In my twenties I fell for one of my lovers over our mutual lust for J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, of which we would read snippets to each other on our long distance phone calls. Salinger’s characters seemed to inhabit a world I was deeply attracted to; one in which intelligent, stylish people saw through each other and quipped cleverly about that transparency, oftentimes prompted to do dramatic things when making points about the bullshit of it all. Salinger’s likewise propensity to turn children into the intelligent observers in a setting while equally hanging on to their in-bred, adolescent precocity was also charming to me as I, too, ached for a world in which we could return to the playground’s diplomatic playing field where grown up pretensions and the faux need for false airs found little room. And of course, two decades before I was born, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye injected a universal dose of communal apathy into a skeptical generation.
Salinger was always a little crusty for me, and by that I mean the kind of man, a little standoffish, who I always understood and respected, yet had a hard time warming up to. I preferred the flamboyancy of Tennessee Williams and his southern belles; the sharp sensuality of Philip Roth talking about shiksa women; the intellectualist soul of Gore Vidal and of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald with his various shrewd and hyper meticulous seductions. Salinger was a lot like jazz; hard to understand sometimes but priceless when he’d send a groove along to hit you right pop in the middle of your synapses.
Recently I was compelled to see the documentary Salinger not because I maintain a deep relationship with his books, which honestly had sort of dropped to the wayside in my early thirties as I sought out contemporary literature in less formalized tones but because I was intrigued by the myths that had become attached to the author due to his stepping out of polite society to focus on whatever the hell it was he wanted to for the remainder of his life—something that was entirely not mine or anyone else’s business. I had heard the rumors about his reclusiveness as well as the accusations of pedophiliac leanings towards young girls. I was hoping to work out both of those issues in my own mind in order to comfortably continue to love the art that had birthed within the man, the vessel being just as important to me as the outpouring. For example, I hold a deep lust for Francis Bacon’s paintings even though he was a sadomasochistic lover to his partner because theirs was a two way street of dysfunction—adult, consensual neurosis being fair game in my book and the idea of Bacon’s frenzy an understandable motivation that my artist heart could relate to as it hurts no one other than the person perpetrating the act and the willing participant in the fire. So was Salinger doing anything sexual with these girls and hurting anyone, and/or even himself by his lifestyle?
What I surmised from the film was that neither of these accusations about Salinger were necessarily true but built up and over exaggerated by a juvenile and sensationalist society, which tends toward pigeonholing people just because they don’t have the desire to play well with others or refuse to show up to the drink the Kool-Aid at the cool kids’ party.
Salinger may have been reclusive to the New York publishing world, the tabloid journalist world, the entertainment industry and to mass media but according to the residents in the town in which he lived, he was not a loner but a person who frequently engaged in the community through his presence at yearly events and intimate friendliness at the local post office and grocery store. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to participate in his own circle of life; it was that he didn’t want to participate in the circle of life the mainstream gawkers wished to watch him primp and preen within.
As for the accusations about the young girls, it was apparently true that Salinger liked to engage with females on the brink of their bloom who were intelligent and witty without the accentuation of a fully realized sensual self, which was something that evidently terrified him. We come to find out that this was largely is due to his own emotional retardation brought on by the tragic effects of his experience with earlier relationships that had soured on him with girls who had become women during the course of their bond; his time spent in war; and the general way he viewed the world—as a place that was innocent when you were a child and then suddenly maliciously turned upon you. This was a great theme in his work too, so it is no surprise that it became a source of an unrealized maturation in his own life. That he never got past it was clear in his choice of female companions, of whom a few in the movie describe their time with him as old fashioned and chaste rather than a circumstance with an older, perverse lecher. So this trait of his seems more pathetically benign than something malignant in his life’s motivation. The only mistake he perhaps made was trying to fool himself that he needed to make attempts at partnership with a post-teenage woman because this is when the women would become hurt, during those inevitable moments when he would have to turn bluntly mean, face his true nature and walk away.
In the end though, he stopped pretending, which was a courageous choice to make. How many of us artists and writers seek the solitude of an empty room or the kind of commitment of a life lived in meditative practice each day giving ourselves over to nothing but a pure stream of our art? How many of us can so easily eschew the pseudo-ego boosts of social media, the faux fame of the literary and art worlds, and the whirls of parties and engagements once we see our work come to fruition and finally lead us to the fulfillment of our dreams? How many of us start merely wanting to tell stories to the world but instead become part of the story of that world which consumes us and that we have had a hand in creating rather than staying true to that pure vein that ignited our creative spark in the first place?
J.D. came to this planet, self admittedly, to do one thing: write. And he did it until the day he died. He put in those 10,000 hours it takes to be an expert at something. He had his priorities straight even if it was a tad bit late after he had left some human shrapnel in his wake. He knew the stories of the families that burned inside him and he lived his life to get them out with a perfectionist’s pen and an extreme devotion to his craft. And when he died, his work had been done and he planned its eventual final entrance into the world. How many of us will be able to say the same thing in the end?
Essay Written by Kimberly Nichols
Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is a Los-Angeles based artist, writer, healer and social anthropologist. She is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, as well as a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine where her column Naked in Front of Strangers runs regularly. She has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California over the past two decades. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She is currently at work on her novel King Neptune’s Journey. Her spare time is spent studying shamanism, plant medicine, and energetic psychology under a series of respected teachers. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.