Writings & Contributions

Becoming Zooey Glass: A Note About Salinger Worship

There’s a following.  Often it gets tacked with the unattractive obsessive descriptor, but this following is myriad, too difficult to pin down as merely cultish.  I’m speaking about Jerome David Salinger and the multitudes that adore him.  Author of The Catcher in the Rye and the Nine Stories collection, the late Salinger is infamous for being the Great Recluse.  Shortly after publishing a few long-form short stories, that were steeped, if not to say, swirling with Eastern Religious Mysticism, Salinger retreated to Cornish, New Hampshire and promptly withdrew from the sort of celebrity that many an American writer would kill for.

I am one of those followers who sought for Salinger’s fantastic output of writing to never cease.  And in light of the recent biopic of J.D. Salinger, I thought that now was the time to share my latest travails as a Salinger fan.  I am one more non-celebrity voicing my perspective about Salinger and how much his writing has affected me.  Still affects me, in fact.  Mr. Shane Salerno’s documentary and its celebrity-heavy confessions briskly woke me to the fact that my story is not 100% unique.  Yet, my deep fascination with J.D. Salinger’s writing is a testament to how far a net he cast and just the sort of geography of personalities and professions he ensnared.

What follows is a rumination I’ve mentally cataloged and now, publicly entitled, “Becoming Zooey Glass.”  It is a snapshot, a vivid and loquacious one at that, of how interwoven Salinger is in my life.

*

I’m waiting on a text.  This past summer, my girlfriend and I made tentative plans to go with her family to their house on Cape Cod for a weekend.  A minor crisis seizes me—I may not be in these plans any longer.  A certain imperious weight, local to the family and centered in that terrific house, makes the decision of whether to bring me, the boyfriend, a delicate matter.  At any rate, I do not even know if the house is terrific.  I’ve never seen a picture of the place, but all reviews, offered on the part of each member of my girlfriend’s not-small family, rave terrific.

Textless, I think of someone who passed away recently.  Who unbeknownst to him, held a much imperious and local emotional wharf of his own for me.  Despite my patience, it is overly, unnecessarily warm, and the heat seems to weigh discouragingly on my chest.  But the room, the general area of my household, one could presume, has another density about it as well.  One that has much less to do with the weather, in fact: The various pressures of being a devout J.D. Salinger reader.  In my bedroom, still textless, I am reading Franny and Zooey for the eleventh time through.

My copy of Franny and Zooey as you can imagine, is a little worse for wear. It is, for all intents and purposes, my little pea-green clothbound book.  Except that my version is in white paperback. But I’ve unlearnt the differences. Small too, is my book, illustrated in simple black title cards and branding information.  On the upper left-hand corner is a rainbow band that expands across the front cover and spine, reminiscent of old time Christmas wrappings or medium-priced boxes of chocolate. I am speaking of the 1991 Little Brown edition (based on a model published a half-century earlier) of course.

A year of some consequence, I was born in the middle to late, just left of stage-center one could say, of 1991. My copy of Franny and Zooey is not merely frayed at the corners, but is in fact, smarting some. Worn down from years of lens grinding, to speak elliptically here, the cover is worn, creased and stained brown from what I presume is coffee. Years spent traveling in pants, coat, hip, and backpack pockets, have given the book an all-around weary, tired, and well-used appearance.  One that verges on carelessness, I may add.  Not that I always know what I’m doing when I’ve the book in my hands.

 

With almost full and deliberate speed, I’ll act clandestine about my prepossession with the rapturously intelligent and cool Zooey Glass, afraid of being caught acting out.  For, to be regarded as a Salinger-devotee and to be under twenty-five is to make a pact with hipsterism. Among the hipster class, one’s credibility lies in denial or, at the least, irony with one’s self. Afraid of being the hipster, any heartfelt allegiances I made to Franny and Zooey would be interpreted by my peers as something nominal and damning.

For instance, the facts are such that I often lean heavily on partially italicized words, to intone and inflect as Zooey (and the Glass family at large) does. Charles McGrath admirably unpacks the “musical notation” form the italicized words take in his obituary for Salinger in the New York Times.  The partial italicization, the bugbear of many a grammarian, is musical over and against the ambiguous linguistic sameness full or partial italicization technically conveys. McGrath quotes some kind words John Updike saved for Salinger when he wasn’t busy sardonically batting away at the Glass stories, “Mr. Updike said he admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.”

Yet, for years I knew little about the world of scholars, academics, and fans of “Zooey.”   The various crowds that shared favorite sections, or those who took the text apart, precious line by precious line, scouring it for the transcendent, or even those who despised it, such as Alfred Kazin, were just not on my radar.  It took me years to find both Kazin’s and McGrath’s essays.   Admittedly, they were brought to my attention by the flurry of press following Salinger’s passing.  In fact, for such a fascinated, such a drawn-in follower of Zooey, I lacked much in the way of any good, full-hearted criticism of the Author or “Franny” or “Zooey” as short stories themselves.  For years I thought that having the book and my thoughts and feelings about it were enough.  I was not what you would call a thorough student of Salinger, merely a captivated individual.

