the first time i read ‘a perfect day for bananafish’, it was from a battered copy of nine stories gifted to me by a close friend and dysfunctionally brilliant writer who had been given the book for his birthday, as evidenced by someone else’s inscription to him on the title page. it took me thirty minutes to finish, a relatively long time given the size of the story. this is mainly because i kept re-reading lines and sitting with them for a moment; both out of fear that i’d miss something and for the slight promise that they would equip me enough to continue on with the story, comprehending it for what i knew it was, for what i knew it could be for me. if only i were able to ‘really’ understand it. it was like beginning a movie that, five minutes in, you know is going to be one of your favorites. for me, pulp fiction and lolita both had that quality. and as with them, i willed or prayed for time to slow down, so i could milk this moment for all it was worth. and it turns out it was worth everything. you don’t get a second-chance at a first time, after all.
by the time i came to the end, i realized that it was not necessary to sit and analyze everything to get its deeper meaning. salinger had done this for me, for us. he had already analyzed, lived and pained through the deeper meanings and context. he surfaced them in crisp, simple sentences; western koans, which if you were too smart about it, might belie their rich, metaphysical context. this is salinger’s gift and ultimately what made him the most unappreciated-appreciated writer ever.
i clearly am not alone in my deep admiration and even my feeling that he wrote for me, or at least people like me. yet i have read a lot of qualifications about him today, in all the bios bouncing of the digital walls, after his perhaps timely death at ninety-one. there seemed to be a glut of qualifications, such as, “because so many writers have followed in his footsteps, he can almost seem a parody of himself” and other more notorious reviews from when his works were first published, bad reviews from the likes of such luminaries as joan didion and john updike, dismissing some of my favorite stories of his as “trivial” and “self-indulgent”. it made me wonder, in his defense, ‘if something contains a reflection of the self, does that make it self-indulgent?’
it is suggested that this clouded reception to his work, post-catcher in the rye, is why salinger retreated into complete and utter obscurity, vowing never to publish again until he was dead and gone. whatever the reason and whatever kind of person he was (all the talk is that he was not so nice of a guy), he had bouts of post traumatic stress-disorder and issues with lovers and children. but it doesn’t really matter. at least not to me. i am as interested in the reclusive mysterious side of him as much as anyone, and i am eager to read anything else that gets published (apparently he wrote almost everyday since retreating into obscurity, in the early sixties, when he last published). but what i truly have from him remains and has always been separate from him. his words, organized in mostly short prose pieces that break apart life in this insane universe and societal stew and let us see the beauty and the suffering in the cracks. they provide a stimulating feeling of intimacy, in that we feel we are being let in on an open-secret that no one has admitted to until now. our personal madness it turns out is shared.
i think the main issue that his detractors and even his apologists have, is that they thought he was winking at us; playing the smart ass with his “intentionally bad grammar and his sparse, zen-like phrasing. perhaps they looked at him as a version of today’s hipster with irony worn on their sleeve (or at least their t-shirts).
but he wasn’t winking at us. he was crying.