I was whiling away some time last weekend at the library, when I spied a copy of “Salinger,” the recently published oral biography of J.D. Salinger, the author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” staring back at me from the shelf.
And even though I have a half dozen other books gathering dust on my bedside table, I brought it home and have been plowing through it and look forward to watching the documentary of the same name, which will be shown on PBS’s “American Masters” series on Tuesday night at 9.
I was one of those seemingly millions of snot-nosed adolescents who had their worlds turned upside down after being given a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” by a favorite teacher. Just like all the rest of them, I was totally convinced that Holden Caulfield was talking directly to me.
While “The Catcher in the Rye” remains one of my all-time favorite novels and I’m fond of “Nine Stories,” which followed, I didn’t have much use for “Franny and Zooey” or “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction.” Those two books, which account for the rest of Salinger’s published output, are just so much pretentious tripe, if you ask me.
If my fascination with Salinger was short-lived, he did have one lasting impact on me. It was because of him that I became a writer. And I think of being a writer as not so much having a vocation or even a serviceable career, but suffering an annoying condition, not unlike the astigmatism that leaves my world a soft blur when I don’t wear my glasses. There’s just not a whole lot I can do about it.
Unlike Salinger, I found out early on that I simply lacked the creativity for a career in fiction. There were a couple of lousy short stories, but not even an inkling of an American novel, great or otherwise.
It was almost by default that I became a journalist. It’s an occupation I believe Salinger despised and certainly one that I have had a love-hate relationship with all these years.
Unlike a few friends and acquaintances, my journalism career never took me to the big city or a major publication. Instead, after college, I worked for a couple of years in a small town surrounded by big dairy farms, bigger forests, and not much else in central Wisconsin. I left there, planning to attend the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University to get a master’s degree, but aborted the idea as too expensive for the expected return on my investment and instead wandered off to work in the Chicago commodities markets.
Seven or eight years later, when my wife and I moved east, I landed a job here at The Star, where I worked for several years before, tiring of a steady diet of planning and zoning stories, I quit journalism again, this time to try my hand at something called financial planning, which turned out to be nothing more than a financial disaster.
When I returned 18 months later, The Star took me back into the fold and I toiled away contentedly at what I thought would be my life’s work, covering local government, picking up the occasional offbeat news story, and writing editorials, features, and even a handful of music reviews. I eventually moved on, this time to another newspaper, whose name I seem to have forgotten, where I put in another 121/2 years as an editor before having the rug pulled out from under me last August.
That misadventure had me once again weighing the pros and cons of leaving journalism for something a little more secure and lucrative. But only a few weeks after being tossed to the curb, I found myself back at The Star on a part-time basis, where my editor, David Rattray, extended to me a lifeline by asking me if I’d like to cover the elections and whatever else I could find until something more permanent showed up.
Unfortunately, my dear friends, that time is now. I recently accepted a full-time job starting Jan. 31 with The Sag Harbor Express, where it looks like I’ll be doing everything from writing stories and editing copy to shoveling the sidewalk when it snows.
And maybe, just maybe, unlike a certain writer who toiled away, monk-like, in the woods outside Cornish, N.H., I’ll finally be comfortable in my own skin and accept the fact that I am a writer after all.
Stephen J. Kotz is a temporary member of The Star’s editorial staff.