Thursday, January 28, 2010

sonny

In high school, I had something of an obsession with J.D. Salinger, because...well, who didn't? We all went through this, didn't we? From writing short stories painfully derivative of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" to fantasizing how we would soothe Holden Caulfield's angst-filled soul if only he would deign to let us (and if he were, you know, non-fictional), we've all been there. Those slim, plain covered paperbacks reinforced with packing tape where the covers were fraying, they're as worn and familiar to me as my memories of adolescence itself.

As I got older, in college, I went a little further with this obsession, once planning an elaborate summer road trip to Cornish, New Hampshire, in the hopes of meeting the guy. (This was not quite as far off as it sounded--one of my friends from college actually lived near him, knew his address, and had offered to mail him a copy of one of the weekly columns I had written for the college paper, the topic of which escapes me now but may or may not have been related to how I wish Holden Caulfield was my boyfriend). Needless to say, that particular road trip never happened, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I did not have my driver's license (nor, as you all well know, would I get one for another ten years hence).

But one Salinger project that I did undertake, one that I actually saw through to completion, was collecting, in a stiff-backed leatherette portfolio, all of J.D. Salinger's uncollected short stories. I'm talking about all the short stories that didn't appear in his slim body of bound works: Catcher; Nine Stories; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and of course Franny and Zooey. The internet then was not quite the endless information dump that it is today, so the stories certainly weren't available online to read, but it was easy enough to locate a list of these stories, along with references to the magazines that they originally appeared in.

It was a project that took most of the summer. What magazines they had at the Wellesley College library (as a science major, I was woefully unfamiliar with the layout of the non-science library, and had to feel my way around like a blind person until I found the periodical stacks) I unearthed and photocopied the Salinger stories out of, where they looked quaint and old-timey next to the period print ads with doctors promoting cigarettes for weight loss and various unguents to calm your troubled skin. What magazines weren't in the Wellesley stacks, I ordered copies of via inter-library loan, from other college libraries in the northeast. I remember this scavenger hunt as being very exciting--every time I got a copy of a new story in the mail, I would look through it, read it through once quickly, read it through once again more carefully, and then delicately put it away in my portfolio, as if it were the original print rather than a crooked photocopy hastily run off by the librarian's assistant. The task of assembling all these uncollected stories seemed worthy and noble in some way that I couldn't identify.

For the most part (and I say this with all humility and respect for the author's memory), it became apparent that Salinger's decision to leave these works uncollected (and in fact his stance to excoriate all those like me who set about unearthing them, as he felt the quality of these stories were uneven and humiliating) was a wise one. Because for the most part, these stories were not very good. There were some that were better than others, and some that were familiar ("I'm Crazy" from Colliers in 1945 was a scene straight out of Catcher in the Rye), and some that were downright inscrutable--the aforementioned "Hapworth," which, as far is I know, is the last thing J.D. Salinger ever wrote to see the light of day. By the end of the summer, I had all the stories together at last, arranged in chronological order in a thick, substantial pile. And it was satisfying and unsatisfying all at the same time.

What I remember most about this summer is not so much reading the stories, though that was interesting enough, particular for the small shards of Glass family memorabilia that wink out here and there. No, but what was most fun was the search, the digging, the finding, the adventure of it all. And what a Salinger-worthy metaphor that is: we look high and low looking for hidden treasures, and we find...what? The everyday. The ordinary. The expected. And isn't that one of the things that J.D. Salinger taught us, that the picture in your head doesn't always match the reality, and that what you idolize can disappoint you in the light of day with its banality?

But he taught me something else too, not just through his writing but, that summer, in my quest to collect it all--and that's that it may not be the end result, rather what happens along the way that counts. At the end of that summer, I had--what? A stack of photocopies? A tattered reference list? A pile of inter-library loan slips and the manila envelopes the came in? Yes, all that, and a binder of frankly forgettable short stories that history has largely ignored. And maybe that should have been a disappointment. But none of that takes away from the nobility of the struggle, or from the enjoyment of the journey. And maybe, in the end, it's the journey that's what really matters.

Goodbye, Sonny. Thanks for the stories.

9 comments:

  1. a beautiful post. thank you for writing it!

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  2. Lenore8:47 PM

    That might be the coolest thing anyone has done... ever! Good or not, that is an awesome collection to have and I freely admit jealousy!

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  3. Anonymous2:07 AM

    loved reading this. do you still have that collection today?

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  4. laura3:08 AM

    this is the best memorial that i've seen written so far, and i've read several articles on his passing. thanks.

    personally, i've spent today reeling over the fact that JD Salinger is not, in fact, a girl. even though i read and loved his work, i just never figured that part out.

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  5. Any person can blog, but this post really shows that you are a true natural writer :) LOVE your blog!!

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