The Salinger Contract Online - Adam Langer

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I never believed a book could save your life. It makes sense that Conner Joyce would be the one who changed my mind about that. The story of how one book saved me while another nearly killed Conner began, appropriately enough, in a bookstore—to be more precise, at Borders in Bloomington, Indiana, where I saw a poster with Conner’s picture on it. By then, I had nearly forgotten Conner. I had figured I was done with books.

After my magazine, Lit, folded half a dozen years earlier and I lost my plum position as books editor, I pretty much stopped reading contemporary fiction, particularly crime novels like the ones Conner wrote. I may have spent a fair amount of time decrying the demise of America’s reading culture, but it wasn’t like I was helping to improve the situation. My wife had a good gig at the university, and we had two young daughters: Ramona, age six, who was just starting chapter books, and Beatrice, two and a half, who was a voracious consumer of picture books, and that’s pretty much all I found time to read. As far as I was concerned, the interesting part of my life was over.

When I lived in New York and worked for the magazine, I wrote author profiles—pieces of 1,500 to 2,000 words that allowed authors to tell their stories in their own words in an environment in which they felt comfortable. I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston with Dennis Lehane; rode the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island with E. L. Doctorow; attended a Springsteen concert with Margaret Atwood; and went camping in the Pocono Mountains with Conner Joyce and his wife, Angela De La Roja. Not exactly hard-hitting journalism, but the authors usually liked the articles because I printed their quotes verbatim and cleaned up their swearwords if they asked. Plus, the pictures that accompanied the articles were extremely flattering. Hardly anyone had ever called Maurice Sendak or Stephen King handsome before they saw my profiles. And even Conner Joyce—once named one of America’s Sexiest Writers by People magazine—told me he’d never seen a better photo of himself.

My Lit profiles usually conformed to one of two basic templates—either an author was exactly like the characters he wrote about in his books or (surprise!) he was nothing like them. My profile of Conner (“His Aim Is True: How Stories Saved Conner Joyce’s Life”) fell somewhere between the two: though I sensed he was too compassionate and earnest to commit the crimes he wrote, the humanity of his characters was clearly his own.

When I interviewed Conner in Pennsylvania, we talked a lot about books. I turned him on to my favorite authors, Italo Calvino, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and José Saramago; he tried to convince me of the merits of Jarosław Dudek and J. D. Salinger. Most of his favorite authors were recluses, he said. He admired writers whose own stories were as interesting as the ones they wrote. He loved the mystery of Salinger, holed up in his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, refusing to publish for more than forty years. He was captivated by the life of Jarosław Dudek, the Olympic shot-put silver medalist and Ministry of Internal Affairs functionary who won just about every international literary award with his only novel, Other Countries, Other Lives, then disappeared shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Conner had read every biography ever written about B. Traven, the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who concealed his identity using anagrammatic pseudonyms such as Ret Marut and Hal Croves and was rumored to be the son of Kaiser Wilhelm. He had spent hours admiring and puzzling over the last-known photographs of Thomas Pynchon taken at Cornell University. He had written a high school research paper about Roland Cephus, the unofficial poet laureate of the Black Panther movement who had gone underground after the 1971 publication of A Molotov Manifesto.

As a boy and as a teenager, Conner had written letters to the agents and publishers for Dudek, Salinger, Pynchon, and Harper Lee. He hoped his heartfelt appreciation of To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch would make Lee break her silence and tell him about her quiet little existence in Monroeville, Alabama. He never received responses, yet he fantasized about meeting those writers, and he still wondered what it would be like to be so intriguing that people would actually care if he disappeared.

The way I remembered him, Conner was one of the good guys—a big, earnest