June, 2000

I had asthma as a kid, and spent a lot of my time indoors. Other guys were playing ball, swimming, and so forth, while I read like a madman in my room. My dad, who'd already had a few books published, went through a phase where he wrote short stories and sold them to men's magazines. He was always checking the market for fiction, bringing home different ones to check the kind of material they published. There were times the house was full of these magazines with graphically vivid, sometimes even rather lurid covers -- "True Detective", "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine", "Rogue", "Male", "Bluebook For Men", and so on. This was the early 60's, and I read like a fiend. I would grab anything available to keep myself occupied-- cereal boxes, Mom's McCalls magazine-- anything I could reach.

My dad would see me heading for one of these hairy-chested, real man's adventure pulps (Real eye-candy, they were. They all seemed to have covers featuring guys with 3-day stubble and tattered shirts, firing automatic weapons with one hand as they clutched frightened, fabulous babes with the other...) and he'd say "I don't think that's quite the kind of thing you ought to read, buddy. Try this, instead"  and he'd steer me to something else. I was happy just to have something new to devour. So, I developed the habit of asking first if I could read a certain magazine or book.

One day I saw a paperback that had this blurb right on the front cover: "This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart-- but you will never forget it." THE CATCHER IN THE RYE was the title. I simply HAD to read it.....How could I NOT, after that blurb on the cover? I asked him, and my father hesitated only a second before he said "You know, I think you'd really enjoy that one, actually. The man who wrote it is my favorite living American author, and it's just a great story.  It's written from the point of view of a young man not very much older than you are. Sure! Go right ahead and read it, and let me know what you think of it. Just do me a favor-- if you have any questions about anything in there, come ask me, O.K.?"

The very same, well-thumbed, tattered and worn copy I first read.

I tore into it, and soon realized I'd never before read anything quite like it. Yes, the narrator of the book is a kid, just a couple years older than I was, but he was interacting in an unusual and meaningful way with adults-- unlike any kid I knew or whom I saw depicted on TV or in movies-- much less any boy that I'd read about in any book. The situation seemed like a very adult one, but it was also considered from an adolescent point of view... and yet the protagonist had real doubts and fears and concerns and a sense of humor. Wow! I'd never encountered writing like this before. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough!

This wasn't a case of some silly, jumped up boy detectives with a couple of "chums" and a roadster, dashing about solving crimes. I realized the ideas and dialogue my dad expected I might have questions about were things with which I already had some familiarity-- or at least enough innate curiosity to have tried to learn about them on my own. I went to him and told him how much I'd enjoyed the book, and asked if this Salinger guy had written anything else. He handed me Nine Stories, and Franny and Zooey-- and I was off!

It opened up a whole new world to me, and a whole new dialogue between us, and made me see how he felt I was becoming a young man. In his eyes, I apparently wasn't a boy any more, but standing on the threshold of young adulthood, and exhibiting the gnawing curiosity and hunger for broader experience that are the curse of the imaginative. I mark the absolute, defining moment of my passage out of childhood with the reading of that book, and my father's trust that I could not only handle it, but blossom as I absorbed it.

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