Post-Holy Week Staff Pick: 'Franny and Zooey'

N.B.: I wrote this last week, to be included in our Holy Week reading recommendations. The vagaries of the holiday weekend, and my own foot-dragging in finishing the piece, prevented it from being posted before Easter. I decided it might interest at least a few readers, so I'm offering it to you now.

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Like many discontented teenagers, I read and re-read, and then read again, The Catcher in the Rye. While I won’t condescend to that novel, it admittedly is a young man’s book: best experienced around the time you bum your first cigarette, whatever pleasures it retains for the older reader.

And for a decade or so after this initial foray into J.D. Salinger’s work, that novel basically exhausted what I knew of the author—he had created Holden Caulfield. Until his death in 2010, Salinger might catch my attention when there was a rare “sighting” of this most private of writers, or a legal dispute with a would-be biographer broke into the news. But I didn’t bother to read anything that had been published after Catcher. Then, just over two years ago, David Shields and Shane Salerno published a strange but absorbing account of Salinger’s life, Salinger, released just as their documentary of the same name came out. They took care to explore Salinger’s intense, idiosyncratic spiritual “search”—especially his immersion in Vedanta. I was intrigued. I went to The Strand and came back with the rest of his books.

Franny and Zooey is the best of them, and I commend it to you. These two long stories about the Glass family, both originally published in The New Yorker, show Salinger at his strongest: richer and deeper than Catcher, but not as offbeat and opaque as Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. The book, in other words, catches a kind of sweet spot in Salinger’s development.

It also is strikingly concerned with matters of the spirit. Shields and Salerno argue that Salinger’s obsession with religion eventually killed his art, even if it gave him the resources to endure the emotional trauma inflicted on him during World War II, when he was one of the first on the scene at Kaufering IV, an auxiliary of the Dachau concentration camp. If they are right—and they make a convincing case—then Franny and Zooey should be understood as the most glorious of Salinger’s “failed” attempts at integrating religion into his fiction before he went silent.

“Franny” features the title character, a young woman in college, on a date with the perfectly-named Lane Coutell on the weekend of the Yale football game. As we follow her travails, we learn she’s reading The Way of a Pilgrim, a tale of learning to pray without ceasing—especially utilizing the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” The second story in the book, “Zooey,” finds Franny back at the Glass home, distressed and despairing. Zooey, her brother, tries to help her by imparting wisdom he learned from Seymour and Buddy, the two oldest Glass siblings.

It is that wisdom that struck me with extraordinary force the first time I read Franny and Zooey. I’m not embarrassed to say that as I finished the book, I had one of the most intense religious experiences of my life. I don’t know why on that bright Saturday afternoon Salinger’s words came to me as a revelation, but they did: “How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose? Can you tell me that?” Can you?

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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