Salinger's Final Mystery

Novelist Nathaniel Rich mourns the loss of a literary hero—and fantasizes about the books that Salinger was possibly writing all of these years.

Everett Collection (2); AP Photo (Center)

It is a peculiar, half-hearted thing to mourn the death of an author who has been dead to the world for nearly half a century. My mourning period didn’t begin on Thursday, but in July 1994, when I was 14, as soon as I finished Catcher in the Rye. It was renewed the next year when, reading Nine Stories, I had a strange sensation of recognition: I knew these stories already. My middle school baseball coach, on bus rides to games, would tell the team disturbing stories about the disfigured Laughing Man and about a young boy who recalls a previous life in India. These were childhood myths; not until Nine Stories did I realize they’d been written by a writer who, rumor had it, was still alive.

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It does not reflect well on me, I know that, but ever since then I have been looking forward to this day. The few accounts we have, though contradictory and hardly reliable, indicate that Salinger never stopped writing. Margaret Salinger said her father had manuscripts filed away, some of which were to be published upon his death, others which required editing. There is also the legend of the bank safe and its mysterious contents. Most credible, however, are the statements by Salinger himself. In 1974, to The New York Times, he said, “I like to write. I love to write. I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” Six years later he told the Boston Globe, “I assure you I write regularly.” Even if he destroyed his typewriter the very next day, there would be 15 years of writing in the can since the appearance of his last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924.”

And what sustained writing it must have been! The writer tells his wife, Hold my calls—for the next 45 years. Allow no visitors. And please, would you mind taking care of our errands and bills? I’ll be in my office, working. Do not disturb. (And if he didn’t continue writing, by the way, then what did he do with all that idle time? Study the Upanishads? Amass the world’s largest collection of Eskimo figurines? Become fluent in all the Ancient Eastern languages?)

I am hoping for 25 to 30 Glass novels, following the family through several generations. It would be the great American saga, our answer to Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart, Trollope’s Palliser and Barsetshire cycles. But really any novels would do. Failing that, short fiction. Nine Stories’ long-awaited sequel, 300 Stories.

Other possibilities have been suggested. Jay McInerney said he heard (from “an ex-girlfriend”) that Salinger was mostly writing about health and nutrition. I would like to read what Salinger has to say about health and nutrition. He did, after all, live 91 years. Do orgone boxes, and urine consumption, actually work?

We have also heard rumors about his eccentric religious beliefs. He spent the last 40 years living like the solitary monk in The Way of the Pilgrim, the Russian Orthodox tract that becomes a source of obsession for Franny Glass. After reading Franny and Zooey, I read The Way of the Pilgrim. It is a work of sadistic boredom, but I’d hungrily read Salinger’s adaptation. Recipes, math problems, gardening tips—anything, really, will do.

This very moment a giant U-Haul truck, filled with paper, may be trundling down I-95 toward the offices of The New Yorker, or Harold Ober Associates, or Little, Brown. That, or the sky over Cornish, New Hampshire, is darkening under a large plume of ash.

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Nathaniel Rich is a senior editor at The Paris Review and the author of The Mayor’s Tongue.