I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Salinger, a documentary currently on Netflix streaming, upset me so much, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First, it made me incredibly sad to learn the famous recluse built a brick building about two hundred yards from his house in New Hampshire, and he’d hole up there for days, sometimes weeks at a stretch, and just write, ignoring his family. I imagine his son and daughter looking out their bedroom windows and being able to see their father, but they couldn’t go talk to him; they couldn’t go visit with him unless they wanted to provoke his ire. Ditto Salinger’s wife. Now, on the one hand, I found myself envious of the man’s dedication, not to mention of the amount of free time he had to write and think and read. On the other hand, it sickened me to learn he (almost) completely ignored his family in order to write. Although I do live in my head, I still need connections with people, especially the two most important people in my life: Harry, my son, and Libby, my wife. Not only have those two made me a better person, they have also made me a better writer because I have experienced love through them. For that, I am lucky. Perhaps Salinger wasn’t so lucky.
Another thing that upset me was the man’s peculiar (I’m being kind) interest in young women and girls. Putting aside for the moment the unspeakably horrible things he witnessed during WWII, Salinger maintained a lifelong fetish for females who were not quite women but not quite girls anymore either. The film made it seem as if he wanted to live vicariously through these girls while also instructing them on how to live. This type of narcissism and self-righteousness can be found in Salinger’s later works, and yes, it is definitely present in Catcher in the Rye.
I suppose what struck me the most about this documentary was that I, unfortunately, identified with Salinger. That instinct to hide from the world and indulge in writing and movies and books and daydreams and forget everything else is very real to me. At thirty-four years of age, I still haven’t shaken the romantic notion of the artist recluse, and it is a fantasy that I indulge in weekly, sometimes daily if I am particularly depressed or anxious. I, like Salinger, have impossibly high standards for myself and the world, and it truly bums me out when I don’t meet them; when the world–that beautifully-flawed orb I often times curse one second and marvel at the next–disappoints me, I want to escape, I want to retreat back to my favorite books and movies and TV shows and poems where there are fleeting moments of perfection, where the artist revealed something indelible about the human experience, and, not to sound adolescent, but you’re just not quite the same afterwards. Whatever else Salinger was or did or thought, he was also a guy who wrote Catcher in the Rye, a book that has more than its fair share of perfect moments. That book inspired me at a particular time in my life, made me comprehend certain things about the adult world and about myself. But if you ask me if those perfect moments in that one book–a book I now have little patience or use for–excuse all his other transgressions, the answer is a resounding NO.. .