Among the Assassins with J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

INVOLVEMENT with the popular culture in any way has been trying to assassinate the late Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger in all kinds of different ways since the very beginning of his emergence from anonymity, either directly, incidentally or by imitation. By the time Fredrik Colting’s misunderstood Sixty Years Later: Coming through the Rye (Windup Bird, 2009) was released a year before his death, its targets lengthy avoidance of even the smallest of spotlights had rendered him nigh impermeable to visibility, hardly like a giving source of material for satirists. For a time he even mandated no cover art for any of his books in accordance with some personal conviction. In calling Colting’s Catcher adaptation a satire, I am in no way suggesting it’s less than any other creative expression, neither am I trying to make light of Salinger. Just the opposite. The tragedy of this particular comedy, in my opinion, is that the so-called real world got in the way of its proper understanding, at least in one or possibly two cases—its author and its target, because of their geometric relationship in society as a couple of writers doing a similar thing for completely different reasons—and now I’m in the mix telling you.

What makes effective satire? Often, the target is a public figure easily identified by a particular trait fictionalized by the satirist as being in commission of a thought or act exemplifying said known trait to a seriocomic degree. Salinger died equally renowned for his reclusiveness as he became famous as a writer. In his own The Catcher in the Rye (Norton, 1951), Salinger satirized all forms of biggity-ness by delivering unpretentious honesty in 1930s teen vernacular. In Colting’s work of satirical meta-fiction (Windup Bird Press, 2009)—get this—the fictional senior citizen version of Holden Caulfield (usually referred to as “Mr. C”) escapes from a rest home he’s been sent to instead of Pencey Prep as a teenager. Elementary satire. Taking it to a higher level, this character’s author, a “Mr. Salinger” periodically reaches into the unfolding narrative of the escapee’s adventures trying to knock off the undying Holden Caulfield, the one character to continue bringing him notice after a mostly-successful campaign of avoidance, in the form of freak accidents he keeps barely escaping.  Meta-satire and climbing, presuming a reach into Salinger’s fictional creations and his private thoughts about them to boot, not a squel precisely but “a complex and undeniably transformative exposition about one of our nation’s most famous authors, J.D. Salinger, and his best-known creation, Holden Caulfield.”

Headshot portrait of author JD Salinger wearing a suit and tie, looking to his right, by the photographer Lotte Jacobi, 1950. (Photo by University of New Hampshire/Gado/Getty Images)

This is not a review, but a socio-literary commentary incorporating references to a handful of works, so I won’t share further details from Colting’s book or tell you the ending. Instead, let’s look at how the author might have misrepresented his own book in this case, both to Salinger, who ultimately succeeded in partially blocking its publication, and to the world at large. He did this through no fault of his own, perhaps cowed by too much respect for his book’s intended target or trying to elevate its status in hiw own mind or those of its target audience because of a feeling of affinity with Salinger’s thematic method. It’s hard to say in this case, but Colting’s book can be read as a passable satire in its present form without any metal reframing. In this reporter’s opinion, Salinger’s ultimate banning of it from the US marketplace was both unwarranted and perfectly understandable, taking into account his being from the first so maladjusted to his chosen career of self-assassination in a culture of assassins, which I’ll get to in a minute.

This Fredrik Colting quote from the early period of alarm about his book, that he “hoped [Salinger] would be happy with the book,” implies if nothing more that he meant Sixty Years later in an affectionate way, and the greatest satire of all is affectionate, in this reporter’s opinion, despite the current popularity of no-holds-barred -whatever-they’re-calling-it-now. “I’m not trying to lure him out of hiding – maybe he wants his privacy [but] it would be fun for me to hear what he thinks about this, and if he’s pleased with the way I’ve portrayed Holden Caulfield and his future,” continued Colting in an interview in approximately May of 2009³, just trying to make friends, sadly knocking at the wrong stronghold. In my opinion, this would have been the proper moment for him to come clean about his method of composition when it came to Sixty Years later. Instead we are given the idea he was trying to do something noble and emotionally pure in courting a storied recluse, which completely takes away from his book’s undeniable architecture and rather ruins its potential effect. I started reading it with entirely the wrong frame of my mind and kept wondering what I was looking for before realizing. “It’s just a joke,” he might have said. “Can’t you take a joke?” instead of making straight-faced allusions to portrayal of the future of a character he never made, if you see what I mean. It wasn’t funny to Salinger. Circa January 2011, according to a settlement agreement seen by Publishers Weekly, Colting has agreed not to publish or otherwise distribute the book, e-book, or any other editions of 60 Years Later in the U.S. or Canada until The Catcher in the Rye enters the public domain⁴.

Mark David Chapman with a copy of Catcher in the Rye

I said a culture of assassins. A few lesser-known facts about Colting’s alleged satirical target are that future author Jerome David Salinger began his military career by landing on Utah Beach on D-Day, entered a subcamp of Dachau, and served a distinguished career in counter-intelligence at CIA precursor the Office of Strategic Services before being discharged, which experiences impacted him extremely. It’s only a guess but judging by the timeline of major events in this author’s life, being made to conform to the worst of himself or be killed in this way was the proximal inspiration for his increasing aversion to society. One of his first acts back home was checking himself into a sanitarium for “combat fatigue” (a dated term for PTSD), then turning avidly to a variety of religion in further efforts at refreshing the browser, including Buddhism and the texts of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism² advocating humility (see Holden Caulfield’s dislike of “phoniness” and words like “grand” all through Catcher).

Think of it. First he’s plunked down in the middle of a combat zone, then Holllywood tries to assassinate his privacy and his meaning by making a dumb movie panned by critics out of a great story written sincerely, then every new book about any young smart ass to come along gets compared to Catcher in the Rye, cited by two assassins as a formative influence (John Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan in 1978, Mark David Chapman’s on John Lennon in 1980)—arguablybecause of the same old chosen enemy, all the helpless victims of the marketing juggernaut he’s been trying to blot out since its hooks in him and Holden Caulfield told us not to go the movies if we want to know the truth. This adds another wrinkle or two to Catcher’s significance as a particularly American artifact; victim Reagan being a revered scion of the Right for being pro-Establishment and Lennon of the left for being counter-cultural). Whatever Salinger’s personal politics were matters little to a Gordian knot like that, especially considering he almost certainly never wrote to inspire any interpersonal misdeeds, just the opposite. But that’s only a guess. He stopped talking about himself a long time ago. My hypothesis is that Fredrik Colting knew enough about the facts of J.D. Salinger’s life, including the two assassination attempts, that he was hesitant to really let the truth be known and the satire be shown in this case. In summation, Salinger never could take a joke, and there may have been a perfectly good reason for it I can only guess at, and Colting can’t tell one correctly, but then again, maybe it only looks that way. I would encourage him to reconsider his marketing approach in the non-U.S. territories to which he now has access (which he may have done already), while at the same time commending his good intentions toward J.D.S., and I’ll close with the nugget, lest you say this piece portends no future, that forty years of unpublished writing was discovered upon Salinger’s demise, to be released eventually. Son Matt Salinger says his father “teemed with ideas and thoughts, and he’d be driving the car and he’d pull over to write something and laugh to himself – sometimes he’d read it to me, sometimes he wouldn’t – and next to every chair he had a notebook,” and “most all of what he wrote will at some point be shared with the people that love reading his stuff . . . He wanted me to pull it together, and because of the scope of the job, he knew it would take a long time. This was somebody who was writing for 50 years without publishing, so that’s a lot of material. So there’s not a reluctance or a protectiveness: when it’s ready, we’re going to share it.⁵”





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