Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper

29th January 2010

J.D. Salinger by Kevin Pearce.

“Here’s to you Mr Salinger. I probably read you more than any other writer as a kid …”
I don’t ordinarily join in mass mourning. But on hearing of the death of J.D. Salinger I did feel a need to pay tribute in some small way. I doubt that he will need it. Nevertheless it sort of feels as if some small part of me Salinger shaped should say a few words.
I can’t remember where or why I first picked up The Catcher In The Rye. I know it will have been at the start of the 1980s. I guess it would have been in a charity shop. I’m pretty sure it was the striking silver cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition that caught my eye. All the Salinger titles at the time were in this beautiful uniform silver stark design. Lawrence, as I recall, wanted one of the Felt singles to have the same look. But I didn’t know much about the book itself. I was soon hooked, though.
There has been so much written about The Catcher In The Rye. The birth of the teenager, the angst-ridden rebel, blah blah blah. God knows how many books have since been described as The Catcher In The Rye of this generation or that. Oddly I don’t recall getting carried away identifying with Holden. I just remember falling in love with the way Salinger wrote. How he said so much in such an economical way. Maybe more than anyone else he made me want to be a writer.
And this is important. Liking Salinger at the time seemed to be a sort of badge of honour. You suddenly unexpectedly found other Salinger fans, who were kindred spirits, who liked the same sort of music as you, who dressed the same way. That same sort of music would invariably involve Postcard Records. And the Postcard people seemed to be Salinger fans, even inventing a group called The Secret Goldfish which was named after one of his short stories. Indeed, if I remember rightly, the post-Postcard Orange Juice would have Holden Caulfield Universal as the title of their Polydor imprint. This seemed a defiant pose, smart-arse misfits united against brash business boys.
Back then, my local library luckily had other Salinger titles, and it is these books that really had an impact on me. These were Salinger’s stories about the remarkable Glass family. Is it daft to claim that the Glass household seemed more real to me at the time than the people I had to deal with on a daily basis? I felt as if I knew Seymour, Buddy, Franny, Zooey, and those parents. I certainly wanted to. I wanted to sit down with them, learn from them, be messed up by them. I may not have read their stories for what seems like centuries, but certain passages have stayed with me. Indeed a line from Seymour: An Introduction maybe misremembered about “write your heart out” but it provided the inspiration (along with a line from a Laugh song) for my own recent Your Heart Out research projects.
It is impossible to distance Salinger’s writing from the Salinger myth. That’s fair enough. Most of what we love about pop music is more than the sounds recorded, after all. So the idea of this great reclusive writer refusing to be published appealed enormously. The fact that he held his nerve, and refused to return to the fray is nothing short of amazing. You can just imagine the temptations. Did he continue to write? I am sure we will find out, but that’s almost irrelevant.
Way back when, with that whole Postcard/Salinger thing, the missing part of the equation was Vic Godard and the way he too seemed incapable of doing the expected thing and following a linear career path. This, of course, for kids like me added to the romantic appeal. “Keep the mystery caged.” But it wasn’t just that. It was something to do with being brave enough to head off in an entirely different direction.
Vic with Subway Sect sang about ambition calling our every tune. I remember making the connection in my own mind between this song and Salinger’s ‘skimpy’ book about Franny Glass. This morning I was delighted to be able to turn almost immediately to the passage in question where she tells her date: “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something, distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting – it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.” She goes on to add: “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everyone else that wants to make a splash.”
Michael Head in his Pale Fountains days had a fantastic line about: “Bring me back the days when you brought me books for my birthdays.” Oddly the guy who tipped me off about the Pale Fountains in 1982 once gave me the missing Salinger book (it was not readily available). That book of short stories. He inscribed it: “To Kevin, with hope and valour …”. Dated Christmas 1984. I lost the book along the way, like I’ve lost a lot of other things. But I’ve never lost the part of me J.D. Salinger helped create. I will keep on writing my heart out …