Archive for August 2008

In Search of J.D. Salinger

A writer has his obsessions, his themes, that he continually comes back to in his work. The obsessions reflect what has been eating him from the inside out for as long as he can remember. He may find inspiration in a distant and snow-covered mountain; in the big beautiful lips of his first-born son; or in the experience of riding a horse for the first time outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and kicking the horse to go, not knowing the horse has stopped simply to take a piss, and that you had been kicking him hard for a good thirty seconds, which is a long time to be kicking a horse if you think about how long thirty-seconds of irritating pain can be, but invariably, he’ll come back to the things that bother him. Too many things have been bothering me for a long time, and things aren’t really getting better. Just ask the guy I’ve been seeing every Thursday for the last two years.

So when I’m in pain, in consistent mental discomfort, and my beautiful family’s existence can do nothing to help me, I find my church in the lives of imaginary people: literary characters, maybe, or real people whose lives I know nothing of, but I still choose to impose melodrama upon them. For what? To make me feel better about my life and my pain? I don’t know.

My wife helps me in my search to find these people.

That’s another one of the new cliché’s, by the way, isolating a line like it’s supposed to completely wreck you and send you breathing sighs of pity and exasperations.

I read a good biography of J.D. Salinger called Salinger: a biography by Paul Alexander, and in the first chapter Alexander recalls the time he sat at the end of J.D. Salinger’s driveway to wait for his daily jaunt down the hill to the post office or the grocery store. Well, Salinger comes down the driveway in this anticlimactic moment, but then Alexander makes up for it by describing the exact route he took to get there. My wife would read the directions from the book verbatim, and I’d drive us there, like we were little kids in search of treasure.
We were on our way home from my mother in-law’s house, nestled (another cliché) in the most beautiful part of the country I’ve ever seen, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Before we even thought of chasing Salinger down, as we had little guidance aside from wispy memories and the remainder-pile book I had, I was compelled to stop the car near a house peculiarly close to the edge of the main road that runs through North Danville, Vermont. We’d driven past this house about a hundred times in the nine years we’d been together, and every time I’d have more questions. I figured she’d know, because this is the kind of town where everyone knows whether or not you had corn for dinner two nights ago.

There’s a barn in the foreground that housed some horses. The tons of snow they get up there had buckled the roof, and that’s saying a lot for a Vermont-made roof. The owner, I figured, didn’t take care of it like he should have. When I asked about it, my wife said that the worst part of it all was the hoof rot, that the horses were left to walk in a small penned-in area, and the surface was so muddy, so soft, that the horses hooves sat caked in it all the time, and this, in turn, caused what is known as hoof rot. The neighbors, which could mean anyone in a ten-mile radius, apparently were all in an uproar over this and had reported this owner several times to the appropriate authorities, whoever they were.

I cared more for the people inside, though, for some reason. Usually, I might have a little bit of disdain for people like these, but when my wife told me the man who owned the house, a husband and a father of two or three adult children, had terminal cancer, things changed. It’s so easy for me to make assumptions about people I don’t know, or people I do know, but haven’t seen in a while.

He has not emailed back in a long time; therefore, he must hate me.

No one has praised my work all year, so, therefore, they must want to fire me.

That house is in severe disrepair, a blue tarp covers a hole in the side of the house, and look: one of them drives a school bus for a living; therefore, I must be far superior to them.

You would think I’d know better, especially in growing up the way I did, what with the food stamps and the pea soup, and the crusty bread, and the hard government cheese…

And my father reminding me constantly, as we drove past nice houses on Long Island to get to Roosevelt Field to set up our flea market booth, that it was never about the outside of the house but who was inside.

But I’m angry. I’ve always been angry about the way things were for me when I trudged through the most formative years of my social and emotional development being figuratively kicked along.

I am not angry at rich people. I have no bitterness toward the privileged few. My anger seems to be with those who are down, the ones who looked like I did, with the hair sticking up and the dirt under the fingernails. I want them to get the fuck up and fight for themselves. I’m not even angry at them.

I’m angry with me.

My wife scampered up the woods across the road from this house to snap these photos two years ago. I told her I wanted to write about them, but I really didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with them. I had no idea, at this point, that we would find our way to J.D. Salinger’s house the same day.

 

There was a moment during my wife’s reconnaissance mission when I thought they were looking out their windows, that he might be standing at a window, stricken with cancer and resigned to the fact that it was probably another neighbor gathering evidence against him.

 

 

 

I don’t really know how to tell if a horse is being mistreated. In the old cartoons I used to watch a broken down horse had a concave back. This horse didn’t look too miserable to me, but I imagine the back of his legs could have been treated a little better.

I heard the cancer-stricken man had three grown kids, two sons and a daughter. I remember he had kids, because the story that followed that up was that they were doing well for themselves, that they were holding down regular jobs and making regular money.

My father has never had a nice car in his life. My brothers and I have always had better cars than he did because that’s the way my dad wanted it. It wasn’t something he ever mentioned, either. My brothers and I talked about it all the time.

I imagine him in his deathbed, home hospice down to their last day or two, because they are keen to such things, and set up in that top window so he can see his horses and he can see us. That one brown horse is looking right at my wife as she takes the picture, and if you scroll up, he’s turned the other way and looking right at her.

What bothers me the most about this is the way this man could have felt as he was dying. He’s gone now, died in his 50s, I think, and he left his house like this when he died. That bothers me for some reason because if I knew I was dying and this was the way I was leaving things for my family, I’d feel like I completely failed in my duty as a man. I’m not saying it’s a rational way to think, but I know how disgusted my father was with himself when things got really bad for us. I remember coming out of the bathroom shower at fourteen and complaining to my parents that I had to wash my hair with a bar of soap. My father yelled at us for a lot of things, but he didn’t say a thing at that moment.

