Hermaneutics

By Herman Goodden - - Art & Books
The London Yodeller

The Wounded Wonder of J.D. Salinger

Like most adolescents of the last three or four generations who were not averse to picking up a book and pondering the meaning of existence, my first encounter with The Catcher in The Rye (1951), the only novel so far published by J.D. Salinger (1919-2010), was momentous. Driven by the pitch-perfect and miraculously timeless vernacular of its American adolescent narrator – 16 year-old Holden Caulfield – the novel movingly depicts the struggles of a bright and defensively caustic upper class kid who thinks he might be going crazy as he comes to recognize his inability to fulfill the deepest longing of his heart to align himself with any cause or person that isn’t fundamentally “phony”.

Unlike a few of my friends who were equally thrilled by Salinger’s short story collections that primarily chronicled the existential travails of the impossibly precocious Glass family, Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), I found these alternately precious and cynical tales to be pretty thin gruel. And it was sobering to re-read The Catcher in The Rye as an adult when my kids were falling under its spell. While I still marveled at Salinger’s accomplishment in capturing that voice, I now found I was impatient with and repelled by the book’s over all message that it isn’t possible to become an adult and maintain your integrity.

I’ve just finished reading David Shields’ and Shane Salerno’s Salinger (2013), a 700 page tome which was published as a complement to Salerno’s two-hour documentary of the same title. It goes a long way to explaining how its subject got so stuck as an artist – he stopped publishing altogether in 1965 – and a human being. Salinger married three times and had at least twice that many dalliances; always with young girls on the cusp of womanhood who’d then be rejected. David Shields writes: “The same pattern recurs throughout his life: innocence admired, innocence seduced, innocence abandoned. Salinger is obsessed with girls at the edge of their bloom. He wants to help them bloom. Then he blames them for blooming.”

Born to a taciturn Jewish father who was convicted of price-fixing in his meat importing business (including verboten hams) one can see where he developed the idea that adulthood innately entailed corruption. A smothering Catholic mother in whose eyes he could do no wrong trained him to take the support of women for granted. And when the first real love of his life, Oona O’Neill (daughter of the playwright Eugene), broke off their engagement to marry the considerably older Charlie Chaplin, he also learned not to trust them. And then there was his participation in five of the bloodiest battles of World War II – his initiation to the world of combat was D-Day, landing on Utah Beach – capped off in the spring of 1945 when he was one of the first Americans to enter one of the Nazi death camps and confront the full horror of what grown men can do.

Though he stopped publishing Salinger always claimed that he kept writing and the posthumous publication of material from Salinger’s vault was supposed to commence sometime between 2015 and 2020 with a collection of more stories about the Glass family. Almost a year and a half into that period, we’re still waiting for that long anticipated flood to get underway. I for one won’t be terribly surprised if the great Hemingway biographer, A.E. Hotchner, had it right when he joked: “What if after all these years when Jerry’s been in his block house and allegedly writing all this stuff that’s too good for people to see because they’re going to distort it; what if when Jerry dies and they go into his vault and they open up his alleged treasure trove, what if there’s nothing there? . . . It would be a divine ploy, wouldn’t it?”

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I don’t know if any of our readers have chanced to check out the Canadian Association of Journalists’ list of awards finalists for Outstanding Investigative Journalism in 2015 but in the Community Media category, Joseph Couture is up for the prize for his series of articles on homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness which ran in The London Yodeller. If he was guaranteed a win, Joseph would just about be able to cover his air fare to fly out to the awards ceremony in Edmonton on May 28 and chow down on the rubber chicken with other writers and broadcasters from all across the country. But hey, it isn’t about the bucks; it’s about the honour and the prestige and as the only London media outlet with a horse in this race, we couldn’t be prouder.

I’m regularly surprised when editing each new edition of the Yodeller by the spontaneous harmonies and counterpoints that can emerge between otherwise unrelated essays. Sometimes two columnists will come at the same subject or theme from different angles; other times it’s just an unusual word that I can’t remember any of our writers marshaling before and all of a sudden it shows up in two or three different pieces at once. This week there are two particularly pronounced examples of thematic synchronicity going on involving four of our regular columnists.

Two of our apartment dwelling writers, the aforementioned Joseph Couture in London and David Warren in his High Doganate in the Greater Parkdale area of Toronto, independently penned thoughtful essays about the birds who make a habit of visiting their upper story balconies. ‘Uh oh, aviarian overkill’, I thought at first, bracing myself to ask one of them to submit something else for this issue. But after a close reading of each contribution, I realized that no, these two columns couldn’t be more different if their subjects had been poverty and pomegranates. One is end-of-the-world apocalyptic; the other is a hymn to continuity and tradition. And taken together in a beautifully designed two page spread, I consider them a perfect illustration of the Yodeller’s commitment to publish great writing, regardless of where it falls on the ideological spectrum.

The other is a far more deliberate overlapping of subject – indeed, they’ve called it a ‘mashup’ – as Sounds Razor’s Sean Twist and Dispatches from Dystopia’s Ciara Allen (long admirers of one another’s work) have decided to join forces in a one-off Razorian Dispatch or Sounds Dystopic in which a highly surreal dialogue about the plight of writers in London, Ontario takes place in the trunk of a car about to plunge off Blackfriars Bridge. I think it’s worthy of an award too though it’s hard to imagine the Canadian Association of Journalists coming up with a category in which to nominate it.

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