Musings

REFLECTIONS ON THE PASSING OF J.D. SALINGER

Sometime back in the early 1960s, when I was in 8th grade, the school board of the South Orangetown (NY) School District held a special meeting to decide if a particular book was suitable for eighth graders to read in English classes.

For a school board to hold a special meeting to decide on the merits of a book says something significant about both the book and the time frame during which this occurred. This particular book had “curse words” in it. It also had prostitutes among its cast of characters. And, keep in mind, this was the EARLY ‘60s, not the LATE ‘60s. School boards of that time still viewed themselves as guardians of our morals and protectors of our supposed innocence.

I don’t know what the vote was but the South Orangetown School Board did, indeed, relent and allow the book to be read in class. And so we read it and, after we finished reading it, we wondered, “What was the big fuss all about?”

Yes, the book DID have curse words and it DID have prostitutes but so what? We may have only been 13 or 14 years old at the time but we weren’t as na├»ve and innocent as our surrogate fathers on the school board would have liked to think. Many of us had read books or seen magazines and 8-mm “stag films” that were far more explicit than one particular book a school board had to approve.

The book in question was The Catcher in the Rye.

Nearly lost in all the debate over the language of the book were the merits of the story itself but, fortunately, those merits must have prevailed in the end with the South Orangetown School Board. Otherwise most of us would have had to wait until college to read the book, if even then.

The author of that book, J.D. Salinger, died on January 28 at the age of 91. Undoubtedly during his lifetime, and particularly during the “Silent Generation” era of the 1950s, he was aware that The Catcher in the Rye was causing a stir. Especially among school boards and parents of young, supposedly “impressionable” children. But he must have known, also, that he was in the forefront of helping to break down the barriers between what is considered “acceptable” for public consumption and what isn’t. He certainly lived long enough to witness those changes. If he wasn’t TOO isolated in his New Hampshire fortress of solitude for the past fifty years, he had to heard or at least KNOWN about rap music and its nothing-sacred lyrics. Holden Caulfield & Co. were Mary Poppins compared to what the public is consuming today, especially the young people.

After the passage of nearly half a century and no surviving school papers from that time, it is impossible for me to reconstruct what our in-class discussions or written assignments might have been after reading The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield was not exactly someone we public schoolers at Tappan Zee High School could relate to and he certainly wasn’t a heroic figure to anyone I knew or hung out with at that time. Maybe it was just the wrong time to be reading the book. Maybe we weren’t ready for its deeper meanings or maybe it was TOO contemporary. There were no degrees of separation between us and the book’s unconventional hero. By the end of that decade, when those my age were in college, we could better understand and relate to Caulfield’s character and the adolescent dilemmas he encountered, along with the societal milieu in which they occurred.

Truly great literature is best understood from the perspective of a later time. The passage of time is what sets true “literature” apart from the rest of the pack. And it is precisely that definition that allows us to classify The Catcher in the Rye as a work of literature; not just simply another book among millions of pieces of reading matter.

Although I am a professional writer I would never be so presumptuous as to pass myself off as an authority on literature. I was a History major and only minored in English. I have read many, though by no means ALL of what are considered the greatest books of all time; “classics,” if you will. But just reading is one thing: Interpreting is another. The latter takes a greater effort, involving a firm grasp of historical perspective and keen insights into the nuances of human nature.

No one, not even the professors of literature and literary critics, can truly and fully define what a “classic” is or exactly what makes one so. However, there are certain benchmarks by which the merits of a particular written work can be judged and measured. Prominent among those benchmarks would be how well a particular work depicts the period in which it was written. Even though that work may be classified as “fiction” (and most of the great literary classics ARE fiction), it must still tell a story against a backdrop of events that factor significantly into the historical record.

Margaret Mitchell wrote only one novel in her lifetime yet it’s one that everyone knows by name, if not by actual reading or viewing the Clark Gable-Vivien Leigh film epic. It has been called everything from “sappy” and “stereotypical” to “blatantly racist” but even the voluminous novel’s harshest critics have to concede that it tells a powerful story about a significantly transformational time in our nation’s history. More importantly, it captures events and personalities as well as, if not better than, any nonfiction history book covering that same era.

