Catcher Out of the Rye

The return of J.D. Salinger, sort of.

Published January 20, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

when Holden Caulfield wasn't griping about "phonies" in J.D. Salinger's classic 1951 novel "The Catcher in the Rye," he dreamed about getting away from it all -- "to build me a little cabin ... right near the woods." Of course, the person who actually lived out that Unabomberish cultural fantasy was Salinger himself. He fled to tiny Cornish, New Hampshire (pop.1,659) in 1953, and the world has heard nary a peep from him since.

Unlike Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, two other novelists who've established that the virtual vanishing act can be a smart career move, Salinger has published no new work in 32 years. He's preferred to speak through his phalanx of lawyers, who've been kept busy squashing websites devoted to his work and keeping his letters away from prying biographers. Why the silent treatment? If you believe Salinger biographer (and Salinger lawsuit-victim) Ian Hamilton, it's because the then-young author was so stung by the bad reviews of his last book, "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour, An Introduction" (1963), that he simply decided to take his ball and go home. If only Jay McInerney were so sensitive.

Salinger's monolithic silence, however, appears to be ending. The Washington Post's David Streitfeld -- the talented reporter who fingered Joe Klein as the "Anonymous" behind "Primary Colors" -- reported on Friday that next month Salinger, now 78, plans to publish his first new book in 34 years. Well, sort of new: titled "Hapworth 16, 1924," the book will put between hard covers a novella that first appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. Doubly shocking -- to jealous, cash-hungry publishers, anyway -- was the news that the book will be released by tiny Orchises Press in Alexandria, Virginia, which is run by Roger Lathbury, an English professor at George Mason University.

If you don't happen to have a copy of the June 19, 1965, New Yorker lying around the house, "Hapworth 16, 1924" is told in the form of a letter from the precocious 7-year-old Seymour Glass to his family. The novella was the final published installment in Salinger's saga about the Glass family, which includes "Franny and Zooey" (1961) and "Raise High the Roof Beam" (1963). There's a breezy, youthful exuberance about "Hapworth 16, 1924," albeit one that's tinged with more than a little sadness. That's because, as Salinger devotees are well aware, Seymour Glass is the character who commits suicide by blowing his head off at the end of Salinger's short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," collected in the 1953 volume "Nine Stories."

No one seems certain why Salinger chose next month to break his self-imposed publishing exile -- perhaps there's just something in the air. Literary recluses Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo both have new novels due out this year (Pynchon's ""Mason & Dixon" will be published this spring; DeLillo's novel "Underworld" is slated for fall); who can blame Salinger for wanting to complete this literary Bermuda Triangle?

Literary conspiracy buffs are certain to come crawling out from under their woodpiles. Remember the old canard about Salinger and Pynchon being the same person? Or about Pynchon being the Unabomber? Now we can expect a new bushel of giddy theories: Salinger is really both Pynchon and DeLillo! They've been taking turns being the Unabomber, with Ted Kaczynski as the patsy! Let's hope Pierre Salinger -- Hmm ... any relation to J.D.? -- stumbles upon the assorted Web sites.

If Salinger does have his finger to the wind, he may have noticed that Pynchon (who hides in plain sight in New York with his wife, the literary agent Melanie Jackson, and their young son Jackson), has begun poking his neck from his shell in recent years. Among other things, he's written liner notes for an album by the band Lotion. (I know one of the band member's girlfriends, who's had coffee with Pynchon: "He's very sweet and sort of shy," she told me. "And he looks a bit like a rabbit.") He's also rumored to be the author of a series of wildly cerebral letters to the editor of a small Northern California newspaper, written under a pseudonym. These missives have recently been collected in book form as "The Letters of Wanda Tinasky."

What's more, New York magazine's Nancy Jo Sales reported recently that in 1994 Pynchon agreed to look over a script for the John Laroquette Show (yikes) that involved him. According to the show's head writer, Don Reo, Pynchon's agent called with a few of the novelist's suggested changes. "First, you call him Tom, and no one ever calls him Tom." Second, the script had Pynchon giving a friend a Willy DeVille T-shirt as a gift. The agent said that although Pynchon "likes Willy DeVille, he would prefer if it were a T-shirt with Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators."

Roky Erickson? Pynchon sounds like he genuinely rocks. Sales, who surreptitiously followed the reclusive writer around for a day or two and watched him buy health food, ultimately described him this way: "a kind of cross between 'The Nutty Professor' (Jerry Lewis') and Caine in 'Kung Fu.'" You certainly can't say that about John Updike.

Should Salinger choose to look to Pynchon for inspiration on living the Good Life, Hermit Division, he has a few options. He could toss off some liner notes for the (unfortunately-named) Dublin-based band Rollerskate Skinny, which maintains a Web site describing its members as a bunch of "J.D. Salinger-inspired guitar abusers," whatever that means. Or, if "Hapworth 16, 1924" wins a major book award this year, Salinger could reprise Pynchon's prankish non-appearance at the 1974 National Book Award ceremonies, where his novel "Gravity's Rainbow" was honored. Instead of appearing himself, Pynchon sent Professor Irwin Corey, a comedian and self-described "expert on everything." Corey's rambling speech was described by the New York Times as "a series of bad jokes and mangled syntax which left some people roaring and others perplexed."

In any case, there are indications that Salinger -- the man Norman Mailer once described as "the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school" -- hasn't always lived up to his monkish reputation. Biographer Hamilton has claimed to have come across stories indicating that Salinger has sought out the actresses Catherine Oxenberg and Elaine Joyce, and that the friends invited up to his mountain retreat have included Alan Arkin.

"Hapworth 16, 1924" is due on bookstore shelves soon. And while it's fun to imagine the creator of Holden Caulfield walking among us again -- perhaps a bit like Caine in "Kung Fu" but perhaps not -- it's highly unlikely we'll see Salinger on Oprah anytime soon, or launching a 20-city book tour. And thank God, really. Hasn't enough mystery gone out of the world?

EXTRA! Censorship gap

Let them eat V-chips! As if the poor didn't have enough to put up with -- welfare cuts, terrible neighborhoods, patronizing lectures from William Bennett -- now it turns out they're censorship-deprived as well. Malcolm Gladwell, in a patronizing little "Comment" in the January 20 New Yorker, suggests that the impending advent of the V-chip will only push television executives to put even more sex and violence on the tube, knowing that parents will have the opportunity to block such stuff from getting to their kids. But what of those without a V-chip, Gladwell wonders -- those who "aren't rich enough to buy a new television set as long as the old one is still working," or who just don't care what their kids watch? "It has apparently never occurred to these parents that television can be a bad influence," Gladwell sniffs. "Yet their families -- mainly lower income, ill-educated -- are the ones the most in need of protection from television violence ... Not only does the V-chip make television worse, it makes television worse precisely for those already most vulnerable to its excesses." Newt Gingrich's plan to put a laptop in every inner city lap never exactly took off. Will V-chip fans crusade for a new TV in every living room?

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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