What we’ve written, here, up till now, and probably just about everything we’ll post from this point forward, has to do with places we’ve been in that are real. But, thinking about the death of J.D. Salinger (which we seem to be doing a lot), and of his work’s impact on American literature and readers’ lives, it’s appropriate, we believe, to ponder a special place that we’ve explored frequently over the decades, a place we’ve found ourselves drawn to at times when we need reassurance that there is a good place to be in – a place that is not “real,” but that, in its power of placeness, its emotional completeness, its warm hug and wet foot-kiss of circumstance and its inherent intentional artfulness is as fully real and realized as any place we’ve ever “seen” or been. That is, Salinger’s world, and, more specifically, his New York City.
Salinger’s New York is what made us want to live in the actual one, which we did for a time, until we came to understand that the two weren’t the same. Salinger’s New York was an island full of the grace and elegance to be found in the miraculous commonplace; the actual New York City, although anything can happen there, was not these things. His New York was one where buses full of Comanche Club members could unload into a Central Park that was bright and safe, except for the breaking of a heart; even in its most malevolent, in the darkest Holden Caulfield moments, it was a benign, odd but seductive oasis. Not just a place, but a place to be and know.
But, whether in New York, or England, or Florida, or on a dinghy by a dock, it wasn’t the place that provided the placeness that was Salinger’s signature and literary bequest: It was the talking people. He created, or distilled from life, people who defined the environment: their presence, and the conjunction of their minds in proximity, and the way they spoke those minds or put up wry, tragic, verbal smokescreens to hide their feelings, built whole worlds that felt like small rooms at land’s end. His is a populace who are grossly insensitive and grossly oversensitive, often at the same time – self-centered people whose centers cannot hold. Except for children – they are precocious, repositories of incisive wisdom, and Paradise lost. And they’ll melt you with their earnestness. Salinger space is the space between: six inches away in the same bed could be an unbridgeable gulf.
We’ve never met anyone named Boo Boo Tannenbaum, but we’ve known some. We’ve never met any family like the Glass crew, but we would like to think that they could and do exist, if only to reinforce the idea that there are, as in Seymour, true saints in the world, and that, as we all slide or are shoved toward a new Dark Age, that there may be those who will not go willingly … or, at least, quietly. And their sarcasm may save us yet.
In the cocoonish place that the art of Salinger constructs around us and his characters, there is the aroma of words in dialogue, spiced with the most perfectly positioned italics in all of post-war writing. Language usually limns character, but Salinger uses it to erect knowable universes. We would recognize Pencey Prep if we came upon it; the Glass family bathroom is as much a place we’ve been in as any we are sitting in right now. Even outdoors, for Salinger, people are in rooms – smoky rooms, usually – where everybody’s wearing an overcoat, too big or too small, of some material no longer acceptable or available. Even blindfolded, we would know we are in Salinger’s world if we could hear the inhabitants speak.
J.D. Salinger’s work is the epitome of arslocii – the rendering of a placeness that, transcending earthbound limitations and expectations, becomes art itself. We can only hope that, in some New Hampshire safe somewhere, there are a few more novels and stories waiting to be explored, because we could use all the wonderful new places, full of love and squalor, that we can lay our hands on.