I’m not too sure what the name of the song was that he was playing when I came in, but whatever it was, he was really stinking it up. He was putting all these dumb, show-offy ripples in the high notes, and a lot of other very tricky stuff that gives me a pain in the ass. You should’ve heard the crowd, though, when he was finished. You would’ve puked. They went mad. They were exactly the same morons that laugh like hyenas in the movies at stuff that isn’t funny. I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes though I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddam closet. Anyway, when he was finished, and everybody was clapping their heads off, old Ernie turned around on his stool and gave this very phony, humble bow. Like as if he was a helluva humble guy, besides being a terrific piano player. It was very phony â€” I mean him being such a big snob and all. In a funny way, though, I felt sort of sorry for him when he was finished. I don’t even think he knows any more when he’s playing right or not. It isn’t all his fault. I partly blame all those dopes that clap their heads off â€” they’d foul up anybody, if you gave them a chance.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I read The Catcher in the Rye under some degree of duress as a high school sophomore. (My English teacher insisted I make it the topic of my term paper.) I decided to go back to Catcher this week. (I read Salinger’s Glass-works last year around this time and didn’t feel like going back to them.)
It wasn’t as embarrassing a read as I feared it would be. I loved the pieces of New York he evokes, although I have to admit I simply can’t fathom the chronology of the first night. There just aren’t enough hours in a night to do everything that Holden Caulfield did: stay up late waiting for his roommate, get into a fight with him, hang out with Ackley, pack up, take train from Pennsylvania private school to NYC, find a hotel, dance with ugly girls in a bar, go to Ernie’s club in the East Village, walk 2 miles (“41 gorgeous blocks”) back up to the hotel, get weirded out by a prostitute, get into a fight with her elevator-pimp, take an hour-long bath, sleep “not too long” and wake up at 10 a.m. Tell me if I missed anything.
The bigger problem that I had wasn’t with the book itself, but rather with how we (okay, I) read it. No matter how much I tried to read Catcher as its own book, to get enmeshed in Holden’s deteriorating life, I found that I was looking for clues. I kept noticing little fragments â€” as well as longer passages (see that introductory quote above, from Holden’s experience at Ernie’s) â€” that may have helped predict Salinger’s decision to go into seclusion and cease publishing. Of course, while reading the book, I also re-read Ron Rosenbaum’s 1997 essay about Salinger. I wouldn’t say that my literary sleuthery holds a candle to his, but I admit that I couldn’t not read this book as a phenomenon of Salinger’s silence. (Sleuthery holds candles?)
Sure, Catcher doesn’t have the religious wackiness of his Glass stories, and when he wrote and published it, I doubt he was consciously thinking, “This will be such a huge success that I will abandon NYC and spend the rest of my days in Zen.” But it’s also written in a much more natural voice than that of Salinger stand-in Buddy Glass. Is there any other contemporary-ish writer whom we read with such . . . suspicion? I don’t think Thomas Pynchon’s brand of seclusion evokes the same detective-reading; that is, I don’t think people read his work with an eye to understanding why he avoids the public eye. But that’s because he still publishes (even if I don’t still read him). Even during 17 years of near-total silence, there were rumors that Pynchon was working on something big.
With Salinger, it’s a legitimate question as to whether he fed his post-1965 work into the furnace after it was “finished.” Or did he become like Charles Crumb, obsessively writing the equivalent of wrinkles and drapery and losing sight of everything else?
The answers will come soon, I’m sure, but how will they change the way we read him in the future?
Clip copyright 1994 Superior Pictures, “Crumb“, until they make me take it down.