Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There Might Be a Good Life Beyond Thirteen

"You're so goddamn funny, it isn't funny."

According to the documentary on his life, J. D. Salinger's unpublished work after his "retirement" in 1965 will be released to the public beginning in 2015. In anticipation of such a literary cultural event I've taken to reading Franny and Zooey and now, Nine Stories, of which only one of the stories I'd read previously. (The second time I read The Catcher in the Rye I was just finishing university, quite unprepared yet for adult life and wept-- I read it four years later in a summer in New York and found Holden a whiny brat-- no plans for a reread for now, perhaps when my son is of age, in which we might read it together.) After bearing through Nine Stories, I'm afraid my enthusiasm for whatever is to come from Salinger doesn't hold much for me. In fact, Salinger might be one of those popular authors whom I just don't like very much, a list that includes Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Haruki Murakami, and J. G. Ballard.

What exactly is my problem with Salinger? After all, he often writes beautifully-- his prose is stylistic, precise, and occasionally lyrical. But for all his fine writing and sophistication, there is something wholly unlikable about nearly everyone's story he deigns to tell. The nine stories (all written in a five-year period shortly after his war experience) deal variously with PTSD, childhood innocence, and child prodigies, while one story treats anti-semitism and another an inebriated man insecure about his wife's fidelity. The problem then is not subject or prose, it is Salinger's heroes, especially his young geniuses, who infuriate us with their arrogance. It takes considerable charm to overcome major character flaws like uppityness and obnoxiousness. In literature, in fact, it is rather impossible. Consider this diatribe by one of Salinger's spoiled brats: "I mean here's this awful little person from Altoona, Pennsylvania-- or one of those places. Apparently starving to death. I'm kind and decent enough-- I'm the original Good Samaritan-- to take him into my apartment, this absolutely microscopic little apartment that I can hardly move around in myself." He is an ass, of course,  but not an isolated example from this collection-- the heroes of "De Daumier-Smith's Blues" and "Teddy," are equally precious, precocious, and pretentious. Salinger would have us expect the little boy in "Teddy," would remark to a stranger, "Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions." Oh, are they really, Teddy?

But as annoying as they can be, the larger problem with most of Salinger's stories is they are forgettable. Not a lot happens in them-- the characters think too much, they drink, they cuss their "Christ Almightys," "Chrissakes," and "Goddamns" (after awhile most of Salinger's characters begin to sound like Holden Caulfield.) Easily, the most dramatic and thus most famous story in the collection is its first: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." I'd originally read this when I was about 21 years old and remembered it as having significant impact. But upon this latest reread I found Seymour Glass anything but the legendary genius Salinger makes him out to be in Franny and Zooey and other stories. From the outset here we know he's unhinged from the beginning due to a lengthy conversation between Seymour's wife and her mother. There are three scenes with Seymour himself, the lengthiest of which he is playing with a little girl, Sybil, on the beach. Seymour takes Sybil out into the water on a floating raft. They look for bananafish, a fictional creature that "behaves like pigs." He has a Humbert Humbert moment in which he kisses the arch of her foot. But it is not this bizarre, nearly pedophiliac moment that is so disturbing. Nor is it his evident social awkwardness when later, in the elevator hotel, he rashly accuses a woman of staring at his feet "If you want to look at my feet, say so. But don't be a goddamn sneak about it." No, the stunner is this: Returning to his room, he takes out a pistol. With his wife asleep before him, apropos of nothing, he blows his brains out. That he should do this, shattering forever any normalcy and sanity in his innocent wife, is abominable. To this reader at least then he is at best a creep, at worst, a monster. That this could be one of the most celebrated stories of 20th century literature baffles me to no end. 

A story of similar themes but much more complex and better executed is "For Esmé-- with Love and Squalor." Again, we have an older man and a girl, though this one is about thirteen. The narrator, an American intelligence officer, meets her in a tearoom in Devon, England after witnessing her melodious singing in a church. They have an engaging character, and though Esmé
is nearly as supercilious and precocious as any Salinger type she is very nearly charming, or at least we are able to recognize the charm she has on this lonely soldier. The second half of the story follows the end of the war, in a battle-ravaged Bavarian village where a Sergeant X, battle-scarred and suffering severe post traumatic stress opens a piece of mail that had been forwarded over many addresses-- it is from Esmé and the contents of its cadence and character rejuvenates the young soldier. 