The horses aren’t there today. The weeds are all overgrown where they used to walk, so I imagine they sold them off and got a few dollars for them. I’m imagining that the family got rid of the horses like people get rid of boxes of clothes of those who have passed out of their lives. Maybe it was the money, that they could get a few thousand dollars for them. If it was the money, though, why didn’t they sell them off to repair the house a little? Maybe they kept the horses to spite the neighbors. Perhaps with all the complaining, some of the proper authorities paid them a visit, inspected the horses, and found that they were happy.

***

I’ve been huge into biographies lately. I read one on F. Scott Fitzgerald last summer, and I picked up one on John Steinbeck after writing to a Steinbeck preservation society to ask for the one they tend to endorse. I got a quick reply from a volunteer who waxed critical of a particular one I should definitely avoid. So I picked up the other one, but honestly, none of them are earth-shattering. I like them informative and focused, but I suppose the limits of the genre take away much of the literary artistry that I look for in a lot of what I read now. I have to be careful, though, because I’m trying to avoid using biography to drive the literary discussions I facilitate in my high school classes. When I started teaching – even during the first ten years of my teaching career – I leaned on the lives of the authors almost exclusively. Just like the genre of the biography or the historical text, analyzing literature through the pages of an author’s life is too myopic and it hinders organic discussion by shoving the “why” right down their throats.

Paul Alexander’s biography of Salinger started my fascination. I was particularly interested because of my lifelong love of The Catcher in the Rye and that Salinger’s life has been a reclusive one. How could anyone really penetrate well enough to give me anything of substance? After I read this book I learned that Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, wrote an autobiography that explored her childhood. I was going to pick it up until the day I took my family on an excursion away from the normal route home from my wife’s mother’s house and into the driveway of J.D. Salinger.

As I mentioned before, I had no intention of going to his house that day. I think the whole idea of autographs and hallowed ground is ridiculous. I didn’t used to think so. I visited Seattle in 1994 with a friend in search of Eddie Vedder, and I visited Bruce Lee’s gravesite. His son Brandon had just been killed during the filming of “The Crow” and his site was fresh, with a temporary stone in place while the permanent one was being engraved. He was buried next to his father, so my friend and I thought it cool to have our pictures taken standing next to the headstone of Bruce Lee. It was decidedly uncool, like most things I did fifteen years ago.

The Connecticut River separates Vermont and New Hampshire and runs along Interstate 91. The key to finding Salinger’s house was finding Windsor, Vermont a beautiful little town that served as the summer retreat of the great, Maxwell Perkins, editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.

Alexander did the rest. As I drove, my wife read aloud:

“I turned left coming off the covered bridge from Windsor and drove down the main road that wound along the river. On my right I passed a side road which, a sign informed me, led to Saint-Gaudens Historical Site.”

“You’re going too fast,” I said to my wife, “I just came off the bridge.”

“OK, OK,” she said.

“Soon, I passed a green history marker commemorating the old Cornish Colony. The marker stood near the Blow-Me-Down Mill, a three-story stone structure with wood siding. Past the mill, at the Chase Cemetery, a small graveyard surrounded by a white picket fence, I turned right onto a narrow asphalt road. Next I drove just over a mile, passing a three-story slat-shingled mansion and then two huge red barns built among green sloping hills, until I turned right at a small abandoned guard house.”

We were a little confused because of the “small abandoned guard house.” It’s like a little toll booth, and we were expecting something bigger. We saw a house with a porch and I was like, “Well, that could be a guard house, ’cause you can sit on the porch with a shotgun and guard stuff…Like farmers do, or like the farmers do on television.”

“You are a dumbass,” my wife said.

“Going up the asphalt road, I passed Austin Farms. Just beyond the farms, the asphalt road turned into a dirt road, which then ran under a long heavy canopy created by rows of tall green trees growing on either side of the road. In time, to my left I saw a red house that appeared to be a converted barn. Next, continuing up the road, I topped a hill, which was bordered by spacious pastures – pastures, I later learned, that belonged to J.D. Salinger. Driving up the road, I stopped at an old dilapidated barn.”

This is the part I love to recall in my mind, yet, I’m not ever able to tell it well because two things were happening simultaneously, my wife was reading and my eyes were doing what Alexander said he was doing. It was really quite magical, I assure you.

“Finally, I looked up through the trees on the hill in front of me and I saw it – Salinger’s house.”

Out of all the things to be amazed and wondrous about, I was obsessed with his mailbox. Look at the size of this monster. Not only must he get a lot of mail, but he must want a lot of mail, too. I was tempted to find a Kinko’s or something to print out the manuscript I had on my laptop and put it in his mailbox with a note. I wanted to write any kind of note to him.

“I’ll go knock on his door if you want,” my wife said.

“You’re just going to go up there and knock on his door.”

“Yes,” she repeated.

“No, you’re not,” I said. For her to go up and knock on his door, I would have had to been knocked out, like B.A. Baracus before getting on an airplane, and then she would have had to tell me the whole thing afterward.

So she didn’t knock on his door, and I didn’t leave him a note.

I read somewhere that you had to be a woman, or a teenage girl, for him to respond, and you needed to send a picture. I also read that he can sniff a fanatic from a mile away, that all his close friends call him Jerry and not “J.D.” or “Mister Salinger.” They really do. I swear they do.

Two houses, two reconnaissance missions, presumably two scenes of misery, one trip. Maybe the answer to everything that is eating me alive has been lying right next to me in our bed for the last ten years – that all along it’s been Jennet who has kept me alive and breathing by suffering all of my impulses and broodings.

Jennet, please look at me closely. I’m not going to kill myself. I promise.