Tag Archives: The Catcher In The Rye

Interview: Jerome Charyn on J.D. Salinger, History and Heartbreak

Jerome and Henry discuss writing, history, and J.D. Salinger.

Just about any reader has an opinion about J.D. Salinger. In his latest novel, Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn takes that most celebrated and enigmatic of writers and crafts a story about history and heartbreak. It is about history nearly lost. It is about history relived. It is about heartbreak of the most sorrowful. In the end, this is a dazzling work that will take you on trip that will give you a more vivid sense of World War II and the journey that led J.D. Salinger right to the precipice. Was J.D. Salinger a great writer. Yes, he had that magic touch, that artistic vision. What does Jerome Charyn do with this story? As Jerome was adamant to tell me, this is not a story seeking to find out who J.D. Salinger was in any conventional sense. This is, after all, a work of art, a work of fiction.

Slapton Sands was a debacle that was almost covered up and lost to history.

For me, I just want to share with you a marvelous novel. There’s so much to enjoy in the way of masterful writing. I cite one example here where J.D. Salinger finds himself levitating up and flying over Central Park on his way to Belvedere Castle. He is transformed back into a boy along with his sister, Doris, becoming a young girl again. They confront a sinister figure, a witch, who is actually Salinger’s estranged wife, Sylvia. Doris is puzzled when the witch invites Doris to a lesson she can’t learn in any school. What could that be? asks Doris. “What can you teach me?” The witch looks at Doris and replies, “How not to exist.” I know this is out of context but I trust you feel a chill from this.

J.D. Salinger was there for D-Day on Utah Beach.

Another reason you may enjoy my conversation with Jerome Charyn is the historic ground that we cover. We do talk some about literary theory and such. But, I think, a lot of you will find more than just interesting a brief overview of World War II. Yeah, in short order, we end up covering a lot of ground. But it couldn’t be helped. J.D. Salinger covered an enormous amount of ground during his service in the war. Salinger witnessed more combat than some of our most celebrated writers on World War II. Salinger was there to observe the calamitous Exercise Tiger, the D-Day landing at Utah Beach, and the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp. Salinger saw so much, too much. And it sort of broke him. But not so much as to keep him from going on the complete a small but significant body of work, which includes, of course, The Catcher in the Rye.

J.D. Salinger was also there for Hitler’s last stand at the Battle of the Bulge.

Given our conversation, and my continuous searching to understand, Charyn summed it up nicely towards the end of our talk. “As for meaning, I don’t know what the ‘meaning’ is. I know what the music is. The music becomes the meaning. I’m not a philosopher.” Yeah! Kick-ass writing without apologies. For Jerome, the war, J.D. Salinger, New York City from a certain era, all of this Jerome lived and breathed himself. So, creating fiction from it came easy to him. “History is a very strange kiss that lands on you and invigorates and destroys. It is the past that I’m most interested in. It is the past that I try to summon up in my own way.” J.D. Salinger wasn’t a person to dissect and create a profile from. For Jerome Charyn, J.D. Salinger was a haunted house which he moved into and built some solid fiction from. Bring your A-game reading to this one!

And J.D. Salinger was among the first Americans to witness the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau.

Be sure to view is conversation. I kid you not, you’ll be glad to did. And, if you have a moment, your comments are always welcome.

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Filed under Interviews, Jerome Charyn

Book Review: SERGEANT SALINGER by Jerome Charyn

Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn

Sergeant Salinger. by Jerome Charyn. Bellevue Literary Press. 2021, 286 pp. $28.99

Early in this latest Jerome Charyn novel there’s quite an evocative scene of a bohemian living room which includes a framed print of Paul Robeson. It is a telling detail that gives a taste of how a character lives and breathes in their world. In this case, we’re being made privy to the inner world of the estranged wife of playwright Eugene O’Neill. As a creature of the theater, and as a free thinker, it makes sense that she’d enjoy a portrait of a trailblazer of racial equality. All the more so given this was one of her husband’s greatest plays! It’s just a quick little reference but a tick of information that the reader makes note of. It is these ticks of information that accumulate and bring a picture into focus. It is these ticks of information that add up in this novel to give us an in depth look at one of our most celebrated of writers, J.D. Salinger, one who preferred not to be looked at in any close measure.

Oona O’Neill

But Charyn dares to make “Sonny” Salinger the prime focus. To start with, Charyn brings the reader front and center into Salinger’s relationship with Oona O’Neill, the infamous daughter of Eugene O’Neil. Oona was only 18 years-old when she married Charlie Chaplin, who was 53. Truth being stranger than fiction, Salinger and Oona did actually date for a while. Charyn gives us a charming look into what that might have been like: more a frenzied exchange of hormonal excess than raw passion but, something to write home about, nonetheless. The whole affair is capped off by a masterful scene which involves Sonny and Oona obligingly having dinner with Walter Winchell as he holds court at his reserved table at the Stork Club. There’s much talk about Winchell’s chicken burgers. Mostly, there’s much talk about what’s the talk of the town, given Winchell’s prized roost as the leading gossip monger and media kingmaker. Winchell has everyone eating practically right out of his hand, except for the most stubborn like Ernest Hemingway, who makes a delicious cameo at Winchell’s table.

