A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post titled In Gatsby's Tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo, detailing my search for some exact locales described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Using the novel's text and a zoomable historical map of Queens, New York, I was able to conclude that some vivid scenes described in the book took place at the triangle where a railroad and a street converge just east of the Van Wyck Expressway and south of the town of Flushing, Queens. George and Myrtle Wilson's auto garage would have stood at this spot, and the haunting sign for eye doctor T. J. Eckleberg would have been visible at this spot too.
This blog post has become one of the most popular pages on Literary Kicks, and since I now realize that many people share my fascination with Fitzgerald's "valley of ashes" I'd like to show you the photos I took while I was researching this locale, which I'd never bothered to put up before.
1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.
2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.
3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.
(Late last year, writer Mike Norris and artist David Richardson imagined the members of J. D. Salinger's fictional Glass family, a follow-up to their earlier exploration of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Here's their take on Salinger's most famous novel. -- Levi)
If you were like me, you were a big fan of J.D. Salinger in high school. A big fan. Not only read The Catcher in the Rye, but followed that with Nine Stories, and the Glass family chronicles. Talked about the stories with your friends, contemplated the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass. Went around with these characters running through your head, perhaps not quite knowing what to make of them.
Then, you moved on. I headed off to college, and I put Salinger behind me. I advanced to the Beats and other writers, and except when reading about Salinger’s death in 2010, I didn’t think much about this famously reclusive writer.
But recently I started re-reading his slim oeuvre.
Salinger’s early life parallels that of Holden Caulfield. He grew up in Manhattan, and there he attended the McBurney School. He showed promise in drama, wrote for the school newspaper, and, like Holden, managed the fencing team. Nevertheless, McBurney expelled Salinger because of his failing grades. He then went to Valley Forge Military Academy near Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1936. It was at Valley Forge that he started writing stories.
I just finished Charles J. Shields's gripping, inspiring, sensitive biography of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, a book that brings me back to my earliest days as a serious reader of semi-serious fiction. Kurt Vonnegut wasn't the first grown-up writer I ever read, but his Breakfast of Champions was probably the first novel I ever related to on adult terms. I sensed that I was crossing some line when I read this book at the age of 12, and I remember feeling myself transformed by the act of declaring to the world that Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite writer (as he would remain through my high school years). I guess he was my first literary role model.
I admired his message and also his pop/expressionist aesthetic, which is neatly encapsulated by the ultra-cool cover designs for the 1970s-era editions of his paperbacks. I collected these Vonnegut books like baseball cards, though I only liked about half of them. I favored Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, but Breakfast of Champions remained my favorite, not only because it was the first Vonnegut book I read but also because it was the most far out book he ever wrote. This was the one he drew pictures in, the one in which he invented a doppelganger for himself (the beautiful creation called Kilgore Trout) and then walked into the novel himself (as Kurt Vonnegut) to hang out with his own doppelganger. I remember feeling a big grin on my pre-teenage face when I read that chapter of Breakfast of Champions for the first time: is he allowed to do that? Apparently he was allowed to do that.
After the success of "Catcher in the Rye", J. D. Salinger began writing almost exclusively about a fictional family, the Glass siblings of New York City, from various narrative points of view. The sublime short books "Franny and Zooey" and "Seymour/Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters" were about the Glass children, and Salinger's most famous short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" tells the chilling tale of Seymour Glass's suicide in a Florida hotel room. Most of these stories are fractured narratives containing reflections of reflections of the Glass children, usually related in dialogue and allegedly recorded by the mild, stealthy older brother, Buddy Glass.
A few months ago, writer Michael Norris and artist David Richardson began working together on a project to imagine the faces of the Glass family members. This represents a creative first, as far as we know, because no well-known film, play or art project has ever emerged to represent these characters. Michael and David previously illuminated Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" for Literary Kicks, and David Richardson drew the cover for "Beats In Time", the new Literary Kicks Beat Generation anthology..
