Thursday, January 28, 2010


Anyway I could try to express my feelings about the death of J.D. Salinger at the age of 91 is bound to come off as self-conscious, some lame, half-hearted attempt to recreate the voice of his famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield. And cliched, too: Of course The Cather In The Rye had a profound impact on me, as a writer and as a human being. Is there a white male with literary aspirations who escaped its influence?

No, there's not, because Salinger influenced everybody. Catcher may be the most famous item in his slim output, but Nine Stories is the one to study to appreciate Salinger's greatness. He pretty much single-handedly made the short story a great art form unto itself. Yeah, yeah, there had been great short story authors before him, but that's just it: they wrote, you know, stories, with a clearly-defined beginning, middle and end. Salinger's stories were a whole other thing, sometimes just extended scenes or character studies or back-and-forth dialogs. He could set down in a few pages what novelists ordinarily spent whole forests trying to convey. Whole generations of authors, from John Cheever to Raymond Carver to Lorrie Moore, would in Salinger's wake largely eschew the heavy literary lifting of book writing to glimpse their character's lives in passing, in shorter form that convey characterization and isolated incident, not laborious plots.

Of course, with their recurring tales of the Family Glass, all of Salinger's short fiction essentially loops into a longer format, an insanely detailed study of one willfully eccentric family. Some critics have complained that Salinger's talents never quite bloomed, that his entire reputation rests on one short novel and a handful of stories. But that one novel is so iconic, and those stories are so good, it hardly matters what he was writing in all those decades since he withdrew from public life.

The Catcher In The Rye will echo in the work of every author who writes a semi-autobiographical first novel, and his other works will continue to serve as inspiration to so many. (Not just in the literary world--what are the protagonists of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums if not the Glasses under different names?) Including here; you think I arrived at my literary persona and stylistic tics by accident? Every self-conscious digression and heavy-handed parenthetical aside you encounter here would never have happened if my mother hadn't given me two Salinger books for Christmas in 1979. I didn't ask for them; she just knew.

And after reading them, so did I.