J.D. Salinger, too, only wrote one novel and most people know what that one was as well. He wrote a handful of short stories that were collected in two or three short volumes, and a few published articles in prestigious magazines. But that’s it, unless some so-far-undiscovered trove of unpublished work comes to light now that he’s no longer with us. If that’s the case we’ll probably know soon enough.

Joining Salinger in passing the same week were two other well-known writers, Erich Segal and Robert Parker. They were writers of a much different breed. They wrote for popular consumption. Salinger didn’t. They sought public acclaim and remuneration. Salinger didn’t. Although Segal taught literature – at Yale, no less! – it is highly doubtful Love Story will be read and studied in classrooms a generation from now. Neither will Parker’s Spenser detective novels. The Catcher in the Rye WILL.

Writing and getting published in these years of the early 21st century has never been easier. With computer technology giving rise to “e-books” and “print-on-demand” books, it is no exaggeration to say that ANYONE can get published now. Certain POD companies don’t even screen the manuscripts they agree to publish, nor do they edit them for style, grammar or potentially libelous content. They simply agree to put the work between covers without accepting them on the basis of their merits, and they print only as many copies as are requested from book buyers. Aside from posting an online entry with a book service like amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, it’s up to the authors to do their books’ promotion and selling. In most cases the author ends up becoming his or her own best customer.

These new innovations and options have turned the conventional publishing world on its head and upset their previously tightly controlled applecart. There are a lot more books out there, competing with the more carefully screened works that the remaining handful of “major publishers” choose to put into print.

This has, no doubt, cheapened the whole concept of getting a book published and, having gone that POD route myself, I am not in a position to be critical of the practice. The inevitable result, though, has been to flood the market with hundreds of thousands of books that probably don’t belong out there. This makes it harder for the really good writers to rise above the pack. And, if there are any potential “classics” among this group, they may never get noticed. Or, if they do, it may be a long time from now.

To write for “posterity” is the goal of every writer who takes his or her craft seriously. We are all egotists who want our legacies to outlive us. We want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be reading and evaluating our books in literature classes a century or more from now. We all want to write a great “classic” or two. Or MORE! Few of us will, though.

More often than not, “classics” are created inadvertently. Spontaneously, rather than by design. Rarely does an author set out to write one and actually have it happen. And, if it does happen, they rarely live to see it. J.D. Salinger was one of the fortunate ones who did. Though largely cut off from the world – by his own choice – he could not have been unaware of the fact that his one complete novel had entered the pantheon of American literary classics. A “one-hit wonder?” Maybe, but WHAT A HIT!

Any one of us in the writing fraternity would most eagerly welcome that distinction.



HIGH DREAMS, LOW OVERHEAD

I woke up one recent morning feeling very depressed.

Not a nice way to begin a day - or an article - but don't stop reading yet. The story gets better.

I had just spent $2,000 to get the engine replaced in my seven-year-old car. Two thousand dollars, because a $25 part - a timing belt - broke and other vital parts in the engine broke with it. And it left me broke. Broke and behind on all my bills, including my rent.

Of course the cause of my vehicular seizure had to be the one exception to the power train warranty my car was still under; the one thing most likely to go and the manufacturer knew it. And stupid me for not reading every word in the 80-page owner's manual and knowing it also. But the dealership would be more than happy to replace the engine for me - for only $4,100! I told them what they can do with their forty one hundred dollars and it has something to do with a place where the sun doesn't shine. Then I shopped around and got an estimate for half that amount.

Two thousand dollars, to most working people, may not seem like a lot of money but for a freelance writer who has finally—after 40 years—mastered the art of getting by on $1,200 to $1,500 a month, it's a killer. An unplanned expense like this can (and does) throw everything else off: especially a carefully planned budget. It's something we all would like to be prepared for and all of us should have some kind of a cushion—a contingency fund—set aside for just this type of situation. But, with the cost of everything these days . . . ha! Good luck on that.

So I sat down and did my I.Os. (as in I Owe), calculating everything I was behind on, and came up with $1,271.10. Depressing. But when I did the numbers for what I had coming in, guess what? . . . the sun came out! $1,850!! See, I told you it gets better. My granddaughter was actually able to get a few extra Christmas presents after all.

