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Extra Squalor, Hold the Love

A poor woman's Candace Bushnell makes a bad J.D. Salinger anthology even worse.

12:01 AM, Oct 18, 2001 • By DAVID SKINNER
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DESPITE HIS SAINTLY RETREAT from the dirty things of this world, J.D. Salinger remains ubiquitous and annoying. It's been thirty-six years since he published anything, but he is reportedly the object of homage in the upcoming Wes Anderson comedy "The Royal Tenenbaums." And only last year, Sean Connery played a Salinger knockoff in Gus Van Sant's "Finding Forrester." In that faulty production, the literary recluse is in hiding in an apartment in the Bronx. Embittered, intoxicated, and feeling blowhardy, the old man tells a protegee that the greatest moment in writing is when you're done with your first draft and the editor hasn't messed with it and the book reviewers haven't descended on it and it's exactly what you wanted.

Ah yes, the greatest moment is when the writer can be alone with the only audience he ever cared about, himself. The movie scene rings true, actually. In Salinger's stories, private things--feelings, memories, works of art--always retain an Edenic quality, while anything entering the public domain inevitably becomes tainted. Thus innocence, especially the childhood variety, remains forever under siege. Phoebe, Holden Caulfield's sister, is an angel of a kid, but she goes to a school where someone has scrawled a curse word on the wall. Holden feels homicidal just thinking about it.

It's been 50 years since "The Catcher in the Rye" came out and, rest assured innocence is still under siege. This theme, however, takes on a new meaning in a story contributed to the anthology "With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to the Work of J.D. Salinger." (I know; I'm a masochist even to pick up such a collection.) Well, it's not exactly an original story. The author, Amy Sohn, known for her short-lived, exhibitionist sex columns in the New York Press and the New York Post, writes about going on a date and failing to get any play. The piece is written in the third person and deliberately imitates Salinger's "Franny" story. But in this rendition, Amy Sohn, better known for trading her sex life for a writing career, plays Franny, better known for her sad, hapless search for God.

In "Franny and Amy," as Sohn's story is called, "Amy" is ready to have sex with her date, presumably in search of writing material. The guy, a hard-up comic whose idea for a television show is finding no takers among the networks, turns her down. He says he has too much writing to do and then makes a point of not seeing Amy to the front door of his apartment building. On their next outing, the pair go to a restaurant, but the romantic effort is clearly doomed. Amy leaves the table to go to the bathroom, where she stays for a few minutes to mourn the passing of this worthless relationship that hasn't even tested the springs of a mattress.

Amy stays in the bathroom a bit long, imitating Franny, who in Salinger's story also goes into a restaurant bathroom, but once there crouches into a fetal position, and begins to sob uncontrollably over the seeming absence of God from her inane existence. In all of Salinger's stories, this is easily one of his most affecting sequences. In the next scene, Franny explains what sent her over the edge: her attempt to pray ceaselessly, saying God's name over and over, a practice she thought would imbue her with faith.

"Franny" suffers from the same misanthropy that contaminates much of Salinger's work, but there is a sweet note of grace in the main character's tantrum. She wants to believe in God, can't, and hates herself for it. So she struggles to believe in God and hates herself for being such a fake. Amy is, by contrast, mildly disappointed that she didn't get lucky. Anyone searching for some kind of parallel can stop looking. "Franny and Amy" is just another Amy Sohn story about a shameless writer who pimps herself out for a meager shred of copy.

One can hardly think of a more preposterous encounter than the Salinger philosophy--in which truly interesting people are always a little too good for this world--and the Amy Sohn philosophy, in which nothing is so good that it should be kept to oneself.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.