May 18, 2012
A few years ago, in a local used/rare bookshop, I came upon the original Signet paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye, published in March 1953. I couldn’t resist owning it for the memorable illustration of Holden Caulfield entering a squalid New York City neighborhood, carrying a suitcase and wearing his red hunting hat and scarf. The paperback was the version of the classic I read in high school, and I paid $50 at the shop for what once sold for 50 cents — a worthy investment in book nostalgia.
In Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger, I learned the legendary recluse hated that Signet paperback design. He fought it but couldn’t get it changed, having acquiesced to it in 1951, the year Little Brown first published The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger blamed Little Brown, which controlled the paperback rights, for allowing such a tawdry cover to be used by Signet, “caring nothing for the presentation of art.”
Before reading this engaging biography, my frame of reference regarding Salinger conformed to popular stories about the legend’s seclusion. Like most everyone else, Salinger to me was simply an eccentric hermit who once wrote a lasting classic novel. I was aware he fiercely fought any invasion of his privacy at his home in New Hampshire, fought (and won) in court Ian Hamilton’s unauthorized biography and suppressed the sale of another author’s sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. And then there was that embarrassing tell-all by Joyce Maynard. But in J. D. Salinger: A Life, I came to understand a person who grew into his extremes from accumulating personal experiences.
That includes his soldiering in the 12th Infantry Regiment during World War II. I was surprised to learn Salinger stormed Normandy beaches on D-Day and took part in the horrific events in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. He also was among the American troops discovering Nazi concentration camps. Needless to say, the psychological and emotional impact of his war experiences were profound and enduring. Slawenski writes, “Salinger the man and the events of war are as inseparable as the author and the works that he penned.”
But it was the perceived betrayals by editors and publishers in the 1950s and 1960s that significantly contributed to Salinger’s eccentricities. Shortly after he returned to New York, after the war, he learned Lippincott Press would not publish his collection of short stories (Salinger had been told it was a “done deal”). By this time, he’d already experienced magazine editors changing his story titles and The New Yorker accepting a story and then not publishing it. Yet to happen was Harcourt Brace’s decision not to honor the verbal contract to publish The Catcher in the Rye in 1950. (That’s a famous moment in literary history – Little, Brown and Company became the publisher.) Salinger reached a point where he couldn’t trust the publishing community to value and respect his work. He became extremely difficult, refusing to let editors and publishers control the presentation and publicity of his stories and novels. He would demand, resist and fight, guarding his characters and their fictional worlds as he guarded his own privacy. “Striving as he was for perfection, the thought of allowing his work to be mangled by editors in the pursuit of profits incensed him.”
In reviewing J. D. Salinger: A Life last year, critics consistently made the point it’s impossible to write a successful biography about a writer who lived a secluded life, destroyed his letters and demanded friends say nothing about him to journalists. I agree that’s probably true; however, with what is known, and what is able to be pieced together from research, a story can still be told with significant value for readers. I believe here Slawenski triumphs, as he covers not only the WW II years but also Salinger’s privileged young years on Park Avenue with his parents, his trouble in school, his family life, his interactions with the staff at The New Yorker and his struggle between his ego and his spiritual beliefs.
Salinger’s publishing life ended in 1965 with the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker. Slawenski writes about this time and Salinger’s remaining 45 years with the same engaging detail and warmth as the more notable early years. He describes Salinger’s death on January 27, 2010, as “a kind of terrible extinction.” That description fell hard on me with its heavy truth. I especially loved this line: “J. D. Salinger was unique, and many found his noble opposition comforting.” Amen.
Random House published the hard cover edition of J. D. Salinger: A Life in 2011. I read the trade paperback edition, released this year. Kenneth Slawenski is the founder of deadcaulfields.com. In January, in Salon, he wrote this interesting article: “What was J. D. Salinger working on?”
May 5, 2012
I’m in awe of the last lines of Anakana Schofield’s Malarky. They offer an affirmation of life, despite the overwhelming incoherence experienced in the previous pages. When I came to them, I felt a reward of powerful clarity, an illuminating a-ha that mentally swept me back through this uniquely told story of madness and grief with heightened comprehension. “It’s beautiful when it all makes sense, so it is. Occasionally it makes sense, just for a moment.”
Malarky contains 20 episodes that in another book would be called chapters. They are the remembered events playing out inside the mind of a grieving widow who’s suffering a mental maelstrom, as she seeks insight into her husband’s infidelity, her son’s homosexuality and events leading up to their deaths. Her name is Philomena, and she is our reckless, driven narrator occasionally referred to as “Our Woman,” a compelling and unforgettable Irish cattle farmer’s widow, who cleverly dominates the page and consumes us. When the book opens, she’s in counseling with Grief, the name she gives her therapist. Her remarks frighten Grief and concern Philomena’s friends because they’re filled with desires inappropriate for a widow. Her recollections are fragmented, and that’s the point, entering us intimately and insistently into her interior world that becomes, for us, an absorbing journey into a mind swinging capriciously under the influence of guilt, confusion and loss.
Here’s where it all starts. Early in her life, Our Woman witnessed her son, Jimmy, engaged in sex with a boy in the family barn. When years later, home from college, Jimmy comes out to his mother, she tells him to keep his homosexuality to himself and hide it from his father, that at family functions “for your father’s sake, you’ll be alone or with a girl.” On this visit, however, she witnesses her son in another homosexual act, this time in the farm field, and feels disgust. She also fears being humiliated in their community of rural Mayo County, Ireland: “He’s done for. He must be gone from this country, this country where there is no forgiveness for such a thing.” But Jimmy feels no fear and flaunts his sexuality before his parents, causing his father to cut him off financially. He joins the military in America and is deployed to Iraq and then Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in a pub, Philomena is confronted by a woman who confesses having an affair with her husband and gives outlandish, explicit details.
It’s enough to drive any woman to a divorce lawyer or to make her flee into obscurity. Philomena’s response, however, is a bizarre opposite to revenge and denial, a kind of obsessive understanding for the husband and son she loves that’s as imaginative as it is inconceivable. She seeks out sexual experiences for herself to mimic those brought into her consciousness not only by her husband but her son. The erotic scenes – and there are several — are more desperate than sensual. They are infused with dark and quirky humor yet underlying them, also, is a kind of sorrow.
Often, Philomena speaks with Grief. Often, she comments on being unhinged, lacking reason and common sense. I have to admit occasionally getting lost in the narrative thread because of how she remembers things, once finding myself seeking the logical time sequence concerning Jimmy’s death by going back through some episodes. I couldn’t figure out for a while whether he died before or after his father died. I assumed it was as a soldier in Afghanistan, but I wasn’t sure. Even so, I knew the answers were here, that my challenge had to do with the inventive storytelling in which you can miss things if you don’t pay attention, where one must surrender to the sifting of events in a mind that swings out of linear time. It’s why I was drawn to keep reading and not put the book down, to stay with the rhythm inside Philomena’s head and on par with her thread of logic, not with what I expected.
And so it gets back to those last lines. When we reach them, everything comes full circle, especially regarding something Philomena says in the first episode: “If you are a widow, be careful what you say. I think it’s why they started talking about Jimmy in the bank.” You won’t know what that bank reference means when you first read it, but you will, eventually, and it’s a stunning construct. Indeed, it all makes sense within this crazy-sad theater of a grieving mind that’s a forceful showcase for such things in life. Schofield’s brilliant storytelling in Malarky is among the most engaging I’ve ever encountered.