It’s not as if JD Salinger has any need for defenders but when I saw some of the praises showered upon Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World, it was hard not to feel defensive and sorry for him because you just know she would slay him. And slay him she did. Prior to reading this, I’ve read things about her from what can easily be assumed as one of the most despised book JD Salinger had ever known, If You Really Want to Hear About It, but probably next only to the UK-only published Ian Hamilton biography in Salinger’s list of hate lit. It seems unnecessary to loathe the book in full force, like a one-man groupie because I’m sure that that’s been done before and at a time when loathing such memoir and all that it represents, basically the privacy of JD Salinger, was more relevant. But all things JD Salinger can never be irrelevant or untimely to me.
Maybe it’s because I’ve grown weary of poor, sad writers who had tough relationships with their mommy and daddy that I was not as moved by Maynard’s parental plight. She’s even lucky she had interesting, intelligent and nice enough parents. Nice enough but periodically strange. The only thing that separates the writery poor kid with the alcoholic/weird parents from the average, nonwritery kid with the alcoholic/weird parents is that the nonwriting kid does not have the skills or nerve to write about the folks, as to let the world know about daddy’s drinking (Hello, Augusten Burroughs), with which to eventually get rich off of. I’m sure that someone out there is having a difficult life with his strange parents, not that having strange, alcoholic parents is something that is undeserving of sympathy, but we will never hear about that kid’s parents while the writing types have the advantage of being read which for a writer is all that matters anyway. All of which would have been fine, sure thing, write about your mom and dad, Joyce Maynard, throw in some interesting tidbits about your eating habits too while you’re at it, but what it’s all really about is about the man she once fondly called Jerry, a man whose book some fondly call their bible.
What happened was she wrote for the New York Times Magazine some time in the 70s, her picture was in the front page, JD Salinger happened to have a copy, found her interesting and pretty and maybe even fuckable (he was so wrong) so he sends her a letter which began their months-long correspondence and she was 18 at the time and would jump at the first opportunity to make out with the first person who would get her teen angsty agony, and so she did, left everything behind, lived with a super recluse, tried to make a 30-year gapped relationship work, tried to have sex and failed. Pretty much an ordinary 18 year old-50 year old love story except with JD Salinger.
But she won me over. I loved that she didn’t look back on her NY Times piece and thought what a precious young thing she was, loved that she saw in her own writing, one that’s been published in the New York Times no less, a ‘nearly insufferable tone of presumptuousness’. So while I was busy scoffing at her telling of her ‘I’m a different, special girl’ story that she once proudly lugged around in her prestige-yearning, Ivy League university-going adolescent heart, it was she who would speak these scathing impressions of herself and with such uncensoring and sincerely self-deprecating quality.
As for the initial loathe from thinking JD Salinger will get major exploitation time, it turns out to be very much a case of stating and feeling or thinking the obvious. If you’ve built your fame around a work of art that is as indifference-proof as The Catcher in the Rye and decided to shut the world out whether directly or indirectly as a result of that very fame, you will never escape things like this.
I have no doubt that JD Salinger himself has read this memoir because if there’s one thing he wouldn’t do it is to fake unawareness over things he finds hideous, despicable and terrible, all of which mean practically the same thing, all of which he has a good eye on. Maynard herself attests to the fact that Salinger follows the things he finds loathsome more closely than you would have supposed, the very sentiment Holden articulates when our boy says of a movie he severely disliked, ‘so putrid you can’t take your eyes off it’.
Jerry Salinger’s life is hardly the stuff of great drama. It is not compelling enough to warrant the sort of fascination that most people who are merely into the reclusive aspect of his popularity hold over it, his life. He’s into boring stuff like old movies, old sitcoms and homeopathy. And him being into homeopathy and healthy living in general is a good thing. Good thing too that he had no heart condition because it would have killed him to pore through this. But make no mistake, this memoir lays more insight than the most earnest biographer could ever hope to make.
JD Salinger, who would not allow biographers permission to publish his precious letters, who would not allow journalists access to his home for interviews, who would not grant fans acknowledgment, who would rather die than let even the tiniest bit of information about any aspect of his life leak into public knowledge, and not for just kicks too, not just to generate intrigue you can be sure (I’m sure), had inadvertently, by associating with and romancing a fellow writer, let the world know, or at least those who care to know, something as dismal and embarrassing as his failure to be a proper lover to an 18 year old virgin. You have to feel sorry for the man because unlike him who wouldn’t leak anything to the public, not even his writing which he truly believes is for him and him alone but which the public, again, just those who care to consume him, believes is also theirs, the people who’ve had the littlest to do with him have let loose to the world their JD Salinger moment. None, I would imagine, that could compare to the one made by this one time lover.