Franny and Zooey and Me

Nothing branded my soul quite the way the Salinger classic did

I was too old for hide and seek with my cousins, too young to fret about Legionnaire's Disease with the adults. My friends were back in Philadelphia, having Thanksgiving with their own exasperating clans, and I'd finished all my homework on the two-hour drive to Columbia, Maryland.

So I fled the grown-up gabble and wandered to the quiet exurbs of my aunt and uncle's house—a stop in the powder room with its bronzed, bas-relief wallpaper; a peek out the deck doors—until I landed in the den.

There, my aunt's college paperbacks wedged the shelves. Thoreau and Dickens, Melville and Marx: The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails ... Flimsy pages and fine, dense print; sentences that tasted medicinal, something to read because an adult swore it was good for you.

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Then a slender volume tipped into my hand: a 95-cent Bantam paperback with a no-frills cover and a title loosely calligraphed in black: "Franny and Zooey," by J.D. Salinger. Already I was curious: Were Franny and Zooey siblings? Lovers? Was J.D. a man or a woman? There was no teasing back blurb, not even an illustration or an author photo.

Ah, here was a book that wasn't trying to seduce, amuse or educate. A book that dared the reader to judge by the plainness of its cover. That defiant lack of glamour spoke to me—the short, myopic girl with untameable hair—even before I read the self-deprecating dedication: "I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn … to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book."

This J.D. Salinger, whoever he or she was, whispered like an ally. I folded myself into the leatherette recliner and started to read.

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That was ninth grade, when I wrote poems napoleoned with angst and adjectives, tried fruitlessly to straighten my hair and built a plywood dollhouse in my spare time. It would be another year until I developed crushes on gay boys and flamboyant girls—kids who quoted e.e. cummings and knew all the lyrics to "A Chorus Line." I rode the coattails of their passions, hoping they would sweep me toward my own.

It would be a few more years until a sagacious English teacher summoned me from a scrum of classmates during hall-passing, looked down and said, "Don't hide." And it would be nearly a decade before I embraced that enigmatic counsel, moved to the west coast, began kissing girls and fell tempestuously in love.

At 14, tempest was merely brewing, a low simmer in the heart and gut. A ripeness, a yearning—but for what, I couldn't have said.

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And then came Franny Glass, collegiate bundle of contradiction with her sheared-raccoon coat and habit of chain-smoking, her irritation with conformity and her spiritual floundering. She meets her Yale boyfriend, Lane Coutell, at the train station, erupts in tears in the ladies' room at the restaurant where they have lunch and finally tells Lane about the "little green book" she's been clutching, "The Way of a Pilgrim," which has inspired her to repeat a one-line prayer in pursuit of ego loss and self-purification.

At the end of the section, Franny faints and, despite Lane's sincere ministrations, she "lay quite still, looking at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move."

The second section, "Zooey," takes a deeper plunge into Glass family drama, with detours on God and mysticism, poetry, success and suicide. Zooey is Franny's brother, drafted to coax her out of her nervous breakdown or existential collapse or whatever has brought her to be supine on their mother's battered couch while that mother, Bessie, fusses around the apartment, making chicken soup for her inscrutable daughter.

There are other brothers, including Seymour (I hadn't yet read "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"), who has killed himself, and Buddy, the family's philosopher-in-chief. But it's Zooey who delivers the curtain speech, prodding his sister to abandon her repetitive prayer and, instead, seize the moments of ordinary holiness that hover right within her grasp.

I sat, origamied into that lounger, the family dinner a distant buzz, turning pages until someone yelled that we had to leave. I stumbled from the den in a kind of fugue; who were these people who were supposed to be related to me? I'd found new kin: the cerebral, precocious, passionate, confused Glass siblings. Perhaps they could adopt me.

Second best option was to borrow the book. Forever.

Later, I read more Salinger: "Nine Stories" and "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters" and, naturally, "The Catcher in the Rye" (despite—or maybe because of—my English teacher's declaration that she'd never met a boy who didn't like the book, nor a girl who did).

But none of those branded my soul quite the way "Franny and Zooey" did. That book's impact had partly to do with timing, landing in my lap at a fecund moment of adolescent flux.

I wanted to try on Franny's and Zooey's idiosyncrasies for size. What would happen if I endlessly repeated a mantra? What if, like the Glass brothers, I plastered my door with philosophical quotes scrawled on old shirt cardboards? Could I, too, find myself by losing myself—in spiritual practice, in love, in words? Did sacredness sit in my own back yard?

I was still young, and much of the book escaped my understanding. But I gleaned enough to know I'd stumbled into new emotional and intellectual terrain, a topography of obsession, cynicism, and self-conscious cleverness. The book gave me a glimpse of what awaited, if I kept my mind unlatched and my reading habits ecumenical.

Years later, I named my first kitten Zooey, in homage, and, a few years after that, I read "Franny and Zooey" aloud on a road trip with my sweetheart. That time, I absorbed it as a writer, noting Salinger's audacious, page-long litany of every item in the Glass family's medicine cabinet and his break-the-fourth-wall jolts in narration.

But in that car, driving south on Oregon's I-5 with the woman I would eventually marry, what flooded back was the existential wooziness of 14 and that first sampling of Salinger, as if someone had slipped me a shot of Jack Daniels without first asking my age. I can taste it, still: a bitterwarm savor, a complicated, golden wake-up call that promised more.

Tags: books