Utah Beach, D-Day Normandy Landings, June 6, 1944.

In keeping with the novel’s title, much of the action sees young J.D. Salinger doing his duty as an American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. If that sounds complex and full of intrigue, well, it is. We find Salinger is witness to the whole Slapton Sands debacle where American soldiers, training for the D-Day Normandy invasion, become human targets, shot by British “friendly fire.” While that is being covered up, nearly lost to history in every real sense, Salinger moves on to the real thing and lands with a second wave on Utah Beach on D-Day all the way to Paris. There, he meets Ernest Hemingway who encouraged his writing. All the while, Salinger goes from one incident after another interrogating Nazis and collaborators. Ultimately, Sonny Salinger witnesses firsthand the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, where corpses are piled high one upon the other.

J.D. Salinger

No one can blame J.D. Salinger for going through one existential crisis after another. Talk about someone too close to a subject to be able to get some perspective and see the full picture! Here is a man who made his wildest dreams come true and then went on to live a life of the deepest regret. What if Sonny Salinger had managed to convince Oona O’Neill to run off with him and somehow he’d also found a way to avoid the draft? That was never going to happen! Each of them had stars in their eyes and were in mad pursuit of something greater than themselves. And Salinger would never have avoided the draft, it just wasn’t an option. It was definitely not a foregone conclusion that The Catcher in the Rye would ever be published either. But so it was. J.D. Salinger did not invent the contemporary teenager but his book caught on like wildfire as an emblematic work about quirky, neurotic, youthful rebellion. There it was–and still is. The great American novel at its most popular! Since it publication in 1951, it remains a bestseller at astronomically high numbers for book sales. Since it was first published in 1951, more than 65 million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold. Around 250,000 copies of the book are sold each year, almost 685 per day. This is not what Salinger wanted. And yet it was profits from just this one book alone that allowed him to brood in seclusion for decades. The book that should never have been published–but was. To this, Charyn has an answer.

The Catcher in the Rye

If there is one thing that makes a case for the inevitable nature of Salinger’s celebrated novel it is his war experiences. This makes up the bulk of Charyn’s novel which places Salinger in numerous trials and challenges. Charyn is a master at creating haunting moments. He lays one upon the other and deftly makes his case. In so doing here, Charyn answers the question of how it was meant to be for Salinger to write that novel that unwittingly summoned the world. One such moment finds Sonny confronting a special Nazi bicycle brigade. One night, he spots one of these killers, in his rain cape and in his hunter’s cap. The reader can’t help but picture that strange image of a young man wandering the city in a hunter’s cap in Salinger’s novel. That same image is on the original paperback version of The Catcher in the Rye. Sonny witnesses the killer in his hunter’s cap shoot two of his friends at close range, execution style. Sonny, more an interrogator than a marksman, immediately responds and shoots the killer dead.

Back on Park Avenue…

Ultimately, Sonny Salinger must return to civilian life, to where he left off before going off to war in the first place. It means creating some distance to all things related to war, except for the greater truths that make sense for his version of the great American novel. At least that seemed to be what mattered most for a time and he would see it through. Sonny would pick himself up. He was back on Park Avenue, back on track to pursue his literary dreams, at least for a while. And so Charyn brings the reader up to this point. Sonny now has time to observe something other than horror. Sonny now can ponder, with his sister, Doris, the mysteries of a basement floor walker at Bloomingdale’s. Sonny now can ponder the mysteries of bananafish. And, in time, as if inevitable in more ways than one, Sonny can preside upon the unleashing of a literary and pop culture phenomenon, the story of a troubled teenager in a hunter’s cap.


Filed under Book Reviews, Jerome Charyn

Two Graphic Novels About Coming of Age in New York City

EMPIRE STATE by Jason Shiga


“EMPIRE STATE,” by Jason Shiga, and “DRINKING AT THE MOVIES,” by Julia Wertz, are two graphic novels currently on the bookstore shelves about coming of age in the Big Apple. Shiga and Wertz approach their subject in very distinctive ways. Shiga’s book has more of a layer of fantasy and innocence behind it. Wertz’s book has more of a gritty reality but also shares with Shiga a love for whimsical humor.

