30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.
4. JD SALINGER
One of the very few photos of JD Salinger
I love the works of JD Salinger. He is best known for writing The Catcher In the Rye, but also a series of short stories, many of which used the same characters. He died earlier this year, prompting me to revisit his work. It hasn’t lost any of it’s power on me.
I can’t remember her name.
But I can remember what happened. Clearly, like it was yesterday.
It was in the last years of high school, and I attended an all-boy’s school. But, thanks to lack of funding in the public school system, the music class for our school was merged with the music class from the local all-girl’s school.
It was cancelled entirely in my year (I mean, schools cancelling music. No wonder I’m such a left winger)…but the year below me was the first to take this new merged class. And Tristan, the bass player in our first band, was in that class. So thanks to rock ‘n’ roll, we got to visit the girl’s school.
O, that weird place known as the girl’s school! Such wonders. Such promise. Such mystery. We would exit those gates, watched by other jealous boys. And be greeted by suspicious looks of other girls, wondering what we were doing there.
Girls with guitars are so sexy, and there was one really excellent band from the girl’s school. They played late 90s radio rock – Hole, Blur etc. They’d play at, you know, school fetes and stuff. As would our band. But, we never really hung out with them. Thanks to Trist, there was another bunch of girls we hung out with. But those girls – they were the BAND.
Being in a band in a school in Nowhere, Sydney wasn’t actually very cool. And it didn’t help break down the gender boundary. Seeing a girl from the BAND at the train platform – they would be surrounded by their friends anyway. Even though we shared this bond of both playing in bands, I was not making it easier to go up to them and chat.
So one afternoon, I was visiting mum at her work, which was close to school. I got distracted and so it was about 5pm that I finally got to that train platform, to head home. The platform that is usually full of teenagers in uniforms mucking about – that exact thing that I can’t stand now.
Of course at 5pm, there was no one there. Regular life had set it, and those trains that are full of students had well and truly passed. In fact, the platform was pretty much abandoned, except for one girl.
The singer from the BAND.
It was the one and only time we ever spoke, alone. She was cute as a button and, of course, I had a massive crush on her. She was the singer and guitar player – just like me. I always figured we’d get along. In my mind, there was no one cooler than us two. Maybe if we got together, we’d be like the Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann of our schools. That was the thought anyway.
She was reading a book when I got there – The Catcher In the Rye.
I’m not sure if we have ever been properly introduced but we knew who eachother were. And we talked; we talked about mutual friends. Some guitar stuff (like reaching those troublesome 14th and over frets). And we talked about Catcher In the Rye.
My clearest memory is saying how I thought it was such a boy’s book. It’s about a teenage boy, and all those silly boy-feelings of being a teenager. I asked her what she got out of it, and she said it was good to see how boys think.
By all this, our train had come and we reached my stop. I said goodbye, and saw eachother around, but we never really spoke again. I have no idea what happened to that girl. She was smart, confident, musical and cute. I still remember her, and I remember what she said about The Catcher In the Rye.
And I can’t even remember her name.
The Catcher In the Rye was given to us to read in high school. It takes the honour of being the only book I ever finished in high school. And English was my best subject.
So how did I get through school without finishing a book? It was easy. And once I figured out the trick, I never looked back.
You see, they don’t TEST you on the ending. They test you on the themes, the characters, etc. And any book worth studying, well the characters make themselves known at the start and the middle. As for what happens at the end – the teacher will always tell you about it in class. Or someone else will.
Take Great Expectations. I still don’t like that book, and I’ve never finished it. But I know about the rich vs. poor thing, how Ms Haversham’s wedding dress is a symbol, blah blah blah. Pull out a few quotes, that were probably discussed in class anyway, and you are off.
And Great Expectations sux in the exact way that The Catcher In the Rye doesn’t. It isn’t obvious. The author isn’t trying to say “look at how smart I am”.
I was pretty hooked from the beginning and finished the thing easily. So it was kind of crap that the mark for my Catcher essay was worse than my Great Expectations one.
Guess you can’t explain love.
One last story about Catcher from my teenage years. There was another girl – a girl I deliberately wont name. I knew her from around.
It was a different sort of crush. And she was a very different sort of girl. She was my age but she wasn’t in school. Problems in her family meant she was living with some guy. But she slept around, did drugs, and got through life a day at a time.
She loved music though. She loved Oasis. She loved Supergrass. And like all girls that age, she loved Ash. She dreamt of moving to London, as most music fans did in 1997. And I was that music guy in her life. I would make her tapes, lend her NMEs and Q mags, and we would listen to records and smoke. Sometimes, we would kiss, but it was mainly me trying, and her forgetting to not let me.
It occurred to me, even then, that her dreams were so unrealistic. I wanted to probably draw comic books or play in a band – and I had plans on how to do both. Impossible plans, but plans none the less. But her – she just sat there, in this guy’s apartment, occasionally having sex with him, smoking her years away.
I thought she was beautiful. I can still see her face. I can still see it as it was sad, and then I’d tell her something like I have the new Blur single in my bag, and her whole face would smile. Not just her mouth, but her face – eyes lit up, eyebrows stretched high. Maybe those smile muscles had been waiting for a reason to come to life for a while.
