Salinger Dies, Finally Gets the Attention He Craved

I know it’s been a slow news week, but I’ve been impressed with how many column inches have been printed about J.D. Salinger shedding his mortal coil this week. It speaks to the devotion so many people have about his writing, with a little dash of human interest story about the talented artist forced to become a hermit because of the demands of the public.

If I might abuse the cliche, if we didn’t have J.D. Salinger, we’d have to invent him. (In fact, he was reinvented in Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and the movie “Field of Dreams” in the character of Terence Mann.) He’s the archetype of a pure artist, disgusted by the commercial demands of the marketplace and the slavering adoration of the masses. Whether this is really true of Salinger, we want it to be true. I think that’s why he’s remembered so fondly by so many. In some ways, it’s a penance that readers are paying, a guilt-ridden offering for living in the crass and conniving world and not sacrificing themselves to change it. Because of the deep mark Holden Caulfield made on them in their impressionable youth, readers have been forced to feel a little like “phonies” themselves in their lives, by doing regular things like growing up, getting jobs and raising families. To some, every little compromise in adult life is a betrayal of Holden.

Ah, but as long as Salinger was still alive, living in seclusion and too pure to share his writing with the world, there was still a connection with the hero of The Catcher in the Rye. Someone out there was still fighting the good fight for honesty and integrity and all those good things. Art will triumph over commerce! The pure soul will live on!! This is exemplified well by the legend that he kept writing these past 40 years and kept all his manuscripts in a safe. There certainly are some crazies out there that would break into a person’s house for holy-grail-type manuscripts, but a safe? A walk-in kind like Scrooge McDuck’s, with piles of papers neatly arranged for each novel and short story? Were there alarms on it like Jack Benny’s?

Now that Salinger is dead, who will be the repository of all those adolescent aspirations? Bob Dylan? Sherwood Schwartz? I can’t think of any writer who would fill the bill. We’ll all be sad when Phillip Roth dies, but he won’t be as beloved, both because his prickly personality has resulted in difficult and thorny books, and because he lacked the good sense to go into hiding when his career was taking off.

Salinger never made a big impression on me, though I certainly admired his prose. His characters and their concerns seemed too rarefied for me, too East Coast, too boarding school. His obsession with children and their inner lives also didn’t grab me, and in fact seemed a little creepy. It was all of a package: characters who were too special to survive in this crummy world, and a writer who couldn’t bear to have anyone sell his babies. You want to be left alone, Jerry? Fine by me. I was always more into Kurt Vonnegut anyway.

One big reason I never much liked The Catcher in the Rye is how I was exposed to it. In my Catholic high school in the mid 1970s, the English Department was a little schizophrenic. The younger teachers wanted us exposed to as much new and stimulating literature as possible, while the older guard was wary about getting parents riled up about “objectionable” books (some memories of the church’s official sanctioning of proper books likely stayed in these priests’ minds long past the time when it was a real concern). So for example, we couldn’t officially read Catch-22, but Mr. Witucki highly recommended we read it during Christmas break because we were likely to be discussing it for a week or two after. In this climate, Catcher was one of those objectionable books. Looking back, I can’t really remember what it was (and still sometimes is) that would get the censors into a lather. Did he visit a prostitute? Did he masturbate? I can’t remember–but I do remember members of our class sharing tips on how to get into the local strip club, the El Mocambo, with a fake ID card, and we treated it like no big deal.

We still read Catcher, but no one could take a book home. Father Enright had 30 copies of the book in his room, and we all read it together in class. Out loud. Paragraph by paragraph. You want a surefire formula for sucking the life out of a book? This one worked like a charm.

Happy Birthday Michigan!

The Water Wonderland. The Great Lake State. The Mitten and the Rabbit. My home state was admitted into the Union 173 years ago today.

A get-rich place of boom and bust. First furs, then lumber, then copper, then autos. And through it all, a crazy race of people. Where the nickname “Wolverine” came from, no one is certain. It’s been speculated that the Native Americans called the white settlers that because of their rapacious attitudes. It may have been coined during the border war with Ohio in 1836 (often called the Toledo War), because of the ferocity of the citizens insisting that we deserved that little strip of land (we were appeased by Congress when they offered us the Upper Peninsula in exchange–a good trade). But the mysterious origin of the word only makes it more endearing to its folks.

