J. D. Salinger has died, and I must mark the moment by praising one of the finest books I have ever read. It is not The Catcher in the Rye, easily the most notorious of Salinger's slight body of work. It is the small volume, Franny and Zooey (see here for a helpful summary).
Speaking of "small volume," note the very opening words, in the overly modest front inscription:
As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, "genius domus" of "The New Yorker," lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.
Who can resist reading the book which begins like that? Franny and Zooey is a book about prayer and breakdown, about family intimacy and public audience, about morons and geniuses, about identity and integrity, all set in the long weekend of an earnest college student around 1955.
Franny is learning to pray the Jesus Prayer and carrying around another slim volume, The Way of a Pilgrim. Zooey is her lovable and faithful brother, who tries to comfort her when she appears to be cracking up. There are other members of this highly educated and intelligent family.
It is the passage at the very end of the book that has stayed in my conscience for most of my life. Zooey is speaking on the telephone to Franny, but he has pretended to be another brother, named Buddy. Franny sees through the deception, but the conversation continues. Zooey quotes another older brother, named Seymour. Thus, using telephone and ruse and quotation of other people, Salinger confuses the very stability of identity. Who is actually doing the talking? (Add to this that the narrator of the book is actually the brother named "Buddy").
It does not matter who is doing the talking, Salinger seems to be implying, in a spectacularly Buddhist "non-identity" way. It is the advice of the older brother, Seymour, that becomes important -- important to writers and actors and anyone who is an artist. I daresay that the notion of "artist" here means any person of integrity in the world. Seymour had told Zooey always to shine his shoes before he appeared on the television game show "Wise Child" (on which show all the children had appeared at one time or another), this despite the fact that no one could ever see his shoes.
Anyway, I started bitching one night before the broadcast. Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door.... I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to them for the Fat Lady (Franny and Zooey, Boston: Bantam edition. Little, Brown, and Company, 1961. p. 200).
As Zooey tells this story, and how he obliged in shining his shoes for the Fat Lady, Franny remembers Seymour saying the same kind of thing to her. "He told me, too," she said into the phone, "he told me to be funny for the Fat Lady."
So Zooey continues:
Yes. Yes. Yes. all right. Let me tell you something now, buddy....are you listening? [note that "buddy" is also the name of their other brother, "Buddy" who is narrating the larger story]. I don't care where an actor acts...But I'll tell you a terrible secret--Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddam secret yet? And don't you know--listen to me now-- don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? ...Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ himself. Christ himself, buddy. (Franny and Zooey, pp. 201-202).
I give nothing away if I say that this passage is at the very end of the book. For joy, apparently, it was all Franny could do to hold the phone, even with both hands. After this, Zooey cannot talk anymore; it is as if words have ended.
As the world knows, J. D. Salinger did not publish much. Apparently, however, he wrote very much. I think of another of Zooey's remarks to Franny: An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's (Franny and Zooey, page 199). Here's to you, J. D. Salinger. May your soul rest in peace.