J.D. Salinger during the War

It sounds sentimental and it could be easy to dismiss from our generations of leisure and small sacrifice. But we all have our personal "battles" even if they are nowhere near as dramatic as Salinger's, who was in D-Day and helped liberate the death camps. But we can remember a time more innocent, more optimistic before the war (our war, our little war). This is Salinger at his best and how he might have contemplated his literary purpose: to remind us of what it felt like to have our future in front of us. Perhaps that is why Salinger is so popular among the young. But childhood is not necessarily our life peak from which we inevitably decline. For those of us who have left innocence behind and have discovered adulthood hasn't been an outright disaster, the running themes in Salinger's work can feel a bit melodramatic, if immature. After all, you don't need to be a child to be imaginative, creative, and adventurous. In fact, you can keep a youthful spirit intact most especially when you don't sentimentalize the past. You would have thought Salinger, a Zen enthusiast, might have realized the joys of present tense living. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Interesting Times

"There are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar republic of 1932-33. In this American phantasmagoria, an empty-faced girl in a scarlet cloak and a clown's hat points a gun... the unemployed mill about.. the largest city is about to go bankrupt... a feckless President, another wooden titan, drones stolidly... exorcists, astrologers, and strange oriental gurus wander through... the screens, large and small, pulsate with violence and pornography.... the godfathers last tango with clockwork orange in deep throat... women in pants bawl lustily while anguished youths try to be gay... a motherly woman raises her gun and fires...screams... Underlying all this is a new spirit of nihilism, a radical disbelief in any rational, objective basis for ethical norms or for orderly political change."
-- New York Times columnist William Shannon

If there is a more descriptive caricature of America in the middle 1970s I have not yet read it. The "Weimar" summer the writer referring to was 1975 and up to that point it had been a pretty bad year: runaway inflation; a stagnant economy; NewYork City fiscally bankrupt; Cambodia and Vietnam falling into Communist rule in dramatic fashion; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford's life; terrorist bombings (89 over the course of the year); heiress Patty Hearst on the lamb with the radical outfit Symbionese Liberation Army; textbook wars in West Virginia; antibusing riots in Boston; and a congressional commission investigating systematic abuse and murder by the CIA. This in the aftermath of the OPEC embargo and energy crisis in 1973 and the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon in 1974. There was, in politics, economics, and in all walks of social life, a "crisis in confidence."

Patty Hearst posing with the SLA insignia

The writer's reference to Weimar Germany in 1933 signals the author's dire pessimism of what might come to pass. On the other hand, one would have thought that all this turbulence would be a catalyst for reflection, for significant change, for "growing up," which entailed abandoning the myth of American exceptionalism and the harsh reality we might be as flawed as the banana republics where our CIA was fomenting agitation and death. Yet the following summer in our Bicentennial year, Ronald Reagan, a former B-list actor that not a single pundit took seriously, nearly won the GOP nomination for President. He did this on a radically conservative agenda that almost entirely ignored the reality of a culturally diverse and economically complex superpower.  Four years later he would take this movement mainstream winning a landslide election and once and for all twisting the knife in 1960s idealism. Rick Perlstein's wonderful history of the middle 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, is about how the fall of Nixon led to the rise of Reagan and the modern conservative movement that took hold in America.

In 1974, a retiring congressman said, "Politics has gone from an age of 'Camelot' when all things were possible to the age of 'Watergate' when all things are suspect." Perlstein often references the"small and suspicious circles" who go from a Greek chorus chattering in the margins to the mainstream, their voices expanding into a din. The suspicious ones are vindicated time and again for their paranoia, most especially for Watergate. The revelations therein: Nixon's "enemies list," suitcases of cash, burglaries, break-ins, forgeries, plans to kidnap activists during the Republican convention. Meanwhile, the Moonies, EST, and all kinds of cults are thriving, as the hippies moved back from the communes but couldn't quite readapt to the system. "Once upon a time 'the occult' had been the redoubt of rubes. Now, in a world where the usual sources of authority no longer had answers for anything, the weird stuff was getting more serious consideration." In a bestselling paperback written by psychics, Predictions for 1974, a stock market crash, swarms of locusts and floods "like the plagues of Egypt" were augured. Many feared Nixon wouldn't leave the White House without calling in the army and maybe staging a coup, or even going nuclear in an alcoholic delirium. Unfounded fears, as Watergate finally did bring down Nixon but when his replacement, the mild-mannered Midwesterner, Gerald Ford pardoned him "absolutely," he too marked himself as an "insider," one of them.

