The Escape Artist

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, by Thomas Beller. New Harvest, 2014. $20, 192 pages.

J.D. Salinger wasn’t in the middle school canon where I grew up. Ventura, California, for most of my life, was a gerrymandered center-right political district. So my guess is that the school board wasn’t a fan of all of the “goddamns” or “sonofabitches” that pepper Salinger’s prose. On top of that, the middle school I attended had a large population of first and second generation immigrants. So our teachers focused on the works that they thought would engage kids coming from that experience. Two books that stick out in my memory, though the finer details are now gone, are Farewell to Manzanar and The Clay Marble. These were beautiful and touching stories about assimilation and Japanese internment during World War II. The type of books that really do force you to take stock of what you have, and how you look at the people around you.

I mention all this only to say that The Catcher in the Rye was not assigned to me, and I didn’t receive a grade for reading it. But it did come into my life at that time, by chance, in much the same way that certain books, objects, and people came into the life of Thomas Beller, turning him into what he describes as “a walking repository of illicit Salinger.” It was on a random and un-special day that I approached my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Kiernan, looking for something to read. I don’t remember what she said anymore, but I remember the way she looked at me, a wry smile on her lips, and I remember that in whatever words she used, she was telling me that I was the sort of person who would connect with Salinger’s book. And if I had the capability, I would go back in time and force my younger self to sit down and read the book right there. But the reality is that I wouldn’t read the book until my junior year of high school. As the look on Mrs. Kiernan’s face seemed to suggest, The Catcher in the Rye shook something awake underneath my adolescent bones.

Beller’s biography of Salinger, The Escape Artist, is as much about the life of an esoteric writer as it is about what happens when we read something we love. A book comes into our life in some random way—whether it’s assigned, or gifted, or found, or stolen—and if we like it, we begin to relate to it, to find ourselves in it. The place in time in which we engage the text becomes part of the text—a multifarious landscape of words, phrases, park benches, bedside tables, coffee shops, classrooms and people. Who knows how many thousands of people feel this intimacy about The Catcher in the Rye, or whoever it is they imagine J.D. Salinger to be? As Beller points out, Salinger’s book is this text to which most of us are at some point or another encouraged or essentially forced to read; a story used like methadone to quell the jitters of adolescents who crave the narcotic rush of rebellion and angst. However, like methadone, many of us become hooked on Salinger’s prose, to Holden Caulfield, to New York. I experienced this several thousand miles from where Salinger wrote and lived, but for Beller, a native New Yorker, this feeling must have been immediate and visceral.

I don’t plan to pick up any other Salinger biographies. On the day that the infamous “May Galleys” of Ian Hamilton’s J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life inevitably become re-released to the world, I’ll probably just nod my head in vague approval and move on. In fact, I had little intention of reading The Escape Artist. I was one of those people Beller alludes to in the book, the “leave that man alone” people. As much as Salinger’s work has meant in my own personal life, I didn’t feel like peeking behind the curtain. There are things that I’d rather not know, and that I don’t need to know. There is even fear. Fear that exposing your idol’s brilliance will decimate your own confidence. Or fear that you will discover the abhorrent nature of the person behind the writing, and the stories you once adored, the ones that moved you like symphonies, will never bear the same resonance again. They’ll be shot through with slander, corruption, ego or perversion. In Salinger’s case, I was content with the absolute mort d’author, both metaphorical and literal. But in the same way that a copy of The Catcher in the Rye happened to enter my life, so did Beller’s biography.

 ***

I noticed a tweet from Octavia Books on a Friday morning a few weeks ago, which only caught my eye because it included Salinger’s name. And when an independent bookstore makes an announcement concerning one of your favorite authors (an author who is already dead, so you don’t have to worry about any truly shitty news), it’s usually worth looking into. I was standing in line at a coffee shop on Prytania reading the brief description of Thomas Beller and his book. I then stared into the back of a tall, dark-haired man in front of me in line, spacing out as I contemplated whether I should go to Beller’s reading. So I looked Beller up on Twitter, and his most recent tweet announced the reading, and invited everyone out to The Columns hotel afterward for drinks. I decided to tweet him back and take him up on his offer, and then I ordered my coffee, briefly chatting with the barista about the event. At which point, the barista said, “Beller? Did he just invite you?”

“What do you mean?”

“That was him in front of you in line.”

I looked around, excited by the coincidence, momentarily certain that unknown universal forces do in fact govern our most mundane decisions. But Beller had already left.

Still, it was enough to convince me that I should go. My friend was visiting from out of town, and at the very least he would get to experience a small slice of New Orleans culture that existed outside of the bars and clubs that we usually wander into.

