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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Noted Author & Recluse

When J. D. Salinger died, I realized that I didn't want to be a famous writer anymore.

When I read the article written about him in the local papers, an unfortunate mirror of other articles written about him in other not-so-local papers, all I could do was shake my head. Even at the headline.

"Salinger: Noted Author & Recluse Dies at 91"

Noted author. And recluse.


I suppose it isn't enough that he wrote one of the best-selling, most-beloved books of all times-- thumbed through by hundreds of thousands of middle and high schoolers for decades. Because he shunned the spotlight, he had to be "noted author & recluse." Because we didn't see him on "Entertainment Tonight" and on television endorsing Acme Brand Puppy Chow-- because he didn't choose to bust his ass and sell his soul giving corny-ass lectures at universities and book readings in front of the salivating masses across the country, we slap that label right on his dead, wrinkly ass.


Oh, and then there was the part in the article where is daughter talks about him drinking his own urine. Well, really-- what literary genius isn't a little bit eccentric? I mean, Augusten Burroughs has a dog named "The Cow."

It was a thoroughly disappointing obiturary as obituaries go. It was split into two decidedly unequal parts-- the one about him being a tremendous writer of irrevocable influence on youth and the 20th century, and the one about him shutting himself away from the world in his little hamlet in New Hampshire.

Sipping blithely on his own pee-pee, apparently.

My guess is that, if J. D. Salinger had died thirty or forty years ago, his obituary would have read very differently. The press wasn't as salacious, we the public didn't have such a voracious, insatiable appetite for slander and filth and pornography, literal or figurative. The man would have been lauded as a literary great, a master of the pen, and maybe the sentence, "He was content to live his life apart from everyday society in his small home in New Hampshire."

And that probably would have been that.

I just don't understand what the point is in becoming a great, vaunted genius if, after you die, they're going to make you into some kind of perverted degenerate, as if he ate a constant diet of blue food coloring so he could throw up on himself every morning and shout, "THE FLOOD OF BLUEBERRIES IS UPON US!" into a megaphone to wake up the entire neighborhood. I mean, Jesus-- all the guy wanted was a little privacy from a socially retarded world-- the world that invented "Throw Mama From the Train," college football, "American Idol," the made-for-TV miniseries, sweaters for dogs, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Can you blame the bastard?

If you took some time to think very seriously about the world in which we live and function, trust me, son-- you'd go running for New Hampshire to some basement where you could sit, shivering, with a wool blanket over your head.

Maybe Salinger was trying to escape the ridiculous convention of the media. Well, it was abundantly clear that, after his death, it found him just the same.

They say that denying people something just makes them want whatever it is even more. This is probably true-- take a look at children. Tell them over and over and over that they can't touch the stove and watch how many of them wind up with coil ring-shaped imprints branded to their palms and the words "General Electric" on their faces. Salinger denied the world his presence, and his comments on day to day happenings, something that a megalomaniac like Mark Twain could never have permitted. Even when he was too sick and tired to walk, he summoned newspaper reporters to his bedside so they could record his daily dose of witticism. But Salinger didn't want that. And people sought it out anyway.

People like my high school writing teacher.

I think he was of Polish descent-- his last name was thoroughly unpronouncable, ending in wicz or some combination of those letters-- so we called him "Mr. O." Mr. O was a peculiar fellow, wearing his eyeglasses down on the very tip of his nose, with the lenses tilted down and almost pointed directly at the floor, so that the frames were almost always falling off his face. Somehow they never did, leaving me to suspect that Velcro was somehow involved. Mr. O had legendary pit stains and an bodily odor that bordered on the post-mortem. His hair resembled a graying birds nest, haphazard and sticking up in places and his moustache bore specks of food and tiny shavings of wood, presumably because he enjoyed gnawing on pencils.

I don't remember much of what Mr. O taught us, but I do remember a few anecdotes. He told us that, for one year, he stopped speaking-- to anybody. I remember a fellow classmate of mine asking if it was for any sort of religious reason. Mr. O replied no, that he just wanted to see if he could do it, and that he realized he didn't have very much to say to anybody.

I also distinctly remember him telling us (I don't remember, though, how it came up) of his unquenchable love for popcorn.

"If there was a bag of popcorn sitting right on the edge of a cliff, and my wife was also hanging off the edge of that same cliff," he told us one day, "I'd go for the bag of popcorn."

The only other thing I remember about Mr. O was him telling us about the time that he stalked his favorite writer, J. D. Salinger. Somehow he'd found out Salinger's address (these things were a lot harder to do in the 1970s) and he drove up to the town where Salinger lived. He stocked up on tinned tuna and chicken and other necessities, purchased camouflage facepaint, covered himself in it, and hid in Salinger's bushes.

For a week.

Finally, Mr. O told us, he couldn't take it anymore, and he summoned up the nerve to walk up the path and ring the bell of J. D. Salinger's house.

"I couldn't believe that I was about to meet my hero, J. D. Salinger," Mr. O told us. "I crept up the walk, slowly, slowly, and I stood in front of his door for at least ten minutes. And then, finally, my finger reached shakily for that little circle button on the side of his door and, I don't know how I got the nerve to do it, but I pushed it."

"What happened then?" someone in the back of the room asked. Mr. O looked at the kid as if he'd asked a very stupid question. He gave his answer in a manner that would suggest that we all should have been able to predict the outcome of this tale.

"I ran away."


  1. I have to wonder if there isn't some kind of middle ground to be had, between being a vapourific media whore, and someone who drinks their own piss. Can you be well known and successful without sacrificing your self respect?

  2. I thought the whole point of working your entire life was so that you could then be a recluse. And be in the same pajamas for at least a week and make people come to you. That, or you could hang out at fast food restaurants and bug everyone around you. I could relate to Mr. O because really? If there was the last case of Pepsi teetering on the cliff and Matt? Pepsi wins because then I'd get Matt's life insurance. So smart I am. ;) And I totally have a voracious, insatiable appetite for slander and filth and pornography. At least now I can tell people in one clear and concise sentence. YAY!

  3. They say that you should never meet your heroes. Mr. O was probably better off. No one can live up to the myth.

    It's funny because I loved The Catcher in the Rye. I'm not being dramatic when I say it changed my life. But there is a part in the beginning where Holden says, sometimes you read a book and you love it so much, that you want to call the author and talk to him about it and tell him how much you loved it. That's how I felt after reading Salinger, and that is something he would've completely rejected. He avoided that interaction entirely, which in some ways I feel like robs people of that experience he lauds. And in other ways, maybe it's for the best.


  5. Nothing wrong with being a 'recluse.' My favorite has always been Emily Dickinson who used to lower down a basket full of goodies out her window to children below. I only hope that one day I too can afford to be a recluse.

    Love the story your teacher told.

  6. That was a wonderful little anecdote. It almost livens up my depression at Salinger's death, and the fact that the press is filled with major douche bags, except a rare handful of decent human beings who can look at the amazing work a person did in their life, rather than the reclusive sort of life they lived...

  7. Wow. Some interesting points.

    You're a really good writer by the way.

    Very engaging.

  8. he also had a penchant for younger ladies, even in his advanced years

  9. Maybe we should all drink our piss, if you make it to the ripe old age of 91.

    Just sayin'.

  10. Don't mean to post twice on the same subject, but I saw this article and thought of you:

  11. Great anecdote about Mr. O. He sounds very eccentric. He should have stayed on the doorstep. I think he and Salinger would have gotten along quite well.


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