Two New Works Capture Only Fleeting Glimpses of the Ever-Elusive J.D. Salinger

Hector Tobar
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist and My Salinger Year prove that the man's desire to be left alone may forever frustrate our efforts to know who he truly was.

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Author: Thomas Beller
Publication date: 2014-06

My Salinger Year

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Author: Joanna Rakoff
Publication date: 2014-06

The famously reclusive J.D. Salinger wouldn’t allow himself to be known. And yet assorted authors continue to probe his life. Inevitably, they are forced to reiterate the same few scattered facts other scribes have pored over before. That’s the fate Thomas Beller tries to avoid, with mixed success, in his biography-cum-travelogue J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist.

Read more, and you may get an actual, fleeting look at the man as he stood in life — something Joanna Rakoff delivers in her often intriguing and lyrical but uneven new memoir, My Salinger Year.

After reading the new Salinger books by Beller and Rakoff (both respected novelists), I couldn’t help but wish that “Jerry” — as the author of The Catcher in the Rye was known to his friends — had sat down for at least one definitive, revealing interview before he died in 2010. If he’d done so, we probably would have been spared much of the strange, sad spectacle of the Salinger cult.

Salinger obsessions drive My Salinger Year which recounts Rakoff’s time working as a lowly assistant at the New York literary agency that represented Salinger.

“People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number,” Salinger’s agent tells Rakoff. “They’re going to ask you to put them in touch with him... They’ll say they want to interview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what.” With narrowed eyes, “like a caricature of a gangster,” the agent warns Rakoff, “Don’t tell them anything.”

Salinger became one of the most famous writers in the United States with the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye. An instant bestseller, it eventually became required reading for alienated Americans of all ages and the first “serious” literary novel assigned to several generations of American middle- and high-school students.

Not long after The Catcher in the Rye appeared, Salinger moved to Cornish, New Hampshire. His media silence and invisibility only increased his hold on the American imagination.

Salinger was already four decades into his New Hampshire exile when Rakoff came to work at Harold Ober Associates. (The agency isn’t named in Rakoff’s book, though it was in her 2010 piece for Slate, as is Phyllis Westberg, the agent who appears in the book only as “my boss”.)

Rakoff’s memoir works best as a profile of what was, even then, a dying institution — the old-fashioned New York literary agency. There is much smoking of cigarettes. Book deals are closed over lunch and a handshake.

The “Agency way” of getting authors book deals involves “no auctions, with publishers bidding against each other. It’s uncouth,” one agent tells Rakoff. “We match writers with editors. We have morals.”

To enter the agency’s offices is to enter a kind of time warp. It’s 1996 (long after Al Gore “invented” the Internet), but the agency has neither an Internet connection nor a single computer. Rakoff’s job is to type up correspondence — with an old IBM Selectric. She soon suspects that the agency eschews computers because Salinger hates them.

Unfortunately, the frame holding up this fascinating and emotive portrait of old-fashioned literary New York is Rakoff’s own, not-especially remarkable life as a recently minted, earnest college graduate with her own artistic aspirations.

Rakoff’s coming-of-age story is a bit of a slog. Among other things, it includes a discussion with her father over her credit card bills and getting miffed when her boyfriend stares at another woman at a cafe. Each reentry of Salinger into the narrative is a welcomed relief. (He first appears as a voice yelling on the phone — he’s hard of hearing.) And when Rakoff finally meets Salinger inside the agency’s office, “his silver hair parted deeply on one side, combed and Brylcreemed in the style of the 1950s and 1960s,” and greets his agent, it’s a genuinely moving moment.

In The Escape Artist Beller’s relationship with Salinger is more voyeuristic. Beller, a veteran fiction and magazine writer, co-founded the literary journal Open City. He never met Salinger. His mission in The Escape Artist is to craft an intimate and highly personal account of Salinger’s life.

The result is an episodic quilting of incidents and interviews (not recounted in chronological order), many of which have appeared in other books, together with accounts of Beller’s own journeys to assorted landmarks of Salinger’s life, including the Manhattan apartment where Salinger lived with his family.

Entering the apartment, Beller walks down a hallway and sees “the open door of a bathroom and the gleaming white bathtub in which Zooey Glass,” one of Salinger’s characters, “had sat with letter in hand, cigarette smoldering.”

Although Beller writes with intelligence and insight — especially about Salinger’s Jewish heritage — his informal approach feels unfocused. The principal contribution of The Escape Artist to Salingerism may be its appreciation of the role of the New Yorker editors Gustave Lobrano and William Shawn on Salinger’s work.

Still, you don’t have to be a completely devoted Salinger fan to appreciate the basic story Beller has to share in The Escape Artist. It’s the tale of a sensitive, ambitious, self-confident, manipulative and slightly odd man with unspoken traumas, who loved language and crafted a masterpiece. He was a man whose desire to be left alone may forever frustrate our efforts to know who he truly was.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.