J.D. Salinger and the struggle with genius we all wish we had

Like just about every other corn syrup-fed American child, I read The Catcher in the Rye in my high school’s sophomore year English class. In fact, I was lucky enough to have an interesting teacher named Mr. Allen who drew pictures on the chalkboard when we didn’t understand the scene and even imitated Holden’s whining.

As Mr. Allen talked about Salinger’s frustrated disillusionment with the world and even how John Lennon’s killer had obsessively read and misinterpreted the story, I could only feel envy. Mr. Salinger is one of the few modern-day authors who leads life as if he were actually inside a novel or a well-done movie — the Citizen Kane of high school literature authors, it seemed to me as I sat in my plastic and metal desk.

And while I’m very sorry to see Mr. Salinger go, I can’t help but think that this is the way the story in my head should have ended. Had Salinger relented and sent out some sort of shining sequel to Catcher (not that he didn’t turn out several more books. They just didn’t achieve the same sort of notoriety), the ending would have been disjointed. It would have undermined Salinger’s frustration with us; it would give us no reason to look into the rumbling, bumbling mind of America and see what he sees.

Ironically, I don’t think many of us will ever be able to do that, and in this number, I include myself. There are too many skeletons in our closet; Salinger could hardly have only seen one or two when Catcher in the Rye achieved its height of popularity. We’re just too screwed up for someone truly smart to take us for a one-dimensional monster.

And then again, Salinger himself seems to have had his own demons. We won’t know to what extent until someone opens up his cement bunker, and the literature comes pouring forth (as I pray that it will). But until then, goodbye, J.D., and thanks for making sophomore English class worth the taking.

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