I’m weighted down today with a sentiment of loss; loss of a friend who was close, and yet I never knew beyond his pages. Salinger has left the building and the literary world is all the more empty for it. What makes it doubly difficult is that I am in the process of launching my first book, Mornings with Mailer, and I had it in the back of my fanciful head somewhere that somehow a copy of it might fall into his hands up there in Cornish, New Hampshire, someday and he’d actually deign to read it since it is about one of his contemporaries who, sadly, also left us two and a half years ago. Norman Mailer once made a remark about Salinger to the effect that he was a great mind that never quite left prep school. I believe it was both a sarcastic crack and a perceptive remark of praise because Norman did like Salinger’s work; in fact, he said to me on several occasions that he would have liked to have seen what the man could write about other than angst at 17, and that readers were on the losing end because they were likely to never know. And so as I sit here, prepared to launch my own book, I realize I’m mired in a bit of a twaddle: mixed emotions abound.
When I first began writing Mornings with Mailer about 2 years ago I had no idea what to expect on several levels. I didn’t know if the book would live up to the expectations of those who are devoted to Norman’s work, and I was uncertain that I had the chops to write a book about our time together. Actually, Mornings with Mailer is not entirely about Norman, although he is obviously at the core of it. I aimed to forge a good story about what can happen when a munificent, famous writer, a literary Lion of incalculable importance to American letters, opens his study door to a young writer and takes him on as his assistant and, ultimately, confidant. What I ended up with, I’m told, is a warm tale of the last five years of Norman’s life and a chronicle of my own growth as not only a writer but a man better able to navigate the world. Rather like the young me who had read Salinger’s work has come to face himself thirty years later, and can do so with a modicum of confidence—thanks to the superior assist by the author of The Naked and the Dead.
Writers are generally private, mostly quiet people and I’m told that I’m no exception to that stereotype. So, when I occasionally spoil myself by typing Mornings with Mailer into Google to see what’s up with the book I feel as if I’ve been ratted out by people I don’t even know. But of course I’m the culprit, ultimately, because I wrote the damn book and solicited its publication! In essence, I’m responsible for my own ego’s discomfort. Arguably, the act of publishing a book that many will likely (hopefully?) read is a form of self-imposed mental cruelty—but one that every writer is compelled to indulge. And so one comes to a point of acceptance; one must acknowledge having gone public and learn to balance it with the excitement that publication spurs. Everyone except, perhaps, Mr. Salinger.
I recall when Norman would ask me to send off the final drafts of his books he would repair to the dining room to play solitaire for a long while and shut out the world. He knew his manuscript was out there now, and there was little he could do but hope it found an agreeable spot in the minds of his readers and critics. To that point, there was nothing else for him to do but take pleasure in his cards and let the hours skate by until dinner—his favorite time of day. I recall thinking how much I admired that ability in him to calmly send his child (manuscript) off after nurturing it along for years. I always told myself that if I got my books published I’d try to behave the same way, manifest that same control. But I’ve failed. I realize now that Norman’s ability to remain unruffled in the face of public exposure was one that he’d honed over 55 years of practice. So I’ve some work ahead of me where this particular mixture of excitement and fear are concerned. There are moments that I understand too well the quirky silence of J.D. Salinger; because I’m not finding a gracious balance between the two emotions. But I’m happy to have banked the image of Norman getting on with his life as his books went out into the world, and getting on meant being his own most ardent advocate of his work. He took a well deserved rest, and then he stridently publicized his books.
I want to be like Norman was when it comes to launching my book: know the work is done, and know even more that the work is just beginning. As a writer now one must speak loudly and often to have one’s book noticed. Maybe the loudest thing Salinger ever did was remain quiet, and that in itself is a kind of brilliance none of us can fathom in a world of digital clatter.
So long, Holden. Don’t forget your very cool hunting hat. And say howdy to my pal Norman, will you?