It is his second shave. He will place the razor on the edge of the sink, it will fall into the basin, but with the grace that an inanimate object, a prop, can give to a well directed scene in a comedy of manners. It is a scene every actor longs to play, a scene few will ever play as well as Zooey. He is about to turn toward Bessie, he will ease up on her and look at her with love. He will sit in Seymour and Buddy’s room after he dresses, smoke cigars, read the once white beaver board of world literature quotations, and he will help Franny, and always shine his shoes for Seymour‘s Fat Lady.
Up until the mid-fifties, J.D. Salinger had been circling around the eldest child of the Glass family, Seymour. Seymour appeared as the main character in the short story “A Perfect day for Bananafish”, but for the most part he stayed in the background. At the time of Franny and Zooey he was already dead. But in almost every Glass family story, Seymour was a presence: the soul, conscience and genius behind Les and Bessie Glasses’s large troupe of precocious children.
Now, in twin novelllas packaged in one volume, and appearing in in 1963, Seymour gets top billing. But because these are Salinger novels, Seymour does not come out and speak or perhaps do a little soft shoe for our amusement. Instead, the stories are narrated by his Boswell, his brother Buddy Glass, and once again Seymour is one degree removed from the action of the stories. The name of this collection is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is the first and most engaging story in this collection. It concerns the wedding day of Seymour and his wife-to-be, Muriel. The rest of the Glass family is dispersed across the face of the earth due to the war, so it is up to Buddy to be the sole Glass representative at Seymour’s wedding.
Buddy had been drafted into the army, and he arrives in New York, on leave, from Fort Benning on a sweltering June day. He takes a cab to Muriel’s grandmother’s house and waits with the other guests for the arrival of the groom. And waits. And waits. Finally it becomes apparent that Seymour is not going to show up, and all of the guests pile into waiting cars to take them to Muriel’s parent’s house.
Buddy jumps into a car with, among others, the matron of honor, who keeps repeating that she wants to just get her hands on Seymour for ”just two minutes” and do him some bodily harm. Buddy, who at this time has still not introduced himself as Seymour’s brother, sits uncomfortably in the car, not knowing why he is even there.
The car moves along slowly and then comes to a dead stop. Madison Avenue is blocked both north and south due to a parade. The occupants of the car wait in the sweltering heat, a situation that becomes even more uncomfortable when it the others discovers that Buddy is Seymour’s brother. The inhabitants of the car eventually decide to abandon it and head for a nearby Schrafft’s restaurant.
In 1948, J.D. Salinger published the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in the New Yorker. This event was a major step in his literary career. First, it brought Salinger serious critical acclaim. Second, it established a working relationship between the author and The New Yorker. The magazine offered Salinger a right of first refusal contract, and he subsequently published his new work almost exclusively in the New Yorker. Third, it marks the first published appearance of Seymour Glass, the oldest sibling in the Glass family. Salinger would go on to chronicle the lives of the Glass family siblings in a series of short stories and novellas.
“Bananafish” is the only story in which Seymour appears in real time. In all the other stories he is either referred to, or described from a distance in time. Nevertheless, the spirit of Seymour pervades all of the stories, and is a constant presence in the thoughts of his younger brothers and sisters.
The "Bananafish" story (which became the opening story in Salinger's beloved collection Nine Stories) is a masterpiece of economy and style. Using mostly dialog to set the scene and give background on the main characters, Salinger presents the barest of facts, describes a series of events, and then lets the reader puzzle out the meaning and fill in his or her own perception of the characters. Salinger at this point in his life was a student of Zen Buddhism, and “Bananafish” is similar to a Zen koan, or riddle, in which a question is posed and the answer is found through meditation and self-examination.
Fifty years ago this September, in 1961, J.D. Salinger published a slim volume containing a short story and a short novel that had both appeared previously in The New Yorker. The book was Franny and Zooey. It appeared ten years after the publication of his best-seller The Catcher in the Rye.
Franny and Zooey is the first book-length treatment of the Glass family. Salinger had already introduced some of the family members in stories such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Down at the Dinghy”. Now, the mythic Glass clan is fleshed out. The family history is revealed for the reader, and all the family members enumerated - the parents: Les and Bessie; and the seven children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny.
