February 10, 2011 by David Gillaspie
Winning With The Smallest Losses
If you break your collarbone in the big game and win, you still have a broken collarbone.
Mine’s been broken twice. It hurt each time…a lot. For more on that, tweet Green Bay Packer Charles Woodson @ twitter.com/CharlesWoodson.
If you go to war, say WWII, and see end game combat AND concentration camp liberation, the right guys win, but things get broken.
That’s the wind-up for my pitch on JD Salinger.
He goes through the fire until 1945 and comes out glazed. Six years later he explodes with Catcher In The Rye.
If that isn’t good enough for the Greatest Generation, then how about other WWII writers and their books?
Let’s take a look.
Norman Mailer writes his WWII book, The Naked And The Dead, published in 1948, about war in the Pacific. An Army guy writes about the Army, not a kid hiking through the city.
James Jones comes out with From Here To Eternity in 1952, another Army guy writing the Army story.
Joseph Heller publishes Catch-22 in 1961, an Army Air Corps guy writing about an Army Air Corps guy.
It’s a longer list.
Why does one writer go the Army story way, and another doesn’t?
The same reason some recruits get a hair-cut, a uniform, and think they’re the second coming of Field Marshall Montgomery. It’s in them, just waiting to pop out.
What popped out of Salinger is a sixteen-year-old kid on the loose. His big post-war story makes a pre-war detour with his take on what broke in him during the Big One.
Why not combine Salinger and Vonnegut. Since both traveled some of the same WWII roads, like The Battle of the Bulge, I like to think they have similar internal breaks from the experience.
Is Holden Caulfield Billy Pilgrim? Reality for both changes faster than they can comprehend. Holden sticks it to the ‘phonies.’ Vonnegut does the same to the Nazis when he explains in German what he’ll do to them when the Russians come to their POW camp.
A couple of goofy guys in odd apparel take a beat down by forces they don’t understand.
It’s reasonable to think Vonnegut read Catcher in the Rye before he wrote Slaughter House Five. After all, how many authors can say they haven’t read it? If they haven’t, they avoided it on purpose.
Catcher doesn’t go away; Holden stands his ground in the world of novel characters. But what about Salinger? He went away, but still held his ground among writers of the ages.
Vonnegut stayed in the picture the way I think Salinger might have enjoyed, the way Holden Caulfield would approve:
“What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.”
Gone, but never forgotten? It probably sounds terrific in French, but English will do.