Somebody check on Sparky Lyle. All the writers that helped lead me to writing are dying off, so I’m starting to get worried about the author of The Bronx Zoo, Lyle’s hilarious recounting of the 1978 season in diary form that inspired me, at the age of 11, to first start writing down words to describe my life. After Lyle got me started, the next two writers to take me by the hand were Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries, who died this past September, and J.D. Salinger, who died today.
I first read Salinger’s book in 10th grade, for school. Our assignment was to read a book and produce a book cover for it, with jacket copy that described the story. I hadn’t done shit for the class all year, so when I turned in a semi-coherent assignment the teacher ended her speech to the class about the evils of plagiarism by saying, “Yours was one of them,” and handing me back my book cover with an F on it. I stammered some kind of a denial (I was on the verge of tears), and she snapped, “Oh yeah? Then define the word ‘prestigious.’” I knew what the word meant but I couldn’t explain it to her. I think she eventually changed the F to a C because of the suicidal look on my face. At around the same time, in my French class, I was also accused of plagiarism for an assignment in which we were asked to translate the English words on a music album of our choice. I translated Rush’s Moving Pictures. The teacher believed I’d gotten my hands on a French-Canadian version of the album. Anyway, by then teachers didn’t believe I was capable of much except cheating, I guess. The next year I went off to boarding school and within a year and three-quarters was tossed out, just like ol’ Holden getting the heave ho from Pencey Prep, and that summer, with GED in hand and no clue what to do with myself, I reread The Catcher in the Rye and decided I wanted, when not smoking bong hits, masturbating, watching television, and staring off into the distance, to try to make something as beautiful as that book. It’s an impossible aspiration, in my opinion, especially for a lazy person like me. (The closest anyone has ever come is Peter J. Smith in his great and underappreciated novel Highlights of the Offseason.) But I wouldn’t have wanted any other life than one at least half-assedly dedicated to chasing after that book.
As for Sparky Lyle: may he live for many more years. I choose to hold it as a good omen that even as early as 1975, as attested to by this 1976 card, he was wearing the ridiculously high-waisted pants of a nonagenarian.
And as for J.D. Salinger, I suggest avoiding the obituaries, which will spend an inordinate amount of time pointing past the work he did as a young man to revel in the odder details of his later life as an unrelenting recluse. In lieu of that, here’s a thoughtful 2001 article on his greatest creation.