I moved out of there just after college, and I still feel a little guilty about it, but in 1982 things were pretty tough, and I didn’t see any jobs there for a writer. Besides, I wanted to try Chicago for its city living and its public transportation. (Well, I didn’t move here for the El, of course, interesting though it was, but because I could survive here without a car.) I also had family roots in the Windy City, so it wasn’t a big dislocation. But often I feel the pull of moving back to Michigan. Why not trade one bankrupt state for another? I know I could never move very far from it, in any case, because I’d miss those cool summer nights, shocking fall colors, and cold winter mornings over the rolling hillsides. There’s something different about the landscape there. The hills move just a little bit looser and dreamier there than they do in Wisconsin, Ontario, Ohio, or Minnesota. Those big expanses of Great Lakes water allow for so much thinking and feeling awestruck. And the people! They have so much pride in their state that it makes the rest of you all look like sneaky carpetbaggers.

So here’s to the Great Lake State! The Yoopers and the Trolls, the stiff-necked Dutch and the factory rats, the displaced Southerners and Middle Easterners, the hunters and the professors, the casino operators and the industrial designers. Your fortunes will rise again, and fall again, but through it all, you’ll always have hunting holidays and Tiger baseball.

Welcoming a Second Published Author to the Family

It was a very busy weekend just past, with a lot of cleanup, cooking and preparation for the pomp and circumstance of my ever-lovin’ wife earning her Master’s Degree. (BTW, w00t, my dear.)

On Friday night, in the midst of cooking pork-poblano stew for 50, my daughter came down stairs with a tense look in her eyes. I wasn’t sure what it boded, since she had been very sad and secretive about something earlier and wouldn’t confide in me about it no matter how much I yelled and threatened. Certain things can only be shared with Mom, so I conceded defeat and returned to the stove.

When she came down to the kitchen, she tried to speak but had a lump in her throat. I asked her to repeat it, since my ears have long since reached obsolescence. She rose up on her tiptoes and repeated, “I’m a published author!”

And what do you know? She pulled out the latest copy of MUSE magazine and showed me. Last summer she had entered a contest at the magazine for “The World’s Greatest Prank,” with illustrated instructions. She’d forgotten all about it, until she was reading in bed and happened to spy her work in the magazine:

(If you can’t read it clearly, Here are the steps for the “The Great Fortune Teller”:
1. Make a towel turban.
2. Convince your friend that you can tell the future by his/her shoes.
3. Get them to give you a shoe.
4. Look super-mystical.
5. Say, “You…will…go…on…a…long…journey…”
6. Throw shoe far. Run away.)

There were lot of hugs and kisses all around. I was so happy for her that I waited a full minute before I asked the other members of the household, “So, what’s the holdup with YOU?”

Be sure to pull this prank on someone soon. The more you do it, the quicker it will become a staple of Western lore, along the lines of the “Hertz Donut” interrogatory. It’s especially funny if you do it with someone’s boot while it’s slushy outside.

Congratulations, Liesel! Looking forward to going to NYC together and tearing up the Monkey Bar for your first book contract.

The Mark McGwire Limericks of Shame

So the news comes that Mark McGwire
On the subject of juice was a liar.
Plus, it’s a good bet
That water is wet
And it hurts to grab something on fire

“I’m not here to talk ’bout the past,”
Mark blurted to Congress so fast,
Whatever the pride
He had that day died
To give a defense so half-assed.

To get a job working for Tony,
Mark had to confess his baloney.
He was juiced to the ears
The homer-derby years,
A fame-drunk, preposterous phony.

To get in the Cooperstown Hall,
McGwire will wait for his call
Til Hell freezes over,
The sea swallows Dover,
And Sammy parleys like Bill Engvall.

Here’s another from Friend of Bardball Doug White:

He once chased Aaron and Ruth
With the callow aggression of youth,
But from his head to his toes,
Just like Petey F. Rose,
McGwire won’t face up to the truth.