Operation Frequent Wind (better known as the Fall of Saigon)

Around the time of Watergate, an exposé by journalist Seymour Hersh revealed CIA drug running in Laos, assassination attempts, pivotal roles in coups setting up right wing dictatorships, and more. Led by Senator Frank Church and New York congressman Otis Pike, an investigation uncovered numerous illegalities, but at a certain point the public suffered scandal-fatigue. The New York Times and The Washington Post, both instrumental in bringing down Nixon, buried the stories. And while many worried about the State of the Union for America's 200th birthday, the collective mood of the country ended up feeling good and proud. Americans were frankly tired of feeling guilty about Vietnam and Watergate. They were ready to move on.

The Invisible Bridge is long-- 800 pages long-- and while it is comprehensive of the era, covering economic and social issues, as well as pop culture (The Godfather infecting Watergate criminality, The Exorcist touching on cults brainwashing daughters, Jaws as the invisible, uncontrollable menace lurking just out of our sight), Perlstein is a politics geek. Much of his research is devoted to the rise of Ronald Reagan. The historian covers his impoverished childhood with an alcoholic father, his unwavering belief in self, his lifeguard stint, his nearsightedness (and refusal to wear glasses), his leftism in college, a radio career, movie stardom, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis, spokesperson for GE, his move to the right and strong anti-communist stance, Governor of California and his vilification of student activists, and finally a rich man on the speakers' circuit commanding $5000 for an hour's talk. Always aware of being watched, of presenting an image. Here was a man capable of making all the cruelties of conservatism tolerable, even likable. The momentum for him to be elected reminded him the nature of his work as a lifeguard: "Then along came Ronald Reagan, encouraging citizens to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them." Whatever complexity encountered could be reduced by him to a matter of good and evil.

After the midterms elections of 1974-- so-called "Watergate Baby" Democrats sweeping many Republicans out of office-- the race to be the presidential nominee in 1976 should have been wide open but Jimmy Carter, a heretofore unknown former governor of Georgia, won outright by conveying the strongest anti-Washington "outsider" stance. Normally, incumbent presidents don't expect much of a challenge from their party, but Ford, who had Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in his cabinet, was not conservative enough for the reactionaries who wanted a Reagan candidacy. Beyond the culture war-- abortion, busing, history textbooks, the Equal Rights Amendment-- the power brokers wanted deregulation, smaller government, and lower taxes, basically deconstructing the New Deal. As former speechwriter Pat Buchanan put it in his column: "Ford is a conservative... a conservatism marked by wariness of status quo... It is a don't-rock-the-boat conservatism exemplified by what Mr. Ford calls the politics of cooperation, conciliation, compromise, and consensus... But Reagan was there to lead Republicans who believe that conflict, not compromise, is the essence of politics."

The Soiling of Old Glory-- antibusing violence in Boston

After more than six months of primaries and caucuses, Ford had only a slightly larger lead than Reagan and the nomination process had to go all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City. Ford clinched it when he swayed the Mississippi delegation to his side after some raucous politicking and backroom dealing.  Ford might have won the battle but Reagan won the war for the soul of the Republican party. The delegates at the convention ratified a pro-life, anti-detente, pro-gun, antibusing, pro-school-prayer platform.

This was not yet a popular view in 1976. When Gallup polled voters on a Reagan vs. Carter match, Carter consistently topped Reagan by three times as many votes. Had they gone against each other in 1976, Reagan might have been defeated, soundly even, his reactionary platform discredited as unwinnable, a failure. Perhaps then not every single president in the last few generations would have taken his cue, dividing citizens and nations into good guys and bad guys to fit Manichean world views. Moreover, there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. That said, there is something about Reagan and his flamboyant charm that seemed inevitable. It's poor taste to ever use that adjective with history, but with someone like Reagan, it seems appropriate. Germany got Hitler in its Weimar moment, we got Reagan, which isn't to say we didn't lose too. Losing can be complicated and difficult to define, notwithstanding some presidential philosophies.