Magazine February 22, 2010, Issue

Recluseland

I’m not sure I’m the go-to guy for a disquisition on The Catcher in the Rye, but I confess I was always intrigued by the J. D. Salinger lifestyle, at least since I moved to New Hampshire. He was a ways down the Connecticut River from me, but in this neck of the woods it’s a small world. I was once on a BBC current-affairs show and the sneering host produced a Solzhenitsyn quote designed to demonstrate that my view of American preeminence was all hooey, and rounded it out with a snide “I take it you’ve heard of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “We have the same piano tuner.” Which, at that point, we did.

I never had the same piano tuner as J. D. Salinger. But he was a useful point of reference. A few years ago, the British novelist Sebastian Faulks came to stay with me. Sebastian leads a glittering life in literary London: You may recall him quaffing champagne with Salman Rushdie and Renée Zell­weger in a party scene from the film of Bridget Jones’s Diary. So staying with me in the North Country was a bit like detox. “No, no,” I explained. “You’ve got it all wrong. It just looks like the place is a dump, and that I lead an extremely dull life. In fact I’m a recluse. You know, like J. D. Salinger.”

As all the world seemed to know, Salinger lived in Cornish, N.H. Exit 8 off I-91, follow the signs to the theme park (“Recluseland 6 miles”), you can’t miss it. The only fellow I know down there is a chap called N. Scott Stevens, who was head of the White Mountain Militia back when Dan Rather used to go on about “the shadowy right-wing militia movement” all the time. Still, how shadowy could it be? I went into the general store and said, “I’m trying to find Scott Stevens,” and after a pregnant silence one of the guys said, “Scott’s not the kind of guy who likes to be found.”

They were more inventive with Salinger fans, sending inquisitive tourists on wild-goose chases deep into the hinterland. Peter Burling, a neighbor of his and at the time a state senator, made a toy bus stop for his kid and stuck it down at the bottom of their hill, and it got about that this little shelter marked the turn to Salinger’s pad. Mr. Burling sold the bus stop to another neighbor, Clark Rockefeller, who took it down the road and stapled it on the side of his house. So Mr. Rockefeller started getting the literary groupies. And “Clark” had even less desire to be found than N. Scott Stevens. He was not, as he claimed to be, a minor Rockefeller, but a psychotic German called Chris­tian Karl Gerhartsreiter, subsequently arrested for the kidnapping of his daughter in Boston and also wanted in connection with the disappearance of a California couple.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is a statistically representative sample of a small New Hampshire town — one elected official, one militia member, one psycho on the lam, one reclusive novelist — but it comes close. The Granite State is a great place to come to be left alone. Salinger was never that “reclusive”: He participated at Town Meeting and was a regular at church suppers, and in return his neighbors clammed up when out-of-towners showed up asking questions. Of course, not everyone wants to be left alone, and if, unlike Salinger and Scott Stevens and “Clark Rockefeller,” you’d actually like to be found by somebody — anybody — you’re pretty much in the wrong state. In the small towns of Coos County, just below the Quebec border, there is an excellent publication on sale in most general stores, in which lonely loggers and the like advertise for women to get them through the long winter. I place my ad every Novem­ber and, although results are mixed, I can safely say that in a million years you could never attract a more disastrous respondent than J. D. Salinger’s most famous admirer. One day in 1972 he saw an emaciated pixie staring out at him from the cover of The New York Times Magazine. She was a precocious writer called Joyce May­nard. He read the accompanying piece, and invited her to Cornish.

She was 18, he was 35 years older, but they had a lot in common: He was a writer. So was she. He liked The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So did she. Which was just as well, as the conversation rarely reached the literary heights Miss Maynard had been hoping for. When their affair ended, she became the antithesis of Salinger, one of those writers for whom all life is copy. Ergo, if you’re in her life, you’ll wind up in her writing — as her children, her ex-husband, her friends, and her breast implants all subsequently discovered. And so, in the fullness of time, did J. D. Salinger. In its careless betrayals, her memoir is a fascinating portrait of an icon after hours. Occasionally, the great man even stops talking about TV long enough to give his teenage protégée his unique perspective on the writer’s struggle. “Every damned time we sit down to work, it’s that same blank page again,” he says. “A person could have a better time at a Doug McClure retrospective.”

For younger readers, Doug McClure played Trampas in The Virginian on NBC from 1962 to 1971.

As the years go by, it’s become my favorite Salinger line, far better than anything in The Catcher in the Rye. And it is, in its way, a profound insight. Someone should mount a Doug McClure retrospective, just to see how many reclusive novelists show up. 

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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