I’ve recently had the pleasure of reuniting with two old, and beloved, literary friends, J.D. Salinger and Ray Bradbury: reading Salinger’s Nine Stories for the first time in at least a decade and drinking down Bradbury’s delicious book of essays, Bradbury Speaks, for the second time.
As visitors go, Salinger and Bradbury are very different creatures. When J.D. arrives at the door he’s somewhat reticent, perhaps even a little cold. No big hugs when he enters, just a quick, efficient handshake. But as you sit and talk you quickly realize that behind the reticence is a heart as huge as Creation. With a gentle eagerness and a confidence that’s never in the least bit egotistical, he tells you story after story; aiming the microscope of his mind at every shrug, sigh, cigarette-ash, turn of phrase and vocal inflection of his characters. Here’s a passage from one of the best of the Nine Stories, “For Esmé with Love and Squalor”:
She was about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house. Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children’s voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me. It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way. The young lady, however, seemed slightly bored with her own singing ability, or perhaps just with the time and place; twice, between verses, I saw her yawn. It was a ladylike yawn, a close-mouthed yawn, but you couldn’t miss it; her nostril wings gave her away.
What you don’t realize, as you pass the evening with Salinger, is that he keeps magnifying and magnifying the microscope’s lens till you’ve passed through the membrane of the so-called real world and entered the realm of transcendence: a place where all those details—the endless list of things about ourselves and our fellow humans that irritate, enrapture, shame and delight us—melt and merge into an ocean of compassion and acceptance.
As the visit comes to a close, J.D. offers another handshake, but this one seems to vibrate with that cosmic compassion. There’s a soft goodbye, a knowing glimmer in the eyes, and then, closing the door quietly behind him, he’s gone.
It’s another story—literally and figuratively—when Bradbury arrives. The door bursts opens, nearly flying off its hinges, and Ray races into the room, enveloping you in a bear hug—nearly cracking your ribs—spinning you around in circles as he bellows with laughter and perhaps sheds a tear or two, touched, as he is, by this reunion. No Zen calm for Ray: he’s a one-man Imagination pantheon, an explosion of gods and goddesses, each one with a unique story to tell. You get him to sit down for a minute or two, have a sip of wine, but he’s soon up on his feet