“Addams Family Musical”: Just a pinch more hemlock in the yak stew, please

Back in October, in anticipation of the holiday season, I went on a little binge with the internet and the credit card. The newspapers were running ads about the new “Broadway in Chicago” shows, and who was I to Scrooge things up and refrain from supporting live theater in town that was destined to move on to NYC and earn silos full of cash?

So, as a final Christmas treat for the kids — after Cirque de Soleil’s “Banana Shpeel,” Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol” and a little skiing jaunt to Breckenridge in Colorado — I took the fam to see “The Addams Family Musical”, which is wrapping up its fun at the Oriental Theater this upcoming weekend. And the final verdict: really pretty good. As good as I expected.

It’s hard to imagine that someone hadn’t thought of adapting these characters for Broadway before. I mean, c’mon — Batman and Spider-Man musicals have been talked about for almost a decade. Can you imagine a guy in red spandex breaking out in heartfelt song? Well, sure you can, it’s musical theater, you droll thing! But aside from Spidey swinging on a tether and singing “Watch Out, Dr. Octopus,” it’s hard to imagine any reason to pay $85 to see such crap.

But Gomez, Morticia and Uncle Fester are a different matter. They’ve been covered in comics, television and a couple of movies, and yet they still seem very consistent and intriguing. Hell, I’ll say it: for those of us who watched the TV show as kids, they are like old friends. A house with a trampoline in the living room? Filet of yak for dinner? Exploding model train sets? Who wouldn’t want to visit there?

Playing the Addams patriarch, Nathan Lane was a little too subdued, but he can throw off a funny line with as little effort as someone brushes off lint. His accent teetered between Spanish and Transylvanian frequently, but after a while, it didn’t matter. At least there was no way for him to channel Lou Costello and Ralph Kramden, as I’ve seen him do too many times.

Bebe Neuwirth has been in the role of Morticia, but she apparently wanted to watch the final Bears game Sunday and left us with her understudy. Rachel De Benedet was fine, I guess, but having never seen Bebe Neuwirth live, I wanted to see what all the fuss has been about all these years.

The big news last week was the importing of Jerry Zaks as a show doctor. His presence is a welcome development, I think, because while the show is pretty good, it could be great. The story line is flexible and serviceable: Wednesday has finally grown up and wants to marry a boy she met in school, and the boys’ parents come in from Ohio to meet the Addamses. (Kind of a switcheroo on having a normal member of the family, like Marilyn Munster.)

Unfortunately, Gomez and Morticia are only sort of interesting, hobbled by their concerns about growing old. In fact, one of Morticia’s big musical numbers is a lament about how she doesn’t control the spotlight anymore. The most endearing qualities of Gomez and Morticia, as I see it, are their self-confidence, their passion for each other, and their acceptance of the weird. Contemplating change and age with these two is a difficult task: They are ageless, in a way, and wedded to a mildewy past of family mansions, old clothes, and torture chambers in the basement. I’m not saying they CAN’T contemplate these issues, but the characters have to come alive first. They’re a little languid at the beginning, and despite Morticia lopping the heads off a bouquet and Gomez playing with swords, the energy of young Wednesday, her lover, Fester and even the Ohio couple makes them pale in comparison. Hell, even Grandmama comes off with consistently funnier lines. A little spark of genuine joie de vivre weirdness from Morticia and Gomez at the beginning (maybe even before the opening number, “Clandango”, which adds a complicated new facet to the family dynamic) would give the show a very solid footing.

I hope the musical does well in NYC. I have great affection for these characters, and think they will survive well the necessary volume and energy that Broadway requires. (It’s a lot closer to success than “Banana Shpeel” was when we saw it in November.) The Addams’ individuality and optimism always strikes me as truly American, so much so that I can completely believe that their mansion (a wonderful use of staging, BTW) is located in the middle of Central Park. And to see a musical celebrating genuine, deep-rooted eccentricity and be successful at it would be one of the coolest things to happen onstage since “Urinetown.”