**

Yet, my induction was over after I first read Franny and Zooey, and I began to carry the book with me everywhere. It is probably my greatest crutch however, that this was around the time when I saw my first Wes Anderson movie as well.  After that, the hipster-ness of my obsession hit a new and resounding height.

In Wes, I saw how informed a person and his life’s work could be of Salinger’s influence. It almost seemed unfair. Not only does my piety pale in comparison to Wes’, but I only aim aspire to be Zooey Glass where he emblazons.  By way of analogy, I am a 50 cent Bantam paperback simulacrum of Zooey and Wes is a leather bound tome fringed with gold leaf; the uttermost replicant.  Let Wes take the win.  I loved his devotion to bringing Salinger-esque motifs to the big screen.  For, I now not only had the scripture and hymns in Franny and Zooey, but now in Wes’ movies, I had the churches to visit, the idols to stare at.

I won’t say I was the best, certainly not.  In fact, this is the first I’ve sat down and hashed out the truth and told anyone about the matter, O’glorious and silent readers.  I have been absent from the forums, the websites with the caches of Salinger’s unpublished and out-of-print works, as well as unversed in the learned criticism and praises.  But perhaps, because I still hold fast to that initial feeling of joy and inspiration that knocked me breathless during those early high-school years, I still have some credibility to speak with about my time with the text and characters.  Insofar as unrequited fandom goes, as one who attempted to apply himself to Zen Buddhism à la Teddy, Buddy, and Zooey, I cannot seemingly shake off some of Salinger’s tendencies, his truant portents, if you will.

***

It was Franny and Zooey that I read first and not The Catcher in the Rye.  While I was aware of Catcher—what American teenager hasn’t heard of it?—flush with youthful self-importance, I sought an alternative to the litany of high-school assigned reading. The rest of Salinger’s neatly-bound corpus, Nine Stories and Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction, came later.  Maybe after the second reading of “Zooey” I want to say.

Incidentally, it was through that “pretty skimpy-looking book” as Salinger writes in the dedication to Franny and Zooey, that I was first introduced to The New Yorker magazine as well.  Cinematically speaking, this is where the rest of my life began.  I bought, read, and accumulated all the allusions and asides I could grasp that were somehow, no, that must be related to the full meaning of the text. I devoted myself to unpacking those two stories.  With the intent, for what it’s worth, of becoming Zooey.  Even upon the eleventh reading of the text, I am still finding out things about Zooey, née Buddy, née Glass, all Jerry Salinger.  One does tend to get lost between commas, as it were, in this text rife with its encyclopedic wisdom-dropping.

 

There are books mentioned in “Zooey” such as Kilvert’s Diary which I now own, but whose spines I have yet to crack.  Pieces of cardboard scribbled up and down on in increments of nearly illegible recanting—in cursive of all things—are tucked away somewhere with other unobtrusively collected and picked up items related to Franny and Zooey—very much resembling a shrine.  Said shrine is existent in the former bedroom I occupied as a boy, and is absolutely indistinguishable to the uninitiated from a cluttered, overburdened room full of books and sporting equipment. Perhaps it is serendipity, but my shrine sine qua non to Salinger, is short one ornament.

Neglected, and not the least bit dust or dirt free, a baseball mitt engraved with a particularly arresting Salinger quote (Zooey’s sister Boo Boo, whose comparison of Bessie’s face of when she’s just got off the phone with one of her sons, to that of a well-informed hygienist’s know-how about bowel movements), is resting on a makeshift softball diamond at Hamilton College.  Suffocating the trim and collegiate grass with its literary hide, no doubt.  But, it appears as if I am beginning to mix up my idols now.

As it happens, serendipity is sometimes in the shape of collegial-tinged sentimentality.  Hamilton College, my alma matter, and for the tranquility of the lie, is Salinger’s as well.  That is, according to Blair Fuller’s wonderfully poignant essay, “An Evening with J.D. Salinger”, the Great Recluse exclaimed no less an affinity to “A little college in upstate New York. A college you’ve probably never heard of,” then to cry out the word phony! full of hot air: Hamilton. “After another short silence Salinger said, “Hamilton. Does it make a difference to you, knowing that the name of the college is Hamilton?”

Despite his fury, Salinger never attended Hamilton College.  I did.  I believe the college has become less coarse and largely void of absolute drips, as he would have loathed, in the more than half-century since Salinger would have been an attendee.  And I certainly loved that formative time more than the balled-up years in and out of the academe than he did.  At the very least, we could’ve probably compared the scars we found ourselves nicked by, after years of turning pages and the soft pressures of ballpoint pens. For scars, like those on the hands of the eldest Glass child, Seymour, was the subject of Salinger’s fascination.

As cautious as I am of the spurious superlative, I am however, hyper-aware of how much of myself is informed by Salinger, but especially by Zooey.  I can trace most of my actions, words, blunders, and misconceptions to have the trappings of the Salinger-esque. Pretentions or no, manifold are the many ways I have taken stock in his writing.

