John David California's Novel Attempt to Best J. D. Salinger: Read It and Weep

A couple days after J. D. Salinger died (January 27, 2010) and a week or two before, the Morgan Library announced that an exhibit of 11 Salinger letters would soon be mounted and also a few weeks before The New York Times ran a story on a writer using the pen name Alice Sheba who once had a single date(!) with the eccentric author, I picked up John David California's 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye.

It's the item by Swedish book publisher Fredrik Colting that claims on its back coverk "This is an Unauthorized Fictional Examination of the Relationship Between J. D. Salinger and his Most Famous Character" -- meaning, of course, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. California/Colting's is also the novel released this past spring that Salinger learned about and was subsequently successful at having enjoined from publication in the United States.

As a point of legal and publishing interest, the injunction was imposed by U.S. District Court Judge Deborah Batts. The decision is on appeal in the Second Circuit, but nothing will happen until, following Salinger's death, a "substitution of the proper party" is named.

So how did I take possession of a copy of the oddment? Simple. 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye is available throughout England (Windupbird, 7.99 pounds), and since I was just in London, I stormed my local Waterstone's to enquire if the book was stocked. The salesperson I encountered said he wasn't certain, because it was in demand -- understandably -- but he led me to the fiction-section C shelves.

Nothing. He had another idea. He led me to the S section, and, a-ha!, alongside the Salinger collection was California. What, I wondered, would have infuriated Salinger more -- the sort-of-rip-off's being perpetrated at all or its being placed cheek-by-jowl with his own revered-in-many-quarters-dismissed-as-minor-in-others oeuvre?

(Salinger was so assiduous at stopping anything he deemed poaching on his intellectual property that it's a marvel he never saw to it that the Catcher in the Rye pub at 317-19 Regents Park Road, London was shuttered. Undoubtedly, he never knew about the establishment. If he had, he surely would have become typically litigious.)

So I've now read the book and can comment on its worth as well as on its right to be available. Appraising its value as literature won't take long, because it isn't a book I recommend to the casual reader or, more significantly, to the obsessive Salinger fan as anything other than a curiosity.

Okay, never-say-die Salingerites, obtain the paperback by whatever legal means you can to assure yourself that California fails abjectly to capture what sounds convincingly like an aging (supposedly, he's now 76) Holden -- here designated "Mr. C." Sure, Mr. C uses Holden's locutions (things like the repeated phrase "and all") as he returns to Manhattan haunts such as Central Park and seeks out sister Phoebe and mentions older brother D. B. But that's easily done.

What's missing is the effortless (or seemingly effortless) character charisma Salinger provided. Instead, California introduces a tedious man who's escaped from a nursing home compulsively determined to make New York City stops that eventually yield no cumulative power.

Worse, the wannabe-sequel purveyor has the audacity to frame the book as Salinger himself deciding to revisit his ignore-all-phonies protagonist and comment repeatedly on the difficulty he has controlling a figure who keeps asserting his own independence. (Much already written about the book either ignores or downplays the irritating conceit.)

Here's a prose sample that should serve to discourage the need for citing others: "Every day since I created him, every day since I pushed him through the uterus of my mind, I have thought of him." Had enough? Do you even need to know that Mr. C stalks Salinger at his Cornish, New Hampshire retreat?

As to the publishing question: I'd say that regarding the novel's status as "parody" -- apparently what the defendant(s) are expected to do during the next court proceedings -- is misleading. Unless the definition of the literary form is extremely broad, the book isn't a parody. On the other hand, the charge that the contents do substantial harm to Salinger's reputation is also specious. It does no damage to the 1951 bestseller. The book continues to stand on its own, unassailed. To my way of thinking these 59 years later, it's as mesmerizing as it always was.

I say, let the book appear here, there and everywhere. Discerning readers will quickly recognize its lack of merit and discard it in the nearest bin of choice.

In The Catcher in the Rye, young Mr. C mentions his desire to telephone authors whose books he greatly admires for a little chat. On the copyright page of the 60 Years Later edition I haven't yet jettisoned or put up on eBay, John David California gives his e-mail address. I feel no pressing need to use it.