One of the literary greats died this week. I first read J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as a freshman at Louisiana Tech, not as a requirement, but because I saw that it was on a list of most influential books of the century and figured I needed to read it. And so, I went to the school bookstore, bought the little red paperback and brought it back to my dorm room, wrote my name inside the cover, and placed it atop my nightstand (pink milk crates stuffed with books and cds). I didn't know what the novel was about. In those days I read many novels for the sole purpose of becoming a better writer myself. Reading was an important task, not just a leisure activity.
The following Saturday I would read Catcher. It would take me into the better part of the afternoon, which was fine because I didn't have much going on that weekend. My roommates were gone, I put cds on the 5-disc changer and set to reading, immersed in the world of Holden Caulfield. I'd never read Salinger, but found him immediately familiar. It was the first time while reading that I had noticed the influences of the writers who had influenced me. To my 19 year-old mind, this was a real discovery.
My writing philosophy is no different from anyone else — there is nothing new under the sun. There are new ways to tell a story, of course, there are new stories, but basically there is nothing really new-new. Shakespeare laid the groundwork for any romantic comedy you've ever read or seen on screen. You want drama? I give you Shakespeare, Dickens, and Papa Hemingway (is there anything more heartbreaking than "Hills Like White Elephants"? Oh my God. Note to self: blog about that short story). You want some mothereffing cerebral Southern-style Greek tragedy? I give you my boy William Faulkner. My point is, it's all been done and it's been done well.
And Salinger was one of the originals.
Salinger's style was similar to my own style of fiction then, which was greatly influenced by Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, as well as Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar. It was the oddest thing to read a classic that seemed almost as fresh as my favorites written in the previous decade as well as reminding me of stuff I had written. Talk about bizarre.
She was blocking up the whole goddam traffic in the aisle. You could tell she liked to block up a lot of traffic. This waiter was waiting for her to move out of the way, but she didn’t even notice him. It was funny. You could tell the waiter didn’t like her much, you could tell even the Navy guy didn’t like her much, even though he was dating her. And I didn’t like her much. Nobody did. You had to feel sort of sorry for her, in a way.
Salinger's narration was nothing less than brilliant, "you had to feel sort of sorry for her, in a way," — he wasn't just giving you the story, he was telling you how to feel about it. Don't think that isn't important. This was new. I had been exposed to it with Less Than Zero, but Salinger did it first. He was original.
It was also the culture of youth that made The Catcher in the Rye stand out, as was LTZ and the other novels I mentioned. What makes writing about youth culture particularly different is the place it brings the reader. What I mean is this: we've all experienced our youth, we remember parts of it fondly, some parts more fondly then others, some parts were sheer torture. What makes that genre different from other genres is that I will never be an Elizabethan aristocrat or an ex-patriot writer in the Parisian '20s or a bullfighter's girlfriend in Spain. But I was an insecure teenager once. I struggled with self-doubt. I spent a lot of time in my head trying to figure out just who I was, just like some of the characters in the novels I know so well. We have Salinger to thank for that literary genre. I'm thankful for that, and for the influence he had on me and the writers in the generation before me.
Thank you, Mr. Salinger for your words.