JD Salinger took reclusiveness to the point where it became pretentious and tiresome; he almost became more renowned for his determined invisibility than for his literary output. Maybe this is because he never actually wrote much – it would be possible to read the complete works in a couple of days. As well as refusing to give interviews, correspond or even make a physical appearance of any sort, he refused flatly to allow anyone to adapt his stories in any way, even taking legal action in 2009 against a Swede who produced some sort of sequel to his most famous book, Catcher in the Rye.
Now he has died, will they make a movie of Catcher in the Rye? And what would Hollywood do with such a classic? They could create an unashamed nostalgia-fest aimed at the 40-70 (or whatever) demographic brought up on the thing. But the studios will no doubt seek a bigger market. Update it so the action takes place in 2010 rather than around 1950, so you don’t creep out today’s youth audience with weird-looking cars and hairstyles. Make sure Holden Caulfield (played by Daniel ‘Harry Potter’ Radcliff, or maybe Brad Pitt) actually has sex with the hooker (Paris Hilton) in the seedy hotel. Tweak the plot so, strolling through Times Square, he helps George Clooney thwart a Muslim terrorist attack, personally shooting five of the would-be bombers with a half-inch caliber machine gun he holds in one hand. On his way to visit his old teacher, the terrorists’ accomplices come out to get him, and in the resulting 20-minute high-speed chase with amazing special effects, 96 vehicles and seven buildings are blown up. Then the aliens land. Soundtrack by Eminem or Beyonce*.
Why not? Catcher in the Rye grabbed teenagers because it was a larger-than-life fantasy. Holden’s rebellious antics and precocity are not credible. A teenage schoolboy picking up a prostitute, pontificating about women and death and generally acting and thinking like someone two or three times his age? Salinger created a very cool character who every 16-year-old kid would like to be (in some ways), even though it’s about as likely as having superhuman powers owing to exposure to Kryptonite.
The Glass family in Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and the other short stories similarly represented something unattainable in real life: intellectual, free-living, upper East Side Manhattan-dwelling and of course beautiful. It’s intriguingly written, great reading – and escapism.
Maybe that is why Salinger became an ultra-hermit: he was afraid of being rumbled as, to quote his hero’s favourite insult, a phony. But how many deaths are this talked about? I am still trying to get out of the habit – caught decades ago from Buddy Glass in Raise High – of saying “he’s a chiropodist” when strangers ask what a third person does for a living.
* OK, I have never knowingly heard anything by Beyonce, so I might be doing her – I think it’s a ‘her’ – a disservice of some sort, but… it’s just such a stupid name.