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RETRO: My Lives with Salinger

Everything Holden says about missing and loving his dead brother Allie, and his kid sister Phoebe, stirs me up. His distress about school, parents, girls, sex, adults, and “phonies” registers with me. Pernnially.

RETRO: My Lives with Salinger

Age 13: On page one, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye enthralls me. I’m in 8th grade. Everything Holden says about missing and loving his dead brother Allie, and his kid sister Phoebe, stirs me up. His distress about school, parents, girls, sex, adults, and “phonies” registers with me.  Perennially.

Age 17: Now?  Graduated from high school and working at the mall. There’s a new bookstore. It’s magnetic. On each break, I scan the bookshelves. Finally discovering the Salinger canon. All in a row: The Catcher in the Rye. Nine Stories. Franny and Zooey. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. One by one, I make them mine. I’m still hooked on Catcher. The other stories (long and short) mystify me at first, but that changes gradually. The years roll by.

Age 21: Now Catcher seems old. I re-read it less frequently with just a glance now and then. After a slew of jobs, broken hearts (theirs and mine), the onset of anxiety attacks, bouts with panic (none of which is discussed openly; it’s a pre-Oprah world) and the increase in my two-fisted smoking and drinking – now the Glass Family stories occupy my mind. In Franny and Zooey, in particular, solace is found.

Age 23: My new Salinger gospel is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. World War Two is between the lines on most pages. I’ve moved several times, always packing all of my Salinger paperbacks side by side. At a café on the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, where I sit daily (and nightly) and soon have a part-time job, I usually place Nine Stories on my table, so that it’s visible to passersby. New friends are made when folks point to the book’s marquee-like cover. There I meet my future wife. She also wants to be a writer. Books are everything. Computers are creeping into the daily culture; eventually faxes, email, and flip-phones. Yet books are still defining us, not i-This or i-That.

Age 28: A cancer diagnosis hits me sideways. After surgery, the metastasis strikes. Then: A regimen of “aggressive chemotherapy” begins. The wife and I are far away from Chicago, which we still considered home). We go stay with family there. My hair falls out; pretty soon my weight drops from 170 to 144. Sitting daily with IVs delivering the chemo for six hours at a crack, reading is essential. Salinger’s paperback books are within my reach. The wife and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary in the chemo clinic. Each of us reads a Salinger story. She’s crazy about “Teddy.” That’s a reincarnation story. I’ve decided “For Esme—With Love and Squalor” is my favorite World War Two-era story. No doubt.

Age 30: The wife and I finish graduate school. On the cancer front: So far, so good. Monthly check-ups give way to quarterly follow-ups. I score my first full-time Adjunct Instructor gig teaching at a university in Minnesota. Now and then, we still read Salinger’s books simultaneously. She’s still in love with Nine Stories. I assign The Cather in the Rye to my students. We’re expecting a child. If the baby’s a boy, we joke about naming him Holden or Teddy. If it’s a girl? There’s a debate: “Phoebe?” she suggests “Maybe Franny?” I vote Boo Boo Tannenbaum (nee: Glass). In “Down at the Dinghy,” one of the Nine Stories, Boo Boo’s a trip.

Age 40: The milestone birthday. One of ‘em, anyway. I’m still an Adjunct, but at a larger university in Wisconsin. A decade since the child was born. The 40th birthday gift from the wife is sweet. She and our son find the last typewriter repair shop in Madison and my 1959 Salinger-era black manual Smith-Corona is tuned up. Keys repaired. New ribbon. Oiled. Dusted. At last, it plays like a new piano. I commit anew to the writer’s quest. But she’s done with that. She’s also done (almost) with me. She’s working as a full-time program administrator. I start writing a new book. Living on hope, scrounging a life on Adjunct’s pay. In her mind, this can’t go on. Despite her typewriter gesture, changes are afoot.

Age 46: On the day she relocates to another high school district, where our son (shattered by our split) is enrolled, the divorce process accelerates. She has a new guy. Later on, they marry. I agree to be elsewhere when her friends and family assist her in a top-speed, all-day move-a-thon. That night, back at the empty house, all of our Salinger books are still there. Seymour: An Introduction is like a balm. The wordy digressions? They comfort me. The esoteric, mystical incantations? I need to hear those.

Age 51: Author Kenneth Slawenski publishes J. D. Salinger: A Life. The grimness of Salinger’s WW II service is detailed, more than in any other biography: D-Day, the post-Normandy combat, and more. The slaughter in the Hurtgen Forest. Carnage amidst the Battle of the Bulge. The aftermath of Dachau’s liberation: The “smell of burning flesh,” he wrote to a friend – averring that you never get it out of your nose. Somehow, Salinger survived the war (despite horrendous losses in his Army division). I learn more and more about Salinger’s postwar nervous breakdown. It all makes perfect sense to me.

Age 53: When I first read The Catcher in the Rye as an 8th-grade kid, Salinger was 53 and considered old. But he lived to be 91. Could I? I wonder. As a writer, he’s still a mentor. I’ve taken my vows as a literary monk. No more huffing and puffing in classrooms, straining to hold the attention of indifferent students. I’ve detoured from academe into a Caregiver’s role. When not reading or writing, my focus is on Clove, who is transitioning from paraplegia to quadriplegia. Her extreme MS is relentless.

Age 55: I’m still at it. Caregiver guy. Clove loves being read to by any of her caregivers. They’re all remarkable individuals. Some read Mary Oliver’s poetry to her. Others read varied books. Our thing is to read aloud from the Salinger canon. She is endlessly fascinated by Franny’s obsession with “the Jesus prayer.” I remain mystified at how I missed so much when first reading The Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s profanity, for example – it’s anything but random. Holden’s cursing is a protest against the obscenities in the world. My teachers failed to highlight all that.

Age Now: Everything changes. Yet nothing changes. Dozens of short pieces are published. Plus two books. I stop counting the cost. Loved ones slowly die, and like the years, I stop counting those too. Birthdays? New Year’s resolutions? They belong to past patterns. Now is all there is. Here and now. All those Buddhist allusions in Salinger’s Glass Family stories – they still uplift my own soul. Even though brainy critics slam him regarding what they sneer at as “the religious” or “the Vedanta stuff.”

Is it true that “change is the only constant”? Maybe not. My lives with Salinger have taught me that critics will constantly slice and dice his works, but surely an inner light shines on, as do you and pages written by your beloved authors.

Echoing John Lennon: “We all shine on.”


M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. Last year, Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, was published by Heliotrope Books [heliotropebooks.com] on March 8, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of the publication of  The Godfather.