With 'Rye,' Salinger spoke our language

J.D. Salinger?s ?Catcher in the Rye,? with familiarity J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” with familiarity in every line, hooked a Brooklyn teenager on literature. Photo Credit: Getty Images, 1952

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Somewhere between machine shop and plane geometry, a kid named Richie held up a paperback and said, "You gotta read this."

We were being hoisted to class on an elevator at Brooklyn Tech though, in every sense, I was headed nowhere.

Tech was -- and, no doubt, still is -- a grand place but I quickly fell behind. When I say fell behind, I mean in the way that I now might fall behind if running the New York marathon in combat gear. I flopped immediately and never reached the finish line. When, at last, I got a diploma, it was from Fort Greene Evening High School located, sadly enough, in the basement of Brooklyn Tech.

How could Richie know that reading -- anything -- was not a high priority?

Listening to Dr. Jive in the afternoon and Alan Freed at night, that was important. Writing perhaps 200 times the name "Joanie" on a loose-leaf sheet hoping, dimly, that Joanie would be swayed by such devotion, was likewise of serious consequence. Scouting down the correct pair of pegged pants with saddle stitching was a matter of some urgency. If time allowed, consuming twin burgers at Junior's on Flatbush Avenue demanded consideration, too.

Despite the best efforts of my parents to get me started on one of the Zane Grey westerns in their modest bookcase, or try "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck, or at least sample the latest issue of Reader's Digest, it was no use. If it had pages, words and typography, I wasn't interested.

"Here," said Richie, handing me his book as the elevator door opened. "Give it a try."

Intellectual curiosity may not have been my calling card -- I was known mainly as a savant when it came to naming the labels and flip sides of obscure rhythm and blues records -- but Richie was insistent, so, bumping my way down one of Tech's crowded hallways, I turned to Chapter 1.

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Yes, it was "Catcher in the Rye" by this fellow, J.D. Salinger, that had beguiled Richie and, now, in what Las Vegas surely would set as long odds, instantly snagged me too.

Devouring one page and then another, peeking at the book during the daunting Tech class called Industrial Processes, continuing as though spellbound on the Sea Beach Express back to Bay Ridge, fumbling with keys to our little apartment and finally -- radio off! -- plopping on the couch to plunge deeper and deeper into the world of Salinger's teenage non-hero, Holden Caulfield, I thought, well, well, well, isn't this something? Literature!

For lots of clueless, unread American kids like me it was as though Salinger invented a language that he knew, and we knew, but no one else, certainly not adults. There was familiarity in every line -- something we might have said, or thought, ourselves, if we had been able to speak and think as clearly as Holden Caulfield, which most often wasn't the case.

"I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life," Caulfield says early in the book. "It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible."

At 16, I was wowed by that kind of candor -- real and rare and welcome.

It wasn't as though Caulfield was exactly a soul mate. He came from a rich family on the Upper East Side and attended prep schools. He spoke about golf and museums and fancy cars. I was as unfamiliar with that world as I might be Finland. But it was the way he described this astounding realm -- ritzy and densely populated with "phonies" -- that knocked me out, to borrow one of Caulfield's phrases.

Before you know it, not only was I reading Salinger but trying to write like him, too. Hidden in a basement file cabinet are a few years' worth of stories that I would ransom with my IRA if disclosure were threatened. In other words: that bad. But awful as those efforts were, I am grateful. It was a start. At some point, I even opened my parents' bookcase. Mom proposed a toast.

There is a new Salinger book by David Shields and Shane Salerno with photos, letters and interviews and a companion movie offering lots of gossipy stuff about the possible effects of World War II on the author -- Salinger was an Army sergeant -- and his reclusive life in New Hampshire; long absence from the literary scene; fondness for young women; and supposed release in the next few years of new material.

If you ask me, none of that counts for much. When Salinger died nearly four years ago at age 91, it was not like the loss of a loved one. He was a distant and perhaps difficult man, accessible to only a few. That's what made his work so remarkable. For some of us, it's not that we ever got to know J.D. Salinger. It's that Salinger introduced us to ourselves.

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