My copy of The Catcher In the Rye at this time was stolen from the local library. It was a nice old, almost pocket sized hardcover. Battered to bits. Light blue cover with only writing on the spine. It looked so cool I had to have it.
She had never read a proper fiction book, and I guess I was raving about it. I figured it was the perfect book for a beautiful, broken teenager. So that copy of Catcher I had, I lent it to her. I’d ask her if she’d read it every time we saw eachother, but she never did.
She disappeared sometimes for weeks on end, but she vanished altogether shortly after that. What mutual friends we had never saw her again either. I was too scared to go to her place on my own, and by the time I thought I should, months had passed. I figured she’d moved on to a new life, and to leave her too it.
She took that copy of The Catcher In the Rye with her, and I wonder where it is. Is it in a police lock up somewhere? Or a bin? Or did she finally meet some guy, one who took her to London?
Maybe she read it on the plane there, and loved every word.
So I haven’t even talked about Salinger yet – but girls is one of the many things I love about JD Salinger. He wrote some of the best female characters.
There is kind of a stock female character that Salinger writes about, and it’s the pollyanna. The bright, sunshiney, curious gal. And so many of his stories are about what happens when someone who hates life meets someone who loves it.
In ‘For Esme, In Love And Squalor’, it’s a young soldier who meets a girl, before he goes into war. He promises to write to her. Then, in the second part, he writes to her, after having been through the most terrible experience in his life. The contrast between the two shows us what war has done to this young man.
But there is also women as a destructive force. It’s most powerful in the “The Laughing Man”. The Laughing Man is a fictional some superhero type, and his story is being told to some kids by Chief, the head of this boy scouts kind of thing. The boys love the story, and they love Chief. Chief meets a woman and the stories get more exciting. Chief’s girl comes and meets the boys – but one day she isn’t there. Laughing Man’s adventures dwindle, and Chief…Chief is never the same again.
That’s just two of many stories he wrote. And these amazing stories and characters I still know by heart.
I wish they would finally publish all his short stories properly.
The reason they don’t is because Salinger – the man – was a recluse. Most biographies conjecture that he was also a racist, a health freak, a Mormon and god knows what else. We don’t know what’s true and what’s lies – but we do know that shortly after The Catcher In the Rye came out, his first and only novel, he moved his family out of New York and was barely seen or heard from again.
He did make himself known in the control over his work. He had strict rules for everything – from book jackets to people wanting write books about him. A lot of the work he had done for journals like New Yorker, have never been collected.
I found all this out and did some hunting around. I discovered the wonderful Bananafish website. And all those unreleased or under-published works were all online anyway. I printed out several hundred pages on A4 and started to make my way through this hidden stuff. I got a nice folder for it and I still have these print outs.
It’s a bit like hearing a band’s demos actually.
He’s probably the most famous recluse in the world – up to his death earlier this year. There is something about recluses that fascinates me, and adds to my Salinger fandom. There are almost no photos of him. In this world of over information, a mystery is so seductive.
But now that he’s dead, I figure the flood will come. All the stuff that was around but trapped from before Catcher, to almost 50 years of writing since. I’m excited but scared at the same time. I hope it’s good.
So what does The Catcher In the Rye mean to me?
If I ever fell in love with language, it was here. Holden’s voice was so engaging – “all that David Copperfield crap”, “phonies”, “swear to god” etc. It wasn’t a story being told AT you. It was a kid telling you his story, and sounding like he doesn’t want to be there at all.
It’s the doom and gloom too. Holden feels trapped. He sees the worse in everything, but people around him are actually awful. The teacher who tells him he has to conform. The prostitutes, the phoney jazz musician, and people clapping at all the wrong times.
It helped define how I saw the world. How I treated people. Made me realise that adults can be idiots and to look out for that. And if people can be idiots, then maybe I’m not wrong about the world, and screw everyone else. I’ll be me then, not them.
But the most important lesson for me is the one that Mr Antolini tells Holden. To write things down. Because someday someone might find it, and it might help them. Part of the reason this bit of writing exists is because of that advice.
Although my fandom has died down, it still simmers lightly all the time. I bought yet another copy of Nine Stories when in France (because “For Esme” is set in France). I am always delighted to meet someone named Zooey because it’s likely from Franny And Zooey. My first stop in New York was Central Park – I wanted to see where the ducks go.
I made Karen see Finding Forrester, a kind of terrible film but was a homage to Salinger. She hated it. (Next time, on her choice, we saw Jurassic Park 3). Karen’s favourite Old 97’s song was Roller-Skate Skinny – a term that comes from Catcher.
I finally found a nice edition – a hardcover reprint with a replica of the original dust jacket – a few years back. When I saw it, I knew it was the way I wanted to own that book. Problem solved.
I’m still excited to meet people who love his work. And I still meet people who I think could be helped by reading Catcher. I haven’t read it in years but maybe it’s time again.
If you’ve never read one of those ‘classic’ novels, this is the place to start. If you have and don’t know anything else, I recommend Nine Stories. You’ll love it. I swear to god.