The Book Club

Who Do You Love?

Dear Sarah,

I’ve pissed you off by talking about my generation. But I would not presume to include you. You’re thirteen years younger, and I don’t know where you’re coming from. In high school, you were working too hard to have a literary god, while we, as you point out, we were getting high and worshipping Salinger. Come on–we are from different generations.

Yesterday and today, you’ve asked me if I’ve revised my opinion of Salinger based on him “seducing messed up young girls.” My answer is no. I worshipped the work–I didn’t know the man, I invented him. It’s the same thing that the Popes do, and those pushy guys in orange at the airports–they invent their version of God based on how they want him to be.

Salinger is one of the great writers, but I wouldn’t put him in charge of a Sunday school class.

Would Salinger have looked down with “contempt” if he’d known that I and my gang, a gaggle of teenage girls in Philly, worshipped him? I doubt it. How much of his work have you read? It’s clear that he LOVES girls–little girls, teenage girls, college girls. He wasn’t a hippie at all. Very fifties. Many of his stories took place in tony New York and Connecticut. I think that he would have sent us a bunch of plane tickets–especially if we’d been willing to fly up there in our Jantzen tank suits. If someone had told me that he was dating an 18-year-old, I would have thought it was cool–then.

Have you revised your opinion of his work based on Maynard’s story? If so, how so?

On to another point of contention or maybe just confusion. I don’t know where you got the idea that I think that this book belongs to my generation. My point was that the boomers who currently make the big decisions at the media companies–Newsweek, New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Washington Post–have been waiting to get Maynard. Not surprisingly, they totally ripped into her when the book came out. Yardley wanted it to be a gauzy Penthouse forum with hot and steamy sex, and was disappointed with the disgusting details of what really happened. Merkin just wanted it gauzy. Neither of them seem to even care that it’s just a memoir–trying to be honest. I don’t think that our generation owns the book; I think that any thirty-year-old would have read the book with more clarity and dispassionate distance.

Back to gnaw on the book a little more. Maynard’s lack of psychological understanding throughout is a big, big problem. Does she get the fact that the main villain of her life wasn’t Salinger, but her mother? Why isn’t she more incensed at her? By the time she got to Salinger she was an adult and a writer. You have to admit that the Salinger stuff–the weird disgusting food, Majora Medica, his writing outfit (a blue mechanic’s uniform), and his bi-weekly BMW flights to NYC for Orgone therapy sessions and smoked salmon from Bloomies–are great comic bits. Why doesn’t she see the humor?

Why did she write it as if she were still holding her breath?

Why didn’t she at least sneak into his study and take a peak at his pile of manuscripts?

She was such a goody-goody until she finally went back to his house to lance that obsession after twenty-five years. I cheered then, but frankly I would have told her to pitch a tent on his front lawn and howl into his heating ducts if she’d needed to. You say it was “gross,” “sad,” “creepy,” and that it wrecked the book for you. Why? She got the answers she was looking for. When he said, “I didn’t exploit you. I didn’t even know you,” did she understand that he was saying he made her up–for his own purposes? And then after he couldn’t keep pasting his fantasy over her, he kicked her out, and went to find other young girls. Meanwhile, she kept believing the fantasy she created. Why?

You write that Maynard almost pulled something off. What? A great memoir, a good one for this year? What are the other books you refer to that tried to rise above a pathology and failed? Who do you think the great memoirists are?