Franny Glass is presented almost entirely in dialogue. The youngest of the Glass family, she's a student at an unnamed Eastern college. She is attending a football weekend at her boyfriend Lane Coutell’s school. It is the Yale game, so his school is of the Ivy League variety.
During lunch with Lane at a restaurant, Franny expresses her disenchantment with phony college intellectuals and the egotism that abounds in her school's Theatre department, which caused her to quit her involvement. She also reveals that she has been reading a book called The Way of a Pilgrim. It's a work by a simple Russian pilgrim that describes his spiritual quest, and how he learned to say the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.
The Jesus prayer is to be repeated continuously until it becomes as much a part of the unconscious functioning of the body as the beating of the heart. After a period of time, the constant repetition of this prayer will lead to a form of spiritual illumination, similar to the meditation on “om” in Buddhism or Hinduism.
Franny suddenly becomes quite ill – it appears that she is in the throes of a complete nervous or spiritual breakdown. She is pale and perspiring, and at one point she goes into the bathroom and cries for about five minutes. Upon returning from the bathroom, she is okay for a while, but then faints. Lane Coutell takes her into the restaurant manager’s office, and then goes to fetch a cab. She is seen at the end of the story in the office, lying on the couch, silently repeating the Jesus prayer.
Returning to Romania, my native country after 30 years, made me feel like Rip Van Winkle. I didn’t fall asleep for that many years, but I did fall out of touch with my native country — and Eastern Europe in general — as I was focusing on my personal and professional life in the United States. My memories of my native country didn’t fade, however. I kept them alive through my fiction, the novel Velvet Totalitarianism that I’ve already written about on Litkicks, and that has just been republished in Romanian translation as Between Two Worlds (Intre Doua Lumi). The image of Romania in my head was also somewhat faded: a kind of black and white — or gray, more like it — snapshot of the communist country my family fled from in 1981. I described this dire image as vividly as I could in my novel:
While Eva waited for the pietoni (pedestrians/walk) sign to turn green, her eyes couldn’t help but focus on the poster of General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu directly facing her. The dictator’s face was frozen into the larger-than-life image he wanted to convey: his hair was still dark, glossy and youthful; his brown eyes sparkled with a reassuring warmth; his sensual mouth smiled with compassion; his aquiline, Roman nose took away some of the face’s natural beauty but gave it an air of authority. Eva thought how different this man was, and his benevolent image, from the day-to-day reality facing most Romanians. She turned away her gaze with disgust, yet found no consolation in her immediate surroundings. That winter evening, everything looked gray—the streets, the dingy buildings, the people scurrying about. Even the falling snow couldn’t add a glimmer of beauty to the gloomy atmosphere. Disoriented snowflakes fell helplessly onto the ground and disappeared without a trace into the pavement. What a pity, Eva whispered to herself, thinking that during the past few years, Bucharest in the evening had become a depressing sight. The formerly lively capital, filled with dazzling lights, picturesque cobblestone streets, Napoleonic-style buildings and its very own version of L’arc de triomphe (Arcul de Triumf) looked anything but triumphant now.
I often hear people complain about "dirty hippies". Well, cleanliness is a virtue. But I've never understood why anybody would hate hippies. Is it that their exuberance is embarrassing? I like hippies, and I also like several writers identified with the post-Beat/hippie literary tradition of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom are still active (or being remembered) today.
1. Johnny Depp is the star of a new film based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel of sin and excitement in Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary. Haven't seen it yet, but early indications are encouraging.
2. The late-career writings of the once-acclaimed novelist Ken Kesey were scant and unimpressive, but I recently wondered if this only indicated that Kesey had lost interest in the book format, and if there might be more substance to Kesey's later collectivist theatrical experiments than is commonly thought. Mike Egan's new book Ken Kesey and Storytelling as Collaborative Ritual asks the same question, examining group works like the play Twister with a Jungian point of a view and a fresh eye.
3. Karen Lillis has written a memoir, Bagging the Beats at Midnight, about her years as a bookseller at the endangered St. Mark's Bookshop (which remains one of the best places in New York City, and I hope it will never go away). Bagging the Beats includes chapters with titles like "Susan Sontag Wants The Manager & Richard Hell Wants the Bathroom Key".