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The Great Caulfield

P1000362The famed author and recluse J.D. Salinger died this week at 91.  Most obituaries noted both his reclusive nature and less than prolific output as a novelist, neither of which would merit much remark had he not produced something worth reading. Recluses are a dime a dozen – and as someone once noted, you’re not really missing until somebody starts looking for you. Plenty of authors write a dozen books unworthy of a single reading, but few can manage a single book worth repeated return.

Whether The Catcher In The Rye deserves such consideration is debatable. Some would argue the novel leans heavily on gimmick and immature pretense, and that its reputation has been fueled equally over the years by Salinger’s absence and recurring generations of disaffected youth. But I’d say that’s bullshit and it’s a great book. I read it in high school along with The Great Gatsby, and have come back to both as an “adult.” While Gatsby is the superior novel (and is referenced in Catcher), both books share a New York setting and distinctly American themes. Salinger’s rejection of celebrity was, however, notably un-American. It’s arguable that his choice to withdraw from public view in his mid-40s was the ultimate celebrity-savvy move,  but his refusal to publish beyond his fourth book requires further explanation. It’s also been suggested that some readers’ intense identification with Salinger’s protagonist Holden Caulfield has contributed to more than a few untimely suicides. But an equally strong case can be made for the work as inspiration to hang on and feel less alone in bristling against the bullshit that life dishes out. Salinger made it to 91 after all, and nobody was more full of shit than Holden himself.

I last read Great Gatsby more than six years ago, picking it up from a bookcase in the first sublet I rented in Brooklyn. I re-read Catcher a few years later, purchasing a copy at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco the night before returning to New York City for the second time. There are no answers in either; only the assurance that others have searched in the past.

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