Friday, January 29, 2010

Raise High the Moonbeam, Salinger

When John Hughes died last year, I thought a great voice in cinema that spoke to teens and understood much of their collective psyche had been stilled. Somehow I knew there would never be another filmmaker with as much to say in as short a span as him. For someone who lived to be less than 60, he was prolific for less than a decade beginning in 1985 with such incredible films as "16 Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Pretty in Pink," "Weird Science" and "Home Alone" to name but a few. Hughes was less productive in his later years, becoming a veritable recluse in 1991. The last production attached to his name was in 2001. The idea of becoming famous virtually overnight and then, nearly as sudden, turning the spotlight off to wallow in the emptiness of solitude seems odd to most of us who have yet to leave a mark in this world. For Hughes it was worth the effort to have his own happy existence beyond the infringement of cameras and recorders. Perhaps he was depressed. Perhaps he was disillusioned with life. It was his choice to run away and people respected that choice no matter how much they wished he still made films. Sudden fame has been thrust on several artists, but for writers there was probably no greater impact made in as short a period of time in the last half century than that of J. D. Salinger. Salinger, who died yesterday at the age of 91, was a recluse's recluse. He lived in obscurity for decades after he was acclaimed as one of the greatest American authors of the 20th Century. It may surprise many to learn that his most regarded work, "The Catcher in the Rye," published in 1951, was the last novel he allowed to be published. There is no doubt that the 65 million copies it has sold to date puts it in the stratosphere of bestsellers in the company of only one other contemporary work, Dan Brown's 2003 novel "The DaVinci Code." But more than its popularity is the importance of his first person narrative to detail the angst, alienation and rebellion of the young generation. Perhaps that is why Holden Caulfield will always remain as a living, breathing creature to millions of readers the world over and why his words have always spoken as genuine and authentic. Infamously, Mark David Chapman held a copy of Salinger's most famous work when he assassinated John Lennon and when asked by police why he had done it, replied that the answer was inside the book. If multitudes thought they knew Caulfield, hardly anyone knew Salinger. Practically from the time of his meteoric rise, he shunned publicity. He hated attention and the press in particular whom he labeled as panderers of gossip. To understand his aversion to fame, one might delve into his philosophy expressed through Caulfield's own sentiments. In Chapter 12 he watches Ernie, a nightclub owner and piano player, perform with great precision and to the obvious delight of the crowd. Caulfield is impressed with his play, but repulsed by the adulation Ernie receives from the audience. "I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I'd hate it," Salinger's character quotes. "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." It may surprise some of the lovers of Salinger's works, which also include the novellas "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters" and "Seymour" as well as "Franny and Zooey" and the short story collection "Nine Stories," that he continued to write for most of the past four decades of isolation. He so highly prized his privacy that he cut himself off from much of civilization and outside influences and only allowed a few chosen family members and very select friends to be a part of his world. Like Ernie, he locked himself inside his own closet, writing to please his greatest critic, himself. There are books waiting to be published that have already been cleared by Salinger for release through his estate and others that he has written in spiral notebooks that will need some further editing. There will be a treasure trove of Salinger books available at book stores in the near future and I, for one, can't wait to see what that sly fox of an author has in store for those of us who only wanted to stand outside the closet and hear him play.

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