There are two lessons to be learned from this: keep your overhead low and your income incoming. Keeping overhead low may sound elementary and, when there's not much income to begin with, you may not have any choice in the matter. But, we're all human - yes, writers too -- though some unknowing souls may think we're superhumans who love working for little or nothing. And, being human, we tend to want things we can't afford and we hate to be denied.

Well, deny yourself anyway. It's not easy and it's not fun. It may entail staying home and working on a Friday and Saturday night instead of going out to your favorite music club and dropping $60-$80 between the bar and the musicians' tip jar. It might mean putting off that nice little weekend getaway you've been itching to take in the Tennessee mountains. It might mean doing without a lot of things you want. Suck it up and do without them anyway.

I might have had to junk my car were it not for a $1,000 check I knew I had coming in, thanks to a series book writing job I completed three months earlier. Coupled with the thousand dollar check I get every month for writing an online tourism newsletter, it was enough to put my car back on the road - for half the price the dealership wanted to charge me. Having half of what I needed in hand and knowing the other half would be arriving soon enabled me to negotiate a 50-50 deal with a mechanic I knew. If I had been living beyond my means, there's no way I could have done this.

Like all writers whose writing is their sole source of income (and not a hobby or a sideline), I dream of hitting the big payday: That blockbuster novel that makes the NYT Bestseller List or the screenplay that turns into a blockbuster feature film. And I am confident that my day will come as long as I keep working toward it and I don't let the dream die. In the words of one of the real-life characters in one of my ten yet-unsold screenplays, "When a dream dies its fate must be shared by the dreamer as well."

That wasn't my protagonist speaking. It was me.

About Dean M. Shapiro

Dean M. Shapiro is a New Orleans-based freelance writer and journalist with more than 40 years of experience in his field. He is also a publicist, copyeditor, and has authored seven books and has more than 1,500 newspaper, magazine, and web articles to his credit. His career as a journalist dates back to the late 1960s when, as a sophomore in college, he reported award-winning stories from the anti-war protests in Washington, D.C. He also served for years as a news researcher for NBC news and veteran newsman Tom Brokaw and others.

Published Works

Mr. Shapiro co-authored The Blood Covenant with Rena Chynoweth, one of the 13 wives of polygamist cult leader Ervil LeBaron. Nicknamed the "Mormon Manson," LeBaron, ordered the murders of 2 dozen people, including members of his own family. The book, released by Diamond Books/Eakin Press, was the subject of a 1993 CBS made-for-TV movie, "Prophet of Evil: The Ervil LeBaron Story" starring Brian Dennehy, William Devane, and Tracey Needham.

Mr. Shapiro also co-authored the novelization of the critically acclaimed feature film, Belizaire the Cajun, a work of fiction set in the bayous of southern Louisiana in 1859. The novel, co-written with the film's director, Glen Pitre, was published in hardcover and trade paperback by Pelican Publishing Company of New Orleans in 1988.


His third book, Blondin, is a biography of the first man ever to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope in the mid-19th century. It was published by Vanwell Publishing Ltd. of St. Catherines, Ontario in 1990.







His fourth book, The Eleventh Commandment, a suspense novel, was published in 2008 by PublishAmerica of Baltimore. How far will a reporter go to get a story? Tom Foster is about to find out. As the religion editor for a large daily newspaper, Tom goes undercover to expose a fanatical, polygamous cult leader suspected in the deaths of more than a dozen followers. He gets more than he bargained for when his own life is on the line, especially after he has fallen in love with one of the cult leader’s wives. Can Tom save her—and himself—when his deception is discovered? The answer comes after a tragic climax that shocks the world.

Mr. Shapiro’s fifth book is Historic Photos of Steamboats on the Mississippi by Turner Publishing. With paddle-wheels churning, tall smokestacks billowing, calliopes singing, and steam whistles sounding, the steamboats of the Mighty Mississippi proudly ruled the river. Some offered all the comforts of home (and more); others did the work for the industries that transformed the United States into the industrial giant it became. They carried presidents and kings, socialites and commoners, cotton and coal, lumber and steel. They enabled some of our nation’s major cities to grow and flourish. Told through historic photographs in these pages, the story of steamboats that plied the Mississippi and the glorious era they symbolized is vividly captured and enshrined for generations to come.

