“Rebel in the Rye,” a movie about famed writer J.D. Salinger is currently playing in theaters to excellent reviews. As hopefully I will explain below, if, in 1974, it weren’t for Salinger, or more specifically an overly enthusiastic Hollywood agent comparing my writing to his, I might not have moved to Santa Monica.
Yes, if not for that agent (who passed many years ago) I probably wouldn’t be writing this column and you might be staring at your smart phone about a sale on shoes at the mall. But so much for destiny, or, in this case, how a single decision can change your life forever. First, a little more about Salinger.
Jerome David Salinger (1919-2010) was among the most influential American writers in the 20th century. His most celebrated work was “Catcher in the Rye.” (Released in 1951, it was his only published full-length novel.) It featured three days in the life of aimless 16-year-old Holden Caulfield trying to find himself after being expelled from a prestigious private school in New York City. Amazingly, within two-weeks of publication “Catcher” was on the best-seller list!
Remarkably, “Catcher in the Rye” still sells approximately 250,000 copies a year and more than 65,000,000 total. However, because of minor references to premarital sex, underage drinking and profanity, it’s also been among the most banned novels in America.
Between 1961 and 1982, “Catcher” was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the U.S. Interestingly, in 1981 it was both the most censored and the second most taught book in public schools in America.
Beginning in 1942, Salinger wrote chapters of what would become “Catcher” during WW2. He was part of the bloody D-Day invasion and even kept pages on his person when marching into battle! (After the war, however, and while still in Europe, Salinger sought psychiatric help for what we call today severe PTSD.)
Following the success of “Catcher,” Salinger’s celebrity forced him to move to New Hampshire to hide from his fame. Between the house and the garage, he even built a tunnel so that he could go back and forth without being seen by photographers. He would become even more reclusive and cantankerous with age.
Which brings me to how J.D. “influenced” one of the most important decisions in my life.
I was living in Idyllwild, a mountain community (population 3,000) above Palm Springs. I worked for the U.S. Forest Service and wrote columns for the local paper. Unfortunately, I had just broken up with my girlfriend and needed a change. As fate would have it, a Hollywood agent read one of my columns and communicated he wanted to see more of my work.
So it was that I made a nervous trip to the agent’s Hollywood highrise bringing a file folder of my writing. Though I was to come back in a week he noted cautiously, “Many people think they’re a writer, but few are.” Gulp.
A week later, he unexpectedly greeted me with a big hug, exclaiming, “You have no choice, you are a writer!” He then said words I remember to this day, “You will be the J.D. Salinger of your generation!” My head was spinning.
His plan was for me to write a book based on my semi-autobiographical column “An Eight Pound Six Ounce Lawyer” about a mother who wanted her hippie son to go to law school. He insisted that I write at least a page a day and come back when the book was done. He was clearly accepting no ands, buts or ifs.
So I moved to Santa Monica and within ten months had a draft of my book. When I called to ask if I could bring it over, his wife said cryptically, “Come over, you’ll see.” See? See what?
When I knocked nervously on the door of their fancy highrise, she greeted me by saying her husband was so depressed he hadn’t been out of his pajamas in over a month. Yikes!
Frankly, I didn’t even know what manic-depression was. Apparently when he encouraged me so enthusiastically to write my novel, he was in a manic phase (explaining the big hug) and now he was in a monster depressed funk.
When he and I met, it was beyond bizarre as he talked about “beetles” in the carpet and drapes and that both would soon be replaced. I nodded sympathetically, while I inside I was freaking out.
However well-meaning, he also informed me he couldn’t help with my book. (Rather obvious considering he couldn’t get out of his pajamas.)
All these years later and the more reclusive and cranky I seem to get, maybe that agent had been right. Maybe I was more like Salinger than I realized. (Unfortunately, without the “best-selling” part.) What’s next, I start building a tunnel?
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and firstname.lastname@example.org