About eight rows of chairs were set up in the back of Octavia Books, and I sat a few rows in, watching Thomas Beller read from his book, my own copy sitting in a plastic bag beside my feet. His reading justified my purchase: His prose was vivid and concise, and possessed the lyrical quality of fiction. It was clear that Beller treated his work, and his subject, with delicacy and care. Reading from the chapter “1930’s: Ham and Cheese,” he gave voice to the soft and gentle humor that accents the book. A sort of sincere playfulness that suggests, I know I shouldn’t be rooting around in this man’s attic, but isn’t it lovely, what I’ve found? Take, for example, this introduction to Salinger’s parents:

“J.D. Salinger grew up thinking he had a Jewish mother named Miriam, when in fact his mother was not Jewish, or named Miriam. His father, Solomon, was Jewish and in the Ham and Cheese business. He downplayed the ham.”

In fact, what I expected to be some invasive act of voyeurism turned out instead to be a work of scholarship, introspection, honesty and sincerity. Beller acknowledges that what he is doing is against the will of his subject. The finest moments in The Escape Artist often arrive when Beller turns his critical eye away from Salinger and onto himself. The reader sees the biographer, scurrying back and forth between two tables in the Salinger archive, one where the source letters and documents lay, where pencils and paper are forbidden, and the other where his laptop sits open and alone, and Beller describes his research as carrying handfuls of water between the two tables. In another instance Beller is trying to pull information from the daughter of Salinger’s New Yorker editor, Gustave Lobrano. Through their conversations, Beller conveys how carefully he must word his requests, and how he must distinguish himself from the hordes who have hounded these sources for information over the years. 

Beller’s narrative is less of a historical journey and more of a pilgrimage from one holy place to another as he collects Salinger relics: the Hamilton Galley, the Lobrano correspondences, uncollected Salinger stories. It is a pilgrimage in which Beller finds himself walking through a New York City landscape that belonged to Salinger as much as it belongs to himself. Both he and Salinger were raised primarily on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and entered a literary world whose focal point was (and perhaps still is) that paragon of American fiction, The New Yorker. This is part of what makes the speculative nature of Beller’s work so enticing.

Many of Beller’s insights hinge on the words maybe, possibly, and perhaps. It’s hard to imagine that Doris Kearns Goodwin would have the chutzpah to speculate about Lincoln or Roosevelt in the way Beller does with Salinger. It seems that we often read biography because we trust that the author knows something about his subject that we would otherwise not have access to. And, in fact, Beller’s pilgrimage does grant him that access. But it’s their dovetailing lives, which permeate through their heritage, their work, and perhaps most significantly, the place in which they grew up, that justifies the speculative and personal nature of the book. The seemingly innocuous intersections allow Beller to imagine what effect a walk through Central Park might have on Salinger’s thoughts:

“The city is itself a worn and used thing, the stones smoothed by a million heels pounding on them like tidal waves on rocks, its landscape unforgiving but also a refuge to which one can adapt, and within which one can, at least for an afternoon, disappear.”

Somewhat paradoxically, Beller does justice to the fact that no matter how much these sources have to offer, Salinger will always remain elusive.

I had the pleasure of reading this book during my last weeks in New Orleans. An unexpected job opportunity afforded me an extra month in the city after my graduation from Loyola University; however, before the offer, I had already moved out of my apartment. Luckily, two traveling magicians needed someone to housesit and feed their doves while they were out of town. Their home and doves are about six miles from my job Uptown. So over the course of a week, I woke up every morning and took the streetcars from Mid-City to Loyola, reading about Beller and Salinger to the soundtrack of steel wheels on iron tracks.

If New York City is Beller’s mystical landscape in relation to Salinger, New Orleans figures strangely for me in relation to The Escape Artist. The whole time I’ve gone to Loyola, Beller has been next door at Tulane, working on a book about a writer whose work has at times profoundly affected the course of my life. (In high school I had a D average. But I had an English teacher my junior year who encouraged me to apply to a prestigious and difficult to get into summer program. To prove I was smart enough, I was going to write about Oedipus Rex. My teacher, Mr. Geib, said, “That’s not you. Write about Salinger.” To this day I think I might not have gotten into that program, or college, if I hadn’t written that essay.) The best thing about Beller’s book is the opportunity to read a masterfully crafted work about Salinger from a writer who seems first and foremost to be an admirer of Salinger’s work. The result is an exploration of the relationship between writer and reader. That is after all what is so unique about Salinger’s place in the canon. Here we have a writer who as a young man dreamed of writing a great American novel, as many of us do, and then actually did it. But rather than embracing his place in the pantheon alongside Melville, Hawthorne, or Hemingway, he retreated into his own head (Beller quotes another of Salinger’s New Yorker editors, who said that whatever Salinger was doing up there, it wasn’t writing. Writing needs to be read). To what degree should we pursue a reclusive icon, and why?

After his reading, my friend and I met Beller at the Columns hotel. Beller had moved several tables together outside, and I assumed that, with all of the people who had come to see him, I would be lucky to sit at the table. But when he saw me, he excused himself from the table, and I was fortunate to talk with him for a few minutes. It would have been nothing more than a cordial conversation between two strangers, until I mentioned how much I was amazed by the way Salinger described hands. Beller’s eyes lit up, and as we talked about hands and cigarettes and martinis, it was clear that his only motivation for writing this book was a deep and personal love of Salinger’s stories, the texture of his writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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