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January 29th, 2010
11:33 PM ET

"If you really want to hear about it..."

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger, pictured in 1951, was best known for the novel 'The Catcher in the Rye.'
Reclusive author J.D. Salinger, pictured in 1951, was best known for the novel 'The Catcher in the Rye.'

Bill Scheft
Special to AC360°

"I wasn't watching the game too much. What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of goodbye."

So spaketh Holden Caulfield as he stood on a hill before he left Pencey Prep and set out to become the greatest literary anti-hero of the 20th Century..

I am a cliche. A lost boy born just after Eisenhower had triumphed a second time over creeping intellectualism. I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time when I was 12, the second when I was 15, the third when I was 18, the fourth when I was 22 and on the train to New Haven to cover my last Harvard hockey game. I opened my game story with that quote , which was the first thing I thought of yesterday at 1:07 pm, when my computer told me JD Salinger had died.

I am a cliche. I read everything the man ever allowed to be published, as well as a noble effort of biography/litigation memoir, In Search of JD Salinger written by Ian Hamilton, another lost boy looking for more. At 22, I went out on a date with a girl named Esme SOLELY because her name was Esme. (Do I have to bother to tell you when she rolled her eyes and said, "What, Salinger again?" that I wasn't the first.)

I once bought a hooker a couple of drinks with money I couldn't spare to talk with me at a bar for ten minutes about what it was like to be a hooker. As if that was my idea. As if I had stopped reading "Catcher" with 50 pages left because "The White Shadow" was coming on. I wrote a relentlessly unpublished first novel that wise-guyed its way through 418 pages, just long enough for me to be misunderstood. The fact it had no plot and 80,000 of its 110,000 words were "I" only reinforced what I kinda knew. A singular voice is singular.

I took two trips up and down the Nine Stories (and two more on "For Esme, with Love and Squalor"). Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction Zenned themselves in between. "Catcher" got one last pass shortly after I met the woman who became my wife. I meant to give it to her as a gift. Meant to.

By the time I was 32, I had left Salinger alone, which was what he said he wanted. I paid no attention to parking lot sightings or paramournal whisperings. The last memorable reference came from my uncle, Herbert Warren Wind, the iconic golf and tennis laureate for the New Yorker for four decades, and the man who generously showed me the possibilities of living a writer's life in Manhattan. We were out at dinner one night, and I asked him about the small weekend house in Connecticut he had recently sold.. "I miss my neighbors," he said.

"Who?"
"Frederic March, and the Glass Family."

Sure, I hope some mystical trunk is unlocked and there is more for us to read, but only if he'd like us to see it. I am trying to feel some sort of goodbye, but I think most of us said goodbye long ago. Maybe the night of December 8, 1980, a week after I had moved to New York, when a copy of The Catcher in the Rye was found on the sidewalk 28 blocks north of my room at the Times Square Motor Hotel.

So, let others eulogize longer and better and more lyrically. From me, you get those two lines up top, and this: I am a novelist because Salinger told me it was safe to be one.

Editor's Note: Bill Scheft is a staff writer for "Late Show with David Letterman." His third novel, 'EVERYTHING HURTS, will be published in paperback this April.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Denise Barlow

    Incredibly inspirational. I was hanging on to every word.

    January 30, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  2. toddhurley

    Bill,

    That was beautiful, seriously. The extension of your original post was really quite moving.There are moments when I read your writing that actually make ME feel like it's okay to be a writer. So maybe you are passing along the sentiment in your own way. Whatever the case, it's the continuation of what Mr. Salinger started... in the mind of Holden Caufield.

    A wonderful writer...

    A wonderful lament...

    Thanks for both....

    todd

    January 29, 2010 at 10:56 pm |

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