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I confess: I’ve never read anything by J.D. Salinger.
It’s true. Maybe it’s because the famous American writer is not held in such great awe and regard in Canada. We have plenty of exceptional authors of our own, and during my high school years, it was never part of any curriculum I encountered. (I did, however, study Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising and Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native and happily read Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood). In fact, I can’t recall a single teacher mentioning Salinger or his works (Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, most notably), all of which had been published in the post-World War 2 decades.
These thoughts occurred to me several months back as I watched an excellent little movie (released on Netflix) called My Salinger Year. It’s directed by Philippe Falardeau, a Quebec filmmaker, and stars Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley. With lots of funding coming from Canadian and Irish sources, much of the filming taking place in Montreal (substituting for New York!) and employing Canadian and Irish actors and production staff (such is the reality of movie-making these days).
The movie is based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her time working for a venerable literary agency in New York: Harold Ober Associates, which happened to represent the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger.
Although nothing really dramatic happens in the movie (which takes place in the mid-1990’s), it’s an entertaining enough plot, as the protagonist wrestles with her relationships, the demands of the job and Salinger’s sudden decision to reissue a story (entitled Hapworth 16, 1924) originally published by the New Yorker magazine in 1965. The critics’ panning of this story in 1965 is considered by some to be the reason for both Salinger’s hiding away from society and his refraining from further publication up until that point in his life. (Of course, since he was so incommunicative, we’ll never know for sure).
But this long introduction takes me to the point of this post. There is one scene in the film where our heroine visits the New Yorker offices: we see the famous logo on the wall; we get the welcoming vibe for someone in the business of writing; and we understand her delight on entering this hallowed ground. For any erstwhile author, this famous magazine is, of course, the Holy Grail, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, etc. etc., especially for short story writers. The protagonist is a poet, and has had a couple of poems published in a minor journal. Naturally, she wants nothing more to be published in the New Yorker. She eventually runs into two editors who offer to review her work (one step closer to fame!).
I first came across the New Yorker at the local library as a young teen. I readily admit that, at first, it was the cartoons I really liked, although I preferred the British Punch magazine because each issue contained a preponderance of cartoons versus the stories. But as I got older, the more I appreciated the prose in the former, both the fiction as well as the nonfiction. Of course, the New Yorker was the one of the best places to find works by great Canadian short-story writers: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and Carol Shields, to name just a few.
Reading the New Yorker, however, takes a great deal of time. And time becomes precious when one becomes an adult, with competing obligations in life – family, career, keeping fit, etc. After many years of picking up the odd issue at the library, it was only in 1989 – when I moved to Victoria, B.C. – that (somehow) I had the curious idea I’d have more time on my hands, time enough to justify getting an actual subscription to the famous weekly.
It proved to be a mistake, for I am one of those who likes to read something cover-to-cover, not just newspapers and books but also journals. So, the weekly onslaught of wonderful stories and articles proved too much for me. In the end I began putting issues aside, expecting one day I’d have the opportunity to finish them. Needless to say, the news and story cycle as well as the obligations of daily life never let up. I kept a few issues, still wrapped in their plastic wrapping for safekeeping. Originally, I planned to read them at my leisure, when I stopped working at a fulltime job. Leisure! Still hasn’t happened! So, I never got to them. Equally, however, I could not bear to throw them out (hope springs eternal). And here they are:
Over the course of time, I discovered that New Yorker fiction generally followed a set pattern of writing, at least it did when I read the magazine most voraciously. It was about the same time that I began writing for my own pleasure or to amuse my family, and I began to imitate that style. The trick, in brief, was to lead off with something either tangential or of little consequence to the rest of the story and move on from there.
Naturally, this claim is a vast over-simplification. There’s a lot more to it, not the least of which is great writing. Still, here are a few examples of openings to my stories from that era:
A story of crime and punishment:
“Henry Shanz rounded the corner of the pot-holed dirt lane near to his home in Westerfield, Connecticut. Westerfield was a small mill town too far from the big city to be of any consequence. The railroads, highways and time had passed it by; the town was nothing more than a community of few amenities on a slow but certain decline.”
A story of environmental disaster (climate change – I was ahead of my time!):
“At first it was a diverting novelty. We all basked in the seemingly endless Indian summers; we revelled in the chinooks that dispelled the winter chills; we cheered to the early springs.”
A story of Christmas redemption:
“‘Yes, Ms. Walsh, only the subs will be in on Christmas.’
‘Well, you have a wonderful holiday, Frank.’
‘Thank you, ma’am. You, too.’
Frank watched her slow, careful walk out the grand entrance of the Century Building, avoiding the slick ice and snow drifts as best she could. He noticed her hailing a taxi for who knew where. Ms. Walsh had a melancholy air that did not fit the season, which Frank found disconcerting. He considered himself the father of a big family, everyone that worked in this building. They came into this world; they learned, they grew up; some left to go on to bigger things, some didn’t and stayed forever. Frank was always there for each and every one of them.”
A story of economic hardship and re-invention:
“The large Buick rolled down the Parkway, amid its thousand compatriots, likewise fleeing the steamy centre of downtown Ottawa. On this hot, humid, typical summer afternoon in ‘the nation’s capital’, Daniel Fortin was thankful for small mercies – like an impeccably air-conditioned car after an exhausting day. On the car’s radio the melodious voice of the CBC announcer intoned:
‘an informed source has revealed that Cabinet has been considering fuel rationing and further restrictions on price hikes. The Prime Minister stated that no action on these matters would be taken at this time. Cabinet is considering public service recommendations as it considers all possibilities-‘”
A story of crime, romance and mystery:
“Carlos felt a bead of sweat trickle down his brow, past the corner of his eye, stinging with its harsh salt as it rolled on down his cheek, finally coming to a dead halt under his chin. Where it stopped. And stayed, irritating more with every passing moment.”
You get the idea. The subsequent stories went off in a different or quasi-related direction. Just like this post.