Age 13: One page in, Salinger’s novel enthralls me. I’m in 8th grade. Everything Holden says in The Catcher in the Rye about missing and loving his dead brother Allie and his kid sister Phoebe stirs me up.
Age 17: Newly graduated from high school and working at the mall. There’s a bookstore. It’s magnetic. On each break, I scan the bookshelves. Finally discovering the Salinger Quartet. All in a row: The Catcher in the Rye. Nine Stories. Franny and Zooey. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. One by one, I make them mine. I’m still hooked on Catcher. The other three mystify me. That changes.
Age 21: Now Catcher seems tired. I re-read it less frequently. Just a glance now and then. After a slew of jobs, broken hearts (theirs and mine), the onset of anxiety attacks and bouts with panic (none of which is discussed openly; it’s a pre-Oprah world) and the increase in two-fisted smoking and drinking, now the Glass Family stories rule. In Franny and Zooey, in particular, solace is found.
Age 23: My new Salinger gospel is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. World War Two is between the lines on many pages. I’ve moved several times, always packing the four Salinger paperbacks side by side. At a café on the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, where I sit daily (and nightly) and soon have a part-time job, I often place Nine Stories on my table so it’s visible to passersby. New friends are made when others point to the book’s marquee-like cover. There I meet my future wife. She also wants to be a writer. Books are everything.
Age 28: A cancer diagnosis hits me sideways. After surgery, the metastasis strikes. Then: A regimen of “aggressive chemotherapy” begins. The wife and I are away from Chicago (still considered home). We go stay with family there. My hair falls out; pretty soon my weight drops from 170 to 144. Sitting daily with IVs delivering the chemo for six hours at a crack, reading is essential. Salinger’s four books are within reach. The wife and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary in the chemo clinic. Each of us reads a Salinger story. She’s crazy about “Teddy.” I’ve decided “For Esme—With Love and Squalor”” is my favorite. No doubt.
Age 30: The wife and I finish graduate school. On the cancer front: So far, so good. Monthly check-ups give way to quarterly follow-ups. I score my first full-time Adjunct Instructor gig teaching at a university in Minnesota. Now and then, we still read Salinger’s books simultaneously. She’s still in love with Nine Stories. I assign The Cather in the Rye to my students. We’re expecting a child. If the baby’s a boy, we joke about naming him Holden or Teddy. If it’s a girl? There’s a debate: “Phoebe?” “Maybe Franny?” I vote Boo Boo Tannenbaum (nee: Glass). In “Down at the Dinghy,” one of the Nine Stories, Boo Boo’s a trip.
Age 40: The milestone birthday. One of ‘em, anyway. I’m still an adjunct, but at a larger university in Wisconsin. A decade since the child was born. The 40th birthday gift from the wife is sweet. She and our son find the last typewriter repair shop in Madison and my Salinger-era black manual Smith-Corona is tuned up. Keys repaired. New ribbon. Oiled. Dusted. At last, it plays like a new piano. I commit anew to the writer’s quest. She’s done with that. She’s also done (almost) with me. She’s working as a full-time church administrator. I start writing a new book. Living on hope, scrounging a life on Adjunct’s pay. In her mind, this can’t go on. Despite her typewriter gesture, changes are afoot.
Age 46: On the day she relocates to another high school district, where our shattered son enrolls, the divorce process accelerates. She already has a new guy. Later on, they marry. I agree to be elsewhere when her friends and family assist her in a top-speed, one-day move-a-thon. That night, back at the empty house, all four of Salinger’s books are still there. Seymour: An Introduction is like a balm.
Age 51: Author Kenneth Slawenski publishes J. D. Salinger: A Life. The grimness of Salinger’s WW II service is told, more than in any other book: D-Day, the Normandy hedgerows, St. Lo. The slaughter in the Hurtgen Forest. Flashpoints in the Battle of the Bulge. The aftermath of Dachau’s liberation. Somehow, Salinger survived it all. I begin writing a biography of another writer who was also a soldier and survivor.
Age 53: When I first read The Catcher in the Rye as an 8th-grade kid, Salinger was 53 and considered old. But then he lived to be 91. Maybe I can. As a writer, he’s still a mentor. Next year, when I move to Paris, I’ll travel light. Salinger’s books are compact.
(M. J. Moore is writing a biography of novelist James Jones.)