He would cross the Connecticut river over the covered bridge between Cornish and Windsor. There, he would sit at the diner, and write. Or he would drive to Hartland, also in Vermont, to attend the $12 roast beef dinners at the First Congregational Church, among the first to be there, sitting, writing. He would drive to the Dartmouth College library, and there, and write.
The children of his neighbors in Cornish, the Bournes, would knock at his door, in the winter, to ask permission to sled down the hill in his property, and they would find him writing.
What was he writing about?
At some point, in the late sixties or early seventies, he became obsessed with confronting whatever there was that might still be “phony” in him, to ruthlessly eradicate it. His longtime friend, Lillian Ross reports that he wrote to her: “It takes me at least an hour to warm up when I sit down to work… Just taking off my own disguises takes an hour or more”.
In time, this coalesced into the project that consumed him from the mid-seventies to the late nineties. Inspired by the 24 hour journey of James Joyce’s Ulysses, he embarked on writing “a memoir of the night between Tuesday and Wednesday” – a night of insomnia – “formally distinguishing myself from the Glass boys and Holden Caulfield and the other first-person narrators I’ve used”, as he wrote to Lillian Ross.
By the time he burned the finished manuscript, at a midsummer night bonfire in 1999, there were many stacks of paper, each at least waist-high.
After that night of burning, he didn’t stop writing. Just about every week, for the rest of his life, he would find a propitious moment – or, rather, create the setting for such a moment, very much the way one would perform a religious ritual. He’d make a point to wear his long-johns, burgundy robe, and furry slippers in the cold New Hampshire winters, or his plaid robe, canvas pants and espadrilles in the summer. He would sit in the rocking chair facing the window that looked over the hill, and he would stare into the wide open space, waiting for words to come that would capture the essence of his lost magnum opus.
He’d write as much as would come at a single sitting, stop, get up from the chair, put the pages in the cast iron pot at the side of the fireplace, strike one of the Ohio Blue Tip matches, and slowly, gently, bring the flame to the paper.
He had once written about Seymour teaching his little brother Buddy how to play Zen marbles (“Could you try not aiming so much?”). Now, his practice of writing was akin to that of the Zen master who puts all of his concentration into losing himself in the trance of calligraphy, or of tracing the perfect circle in a single stroke.
He would be sitting, meditating and writing, and his wife, Colleen O’Neill, would be sitting at the other side of the big window, quilting. She’d feed him tea and biscuits when the sessions lasted more than a few hours. Sometimes, he would be at it for a whole day, or more. The longest version he ever wrote of this story, says Colleen, was 48 pages.
And the shortest? Neighbor Merilynn Bourne remembers a day when she came to give quilting fabrics to Colleen, and, on the table next to Jerry, saw a single page almost empty, with just these few words: “that most American of words: ennui”.
Academics – “vultures”, “English Department scavengers” as Salinger used to call them – believe that this phrase was the turning point, and that the word “ennui” was what would eventually turn into the word “Ooky”.
The 16 ½ pages of “Ooky”, Salinger’s posthumous 10th story, are from the carbonized but not destroyed manuscript that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the con man who passed himself off as a scion of the Rockefeller family and was a one-time neighbor of Salinger’s, managed to secrete away on the one occasion when he was a guest there.
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