His sixth book is Historic Photos of Louisiana due out February 28, 2010 by Turner Publishing. From its founding in the early 1700s to the present, Louisiana has been one of the most fascinating and culturally diverse geographical areas on the North American continent. To many people, the name calls to mind images of sleepy bayous with moss-draped cypresses and the hot sounds of New Orleans–style jazz. But there is much more to “the Bayou State” than what exists in the popular perception. There exists a culture of hardworking people tilling the land, pulling fish and shrimp from the sea, staffing factories, and selling the fruits of their labors in the open marketplace. Louisiana is also a place where the joie de vivre—the “joy of life”—is celebrated like nowhere else. Both sides of this captivating locale, the work and the play, the struggles and the pleasures, are seen in the diverse, nearly 200 photographs showcased in this volume. Historic Photos of Louisiana is an entrancing look at this unique state.

He also ghostwrote Mackie Shilstone's Body Plan for Kids by Basic Media of Laguna Beach, CA.









Mr. Shapiro contributed 375 entries to The American Spectrum Encyclopedia, a 16,000-entry, single-volume desktop reference work, was contracted by the American Booksellers Association through Harkavy Publishing Service of New York and released in 1991. He has also been contracted to write for several junior and senior high school history and geography textbooks in recent years.

Mr. Shapiro has been contracted to write essays and biographies for several junior and senior high school history and geography textbooks in recent years. He also is the author of ten screenplays, including Victim 341 which is loosely based on the Kim Groves murder he wrote about for the Crime Library website. Currently, he is working on a full-length nonfiction book on the same crime entitled Murder in the Lower Ninth. He has taught writing classes at the University of New Orleans and writes regularly for several New Orleans-area publications and websites.

Reviews and Testimonials

Based on The Eleventh Commandment

In his latest book, The Eleventh Commandment, author Dean Shapiro invites his readers on an astonishing journey into the depths of a dangerous polygamous cult, instilling anticipation one suspenseful chapter after the next. Leading the quest is the scrappy main character, Tom Foster. As the Religion Editor for a daily newspaper, Foster is bravely attempting to uncover the secrets of this small religious sect, which he will include in a scandalous report. Ensuing conflict is created when Foster reveals that it is not just a passion for his job driving him in this mission, but the pursuit of a woman named Rosa, who unfortunately happens to be the cult leader’s wife. Not intimidated by a deluded narcissist, Foster feigns loyalty to the cult leader in an effort to expose the scandals, lies, and murders that have taken place as a result of the reclusive religious group. But what he discovers appalls and scares him to the core. Realizing thousands of lives are at stake, including his beloved Rosa’s, it is now time to warn the public. But is it too late? The unpredictable ending provides the answer in a shocking surprise. Shapiro ignites apprehension by creating conflict that continues to escalate throughout the course of the novel. The insight into Foster’s life and his thoughtful reflections enable readers to share the ups and downs felt through his emotional journey. The serious subject matter, embellished with skin-shuddering imagery, is contrasted by Foster’s optimistic attitude. Readers will find themselves rooting for this heroic character as he goes face-to-face with the enemy. Dean Shapiro’s The Eleventh Commandment is a beautiful love story, embedded in a dangerous battle between good and evil. It leaves readers wondering which one will triumph, until the very last word. —Suzanne Pfefferle, Where Y'at magazine

