StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Goodbye, J.D. Salinger

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on January 29, 2010

I know this is overdue, but I’d like to pay my respects to J.D. Salinger on the blog.

He was an author of deep artistic integrity. He sure as hell stuck it to the publishing industry like no one else. No one has ever been such a holdout to those power-wielding prigs.

Still, I wish we’d been able to see more of his work.

Franny and Zooey is my favorite one of his books.

I’ll be the first to admit that Catcher in the Rye was an enormous influence on 85A.

In fact, this is how the back cover will read:

What do you get when you cross Holden Caulfield with Johnny Rotten? None other than Seamus O’Grady, the 15-year-old, punk-rock protagonist of 85A!

It’s a subzero Chicago morning on January 23, 1989—the Monday after George H.W. Bush’s inauguration—and Seamus is at his fighting best.  Braving the bitter cold at the 85A bus stop, Seamus rails against his repressive environment in anticipation of his “the-minute-I-turn-18” move to London.

His escape velocity mounts against the backdrop of a Midwest metropolis as memories, fantasies, and cityscapes collide on his commute to the south-side Jesuit high school that’s itching to kick him out for bad grades and excessive demerits.  When Seamus shows up late to school yet again, the dean prepares his expulsion papers. Liberated by failure, Seamus makes a break for London via an Amtrak to the mean streets of Late Eighties Manhattan.

85A tracks a watershed day in the life of an adolescent antihero. Foulmouthed with a capital F-word, Seamus embodies Johnny Rotten’s anarchic image as a way of fending off the bullies at home, at school and in his whites-only neighborhood.  Luckily for him, his mixed-raced, teen-prodigy friend Tressa opens him up to great books and experiences that turn his worldview on its head. Similarly, the Chicago L takes Seamus into integrated areas, giving him a glimpse of life outside the neighborhood, and Chicago’s thriving underground music and art scenes fortify his rebellion against the mainstream.  Through it all, Seamus basks in rebroadcasted BBC dramas, dreaming of what life would be if only he could stow away to London.

By the time Seamus reaches his last L stop, he will come to see that his 85A ride that morning was just the kickoff to an intrepid urban odyssey.

Salinger has been a mentor to coming-of-age novelists for over half a century.

On the bright side, in light of his passing, Catcher in the Rye will be fresh on everyone’s minds when 85A is released.

*

On Tuesday, I got the email. It’s official. My mother has liver cancer. Two years ago, when she was 75 years old, they found two tumors – one the size of a tennis ball, the other the size of a cantaloupe – on her ovaries. They had to operate. She had a hysterectomy at 75! Fortunately, she’d gotten a lot of use out of that womb, what with having borne seven children, none of whom were twins. The surgery was a success. She went through almost ten rounds of chemo and beat the cancer into remission. It has migrated to her liver, though. She started yet another regimen of chemo yesterday.

In some ways, I can’t think of a worse time for 85A to come out. The novel is fiction, of course, but Seamus grows up in my old neighborhood in Chicago. Some things in the novel happened in real life, even more things never happened. But will the family buy that? Not to mention the explicit adult content and mature themes, which is why, like with Catcher, the book is being marketed to adults even though the protagonist is a teenager. That’s the risk we authors have to take, albeit in more opportune times, normally.

One of my brothers recently resurfaced in my life. He came to town last week and stayed with me and Julius. We got on better than we ever had before. He said he wants to see more of me. He also said he wants to read 85A. I deflected. I think he began to suspect why.

But it’s fiction, goddammit! With one or two exceptions, each character is a composite of anywhere from three to a dozen people I’ve known (or, in some cases, have never known) throughout my life. And I’ve got a right to write fiction! So I’ve elected not to retract publication of the book.

*

In any event, let me conclude with a quote. I’ve read the Tao Te Ching a zillion times throughout the years, but somehow glossed over one verse that I would think would have meant the most to me. Julius and I went to the Mark Rothko Chapel when we were in Houston a few weeks ago. While I did a 45 minute meditation, he read a copy of Lao Tsu’s book that was laying out on a bench by the front door. When I was done meditating, he came over and read Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching to me. It pretty much sums up Holden Caulfield’s life and mine and my character Seamus’ and possibly Salinger’s:

Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.

Is there a difference between yes and no?
Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!
Other people are contented, enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.
In spring some go to the park, and climb the terrace,
But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.

Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea,
Without direction, like the restless wind.

Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother.

(“Are You Different?,” Verse 20, Tao Te Ching)

R.I.P. – J.D. Salinger (January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010)

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