For instance, in the course of the tale, Zooey himself is seized by anger and ego, at the thought of leaving New York. As I waited for my text, my ticket to the world outside the city, I found myself not merely biding my time, or metaphorically biting my nails, but attempting to massage my frustration at knowing that New York will exist without me.

“But I’d hate like hell to leave New York.” Zooey begins to quip at the whole damned-machine.  “If you must know, I hate any kind of so-called creative type who gets on any kind of ship.  I don’t give a goddam what his reasons are.  I was born here.  I went to school here.  I’ve been run over here—twice, and on the same damn street.”  My exact sentiments, I used to believe.  At least now, for me, they’ve transmuted alongside myself.  I no longer find myself flirting with New York in the same heavy-handed furrowed brow way Zooey did.  I may be in love with the feeling of the worlds outside the environs of New York.  My life is drawn from elsewhere now. Yet, at my most saturnine I crave an anti-Steinbergian view, with nothing but New York in my sights.

****

That this road, the eleventh time over, if you think about it that way, has lead me to write about myself and the rhythmical legacy of Franny and Zooey on my life, is exactly the point of this essay.  High praise I can do while cooking basil and shrimp over vermicelli.  Acknowledging the differences, deep and ponderable, between Zooey and I takes the concerted and the best of curbed enthusiasm.

Reading the book again, I was elated—back in familiar and warm territory.  But for much the same reasons, I was also embarrassed.  I wondered whether I should be considering more serious, or at least, new texts.  The world is changing, becoming freer, and the parapets that encased Salinger’s Manhattan, which once made it magical and singular, have long been trampled underfoot or discarded carelessly by some or another multitude in the parade of life.  My Constitutional Law book grumbles, broadly turning red from anger, nearby somewhere.

Nevertheless, I persevered, tapered my aims into neat islands of sunshine—yes, I am versed in all the ulterior dance moves, the interior choreography, of Franny and Zooey.  The half-turns, censorious gazes, glances at ash trays, the flat of a hand posed against something after a Grecian fashion, are effortless for me to recall.  Over the years of re-reading the text I became jealous and guarded; I like the book that much.  While Salinger did not employ any angels or self-conscious attempts to prophesize in the text in the pliable manner of Hollywood or Broadway, he does have the cast and crew come over to us beloved readers (in my case, Zooey).   And, in my impression, they approach us repeatedly to hand us a few personal-sized lessons, quick and fine, on How to Live.  It is not difficult to imagine then, that after reading the book which is not unlike so much hand-shaking and gallery-walking, that the result is a peering into ourselves through a darker and more complex glass.

*****

The text arrived.  My weekend plans being what they are, I will be on that awe-inspired coast soon.  The infamous “skimpy-looking book” at my side, I thought of what Janet Malcolm wrote in her essay “Justice to J.D. Salinger”, where she guarded Salinger’s credibility, his resounding inventiveness, to at the very least, the short story form.  But the point which made the deepest impression, the one underlying concerted pull of her essay, was what I found to be more than true.  The distinctive force of her essay spoke to thoughts floating in my mind, which although ripe, were unable to manifest themselves in speech or in text of my own:

The preternatural vividness of Salinger’s characters, our feeling that we have already met them, that they are portraits directly drawn from New York life, is an illusion…In Salinger’s fiction we never really quite know where we are even as we constantly bump up against familiar landmarks.

After reading the criticism, after the eleventh reading of Franny and Zooey, I knew that the essay I am attempting to draw to a close, in the hopes that it snaps shut, was much different than the one I intended.  That this piece would shift in shape and form another whole than the desired one, reassured me that Malcolm and Zooey are correct.

“We’re freaks, the two of us, Franny and I,” Zooey announces to his shopworn mother, Bessie. Some cigarettes later, he humorously replies in response to the demand that he get married:

Relaxing his stance, Zooey took a folded linen handkerchief from his hip pocket, flipped it open, then used it to blow his nose once, twice, three times. He put away the handkerchief, saying, “I like to ride in trains too much. You never get to sit next to the window any more when you’re married.”

“That’s no reason!”

“It’s a perfect reason. Go away, Bessie. Leave me in peace in here. Why don’t you go for nice elevator ride? You’re going to burn your fingers, incidentally, if you don’t put out that goddam cigarette.”

 

Zooey is a recursive character. Notably, in his speech and elocutions.  For long stretches of time, I thought I was the same.  But I know the differences, the necessity of originality, now.  Largely speaking, that is the lesson I learned the eleventh time around.

At the beginning of this work, which wove around my mind and thoughts about the character and author least likely to spare detail for brevity, I dreaded that I was to be excluded from the weekend at the Cape with my girlfriend and her family.  Here, nearly at the end, tranquility snuck onto the scene like an escaped draft of frigid air from an ice cream cooler.

I began to lilt into a drowsiness that shed itself of all the thoughts of books and beaches.  The feeling had something to do with a new and personal message, bright and glowing, emanating from my cellphone.  That, and then, drifting out of the summer’s heat and into resolute sleep.

*

Works Cited

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