Writing is in New Orleans’ blood almost as much as music. Many of America’s finest writers—Twain, Chopin, Faulkner, Williams, to only begin a very long list—have lived and worked here. The city seems to inspire language like no other place in the nation. The Big Easy’s literary tradition is alive and well. Dean Shapiro, a leading light among local writers for over two decades, recently published his latest effort, The Eleventh Commandment. This thriller has all the elements, which together create an engaging, pulse-pounding read from the white-knuckle opening (“As the sound of gunshots echoed off the trees and a stream of bullets whizzed past my ears, I raced desperately through the dense woods with my would-be captors in hot pursuit.”) to its inevitable but shocking ending. The pursued protagonist, Thomas Jonathan Foster, is religion editor for a large daily paper. (Having been a newspaper editor himself, Shapiro renders this side of the story spot on.) The fanatical leader of a polygamous cult is suspected of killing his followers, and Tom goes underground to find the truth and expose the cult. There he falls in love with not just a member of the sect, but one of its leader’s many wives. When his subterfuge is exposed, both Tom’s and his beloved’s lives are in imminent peril. The cult comes after them, leading to The Eleventh Commandment’s most satisfying conclusion. But you will have to read the book to find out what happens. Believe me, it is worth doing. Shapiro knows how to use surprise, suspense, foreshadowing and the like to spin a compelling yarn. Further, good novel writing also depends on finding the voice and style that fit the genre and make it sing out through strong characterization. Shapiro consistently achieves this. Consider, for example, this moment of reflection as Tom (the protagonist) is being given his admission exam by Aaron Moses. “Being tested on carrying out the dirty work of a pseudo-religious psychopath was not exactly what I had bargained for.” The tough frankness with a hint of sarcasm strikes just the right note for our hero in that moment. Finally, happily, unlike most page-turners, The Eleventh Commandment is intelligent. Shapiro’s general knowledge of the Bible, history, and more enlivens the story set so well in the world of journalism and religious cults. Shapiro knows the world of cult religion almost as well as he knows the newsroom. He co-authored Blood Covenant: The True Story of the Ervil LeBaron Family and its Rampage of Terror and Murder. This book that became the basis for a CBS TV movie starring Brian Dennehy tells the story of LeBaron’s renegade Mormon cult that began in the town of Le Baron in Mexico and became responsible for multiple crimes and terror. Shapiro’s co-author once was one of LeBaron’s ex-wives. —Lee Horvitz, Travel Host Magazine

Suspenseful, could not put it down. Well written and thought provoking. The author seems to have some inside knowledge. . . . Was this based upon a real situation? —Robert Dell, New York, NY


I truly enjoyed reading this book. I became engulfed with the story in the first chapter. I could hardly put the book down. It's been a long time since I read a book on any kind of fiction. It is well written and mind provoking. The author did a great job. I would love to see this book made into a movie. —Wilma Irvin, Kenner, LA

Based on Belizaire the Cajun

Set in the Cajun Country of Louisiana's Vermilion Parish during the 1850s, this historical novel, based on the 1987 motion picture, recounts the exploits of Belizaire Breaux, a Cajun herbalist and traiteur (faith healer) who defies the vigilante cattle barons that are terrorizing the region.

Based on The Blood Covenant

What will amaze readers most about this plodding, first-person narrative is not its description of strange doings of a Mexico-based radical Mormon cult, but rather Chynoweth's almost brainwashed-bland tone as she discusses her experiences with Ervil LeBaron (to whom she was married), a polygamist and religious fanatic who allegedly commissioned many murders "in the name of the church." Perhaps Chynoweth, currently in hiding in the United States, and journalist Shapiro stick to this "just the facts" tone to avoid sensationalism. . . . —Lauren Bielski, New York

This excellent book was written by Rena Chynoweth, the last and youngest of Ervil Lebaron's 13 wives. The Chynoweths were one of the core families to follow Ervil LeBaron. Rena and her older sister Lorna were married to him and bore him 10 children between them. Three of her brothers ranked high in the church and her parents were both dedicated followers. There have been a few books about the LeBarons and Ervil's group—The Church of the Lamb of God—but no other insider has written a book except Rena. She takes you through her family's entire story with the group from the early 60s to 1989. And she has one amazing story to tell. In other books about the group Rena has been much maligned, but I thought she came off as heartfelt, honest and sincere. I felt she took responsibility for her actions in shooting Dr. Allred, although I agree with her that she was under mind control to some degree at the time and is not entirely responsible for her actions. Rena and her family paid a very heavy price for their involvment in the group—2 of her Brothers, her niece and her sister ended up murdered in the 80s by some of Ervil's children for breaking away for the group or I guess in Lorna's case, fearing she was about to. They also lost other family and friends to murder due to their involvment with the group. This is as close to the inside workings and events in the group as anyone on the outside could ever hope to get or know. If you want to learn about Ervil LeBaron and his group, I recommend starting with this book first. —Miss Hater

I found this book to be very informative and touching. The author was willing to talk about very painful things from her past with the hope that doing so would help others trapped in a mind controlling cult. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have grown up in a more "normal" environment might learn to look with more compassion on those who are living—or have lived—in situations where they had no rights or say in their own lives. I think it took a lot of courage for her to write this book. —ErinTickle

Contact

Dean Shapiro
504-338-4416
deanslist2@aol.com

Links

The Eleventh Commandment