Monday, February 1, 2010

Goodbye J.D.

J.D. Salinger

The first thing I do when I board a plane is grab the day’s paper. I was flying Philippine Air Lines (PAL) again on Saturday morning, the 30th of January, from Hong Kong and when I got on flight PR 301, I went to the newspaper shelf, got the Philippine Daily Inquirer before putting away my laptop and hand carry bag in the storage bin above my seat.

When I was comfortably seated, I scoured the headlines and was shocked to see that one of the American writers whose work I have long admired and loved had died. The news item said that Jerome David or J.D. Salinger died in his home in New Hampshire at the age of 91 (see pic above). As I was reading the news obituary about Salinger, I could not help myself and began to cry.

The plane had not taken off yet at that point and the cabin crew was still helping people into their seat assignments. I was relieved that the flight was not fully booked and found myself last in a row of four seats, three of which were unoccupied. I let the grief wash over me, said a silent goodbye to Salinger in my head and after a few minutes, the tears stopped rolling. I took out a tissue to wipe my face and started to retrace my steps back into the past and how I discovered this great American writer.

My first Salinger encounter was not through his defining and most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye. That would come much later in fact. The first work of his that I read was his short story collection entitled unpretentiously, Nine Stories. I was in high school and was going through our clan’s, the Magistrado-Estanislaos’ book collection. These were books that were owned formerly by the various adults in our household including aunts who were by then already long gone from our home town and were working abroad. I found Nine Stories in an old cigarette box full of musky-smelling books and when I opened it, I was unable to put it down. From the first story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish to the last Teddy, Salinger made me laugh, cry and gasp in awe. Salinger’s prose is very accessible you see. There is an easiness to the tone of his writing that belies the depth of what he talks about: suicide, sadness over an unrequited love, family and more. Discovering Salinger at a young age made me see how a great writer could inspire affinity and affection from readers. I must have reread Nine Stories a hundred times over before entering University. I went to it when I was happy and when I was blue, when I was inspired or needed to be inspired. I found Salinger's voice both brilliant and comforting. When I went to college I made sure not to forget my old, dilapidated copy of Nine Stories (see pic below).

Nine Stories

The Catcher in the Rye, I first heard about from the writer Jessica Zafra. The first time she mentioned Holden Caulfield, I thought, “Of course Salinger has other works!” and I could not wait to get a copy of this generation-defining book. When I was in college at the University of the Philippines, Zafra had a column in the broadsheet Manila Today called Twisted, which I followed loyally. I first discovered Zafra in high school via her old column called Womenagerie in the now defunct magazine Woman Today, to which my mother used to subscribe. Woman Today was like the Cosmo of the Philippines in the 80s and 90s. When the magazine died and Zafra moved to the broadsheet, I followed suit.

I used to photocopy Jessica Zafra’s column at the basement of the UP Main Library which housed the periodicals section. Back in the dorm, I would cut them out neatly and file them in a folder. I was glad to do it because I was a fan. Later when she decided to publish her old column in collected, book form, I realized that I had read all of their contents and so did not have the urge to buy any of them. I always found Zafra’s humor sinister but intelligent and ultimately heartfelt, a trait which I feel she shares with Salinger. The best thing about Zafra was that she was an English major and her columns were peppered with literary allusions. She told people what to read and she made regular references to Salinger’s work. Before the end of my freshman year in UP in 1994, I found a second hand copy of Catcher in the Rye at the old second-hand book store at the Shopping Center.

That night I refused to sleep just to finish the book. As I went through page after page, I found myself being pulled into the irreverent thoughts of Holden Caulfield and his quest for authenticity. When he called someone or something a phony, I agreed. I was hooked and exhilarated. I found the book witty, fast-paced and cheeky. As with Nine Stories, I would reread The Catcher in the Rye over and over again and would never tire of it. In my third year in college, someone borrowed my Salinger collection including The Catcher in Rye, Nine Stories,, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and never gave it back.

Since then, I would always make sure to look for Salinger’s books in thrift book shops. Now I have in my possession all of the books mentioned above save for The Catcher in the Rye. The first thing I did when I got home from Hong Kong was to take out my Salinger collection out of its storage place and reread my favorite short story Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.It never fails to undo me with its heartrending ending. I reacted to it the same way I did the first time I read it, with a combination of pain and distress. This story always makes me cry. I am now going through Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and so far I feel like I am taking a trip down memory lane, remembering the times in the past when I would go back to my old copies of Salinger's books and the state of my emotions at those times. I am glad I do not have a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I don’t think I can handle reading it right now. One of these days though when I have fully recovered from Salinger’s death, I know that I will get hold of this book, hopefully a brand new one, and link hands once more with Holden Caulfield.

The good thing about reading Salinger’s work one after the other is that they speak to each other. Franny and Zooey in fact belong to the Glass family, the same family that is written about in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and referred to in stories in Nine Stories. Salinger became a recluse in the 60s and hauled himself to New Hampshire to retire from the literary world. He refused to grant interviews and was rarely heard from except when he was suing people who tried to use his writing in ways that he did not approve of (e.g., an authorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, attempts to turn his work into film, etc.). He also instructed publishers to print and reprint his work between plain covers that only showed the text of his book titles, no art and no blurbs. For me, this is testament to his devotion to his work. There is nothing more important than the fine print. Everything else does not matter. And if I had entitled this piece melodramatically, after one of his work’s titles for example, I know that he would have turned in his grave. So once more, very simply but with much gratitude and love, goodbye J.D..

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