At this point, the story of the wide-eyed youth set on conquering New York City is so hardwired into our psyches that a reader runs through a tale like this at a fast pace, sifting through what makes the latest incarnation of Holden Caulfield stand out. I have my own experience that makes me particularly sensitive to this subject. I did my take on the NYC graphic novel, entitled, “Alice in New York.” I think it is one of those rites of passage, as quaint as it sounds, that is too hard to resist for a cartoonist if he or she has a NYC tale to tell. For one thing, comics and New York go hand in hand. It’s just too good a thing to pass up if the opportunity is there.

The top ten things you will find in a Coming of Age in New York City story:

  1. The main character is misunderstood.
  2. Circumstances are set in motion that set the protagonist off on a quest.
  3. The protagonist respects, even worships, New York City.
  4. The protagonist romanticizes NYC.
  5. The protagonist does not really know NYC.
  6. The protagonist is young and naïve.
  7. The protagonist is likable and we want him or him to succeed.
  8. NYC is an important character in its own right.
  9. The protagonist luckily gets a little help from friends along the way.
  10. The protagonist evolves. He or she now has a grasp of the real NYC.

Any serious artist or writer will have to confront the whole NYC thing. No matter how much is said about how NYC is no longer the Mecca it used to be, it still needs to be acknowledged. One way or another, the passionate creative person is going to have to address the issue, even if the answer is no, they will remain home or go somewhere else. For Julia Wertz, the answer was yes, she would reluctantly follow in the footsteps of so many others, and try to avoid being a cliché in the process. That could be the overriding theme in “Drinking at the Movies,” the desire of Wertz to not only “make it” in New York but to do it with flair and distinction. Because, if you’re not flourishing in New York but only surviving, then what’s the point, right?

In order to blossom, Wertz had to find her feet first. The story here is all about the messy journey. Wertz jumps right in and provides us a play by play in an episodic format, more like a collected comic strip with each vignette lasting one page, maybe two. The narrative moves right along and you lose yourself in the bigger story, much like you would with Gabrielle Bell’s autobiographical comics, usually told in one page intervals. We get a variety of funny and bittersweet observations. And, often, there’s booze not too far behind. Wertz’s best work includes a number of well-timed facial expressions on the comics version of herself and some hilarious self-deprecating humor. In one of her best pieces, entitled, “First/Last Internet Date,” Wertz does all the talking on a dinner date and talks herself right out the door where, down the block, she promptly falls asleep on a park bench. This ends up being yet another drunk joke, although a darn good one.

Ultimately, Wertz decides to say goodbye to the bottle. It seemed to serve her so well, even providing the title for her book, but, seriously, it was definitely getting in the way. Wertz does a masterful job of mixing tragedy with comedy. She is not afraid to bring up uncomfortable facts. Her struggle in dealing with her drug addicted brother back in San Francisco is a recurring element in the story. She learns to set a good example, even if it’s only for her own benefit. And she learns that, if she sticks it out, and doesn’t take herself too seriously, that she too can really make it in New York.

As for Jason Shiga, his main character could be an alter ego of sorts. In “Empire State,” the quest and the goal are not quite as clear and the resolution is more roundabout. The protagonist, Jimmy, comes across as a very simple and easily contented person. His best friend, Sara, moves away from Oakland to pursue a career in publishing in New York. There is no visible tension between the two. They appear to be as platonic as can be.  Jimmy is not particularly assertive. Part of the fun, and bittersweet quality of the book, is to see how much Jimmy is more cartoon than man. At twenty-five, he does not have bank account but signs his paychecks over to his mom who provides him with an allowance. If it weren’t for Sara, he would never have discovered lattes. And yet he is a competent enough person, just sheltered to the extreme. Given that, it is interesting to see his reaction to New York, which is severely blunted due to his lack of reference.

For all that has been said in the name of New York City, it comes down to just a bunch of fancy hipsters in Jimmy’s mind. It is a nice piece of subversive commentary, much like the story of the sheltered man played by Peter Sellers in “Being There.” No matter what the urgency or hype, there’s not much that will impress Chance. Goofy humor abounds but, like most great comics art, the pathos can be just as tender as in a serious work, and even more moving. It turns out that Jimmy did not go to visit New York in order to break into web design. His only real goal was to see Sara. And, even though he lacked any emotions to give him away, he is sort of in love with Sara. For her part, Sara has problems connecting as well. She doesn’t have much difficulty finding a boyfriend but she does in staying interested in a relationship. For a work that looks so simple, “Empire State” provides a complex picture of alienation.

“Drinking at the Movies” is a trade paperback, 192 pages, $15 US, published by Three Rivers Press.

“Empire State,” is a hardcover, 144 pages, $17.95 US, published by Abrams Comicarts.

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Filed under Comics, graphic novels, Jason Shiga, Julia Wertz, New York City