Vidal, Hemingway, and Salinger

by Michael Potemra

I think when the definitive Encyclopedia of Concepts is written, the entry for “Damning with Faint Praise” should include the following, from Gore Vidal:

Hemingway was very good at graphic descriptions of violence and hunting. He was very good at showing how things happen: how you load your gun, how you sight it against the arc the bird is taking, how you fire. And there are people, the same people who read Popular Mechanics, who love that kind of writing.

This passage is quoted, coincidentally, in a new biography of J. D. Salinger — a writer whom I sometimes sound as if I’m damning with faint praise when I defend him. But I am quite sincere in believing that some of Salinger’s novellas — especially “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” — are among the best fictional works of the 20th century, while at the same time I’m not that impressed with his most famous book. Salinger’s best work represents a lovely attempt to grapple with religious issues; yet I am far from the first person to assert that The Catcher in the Rye belongs more in the category of higher-end young-adult fiction. (I know this sounds a little like the fictional P. D. Q. Bach’s patronizing putdown of Beethoven — as not a major musical figure, to be sure, but one who did manage to write some pretty Ländler and folksong arrangements — but I believe it to be true, and that there is nothing “minor” about Salinger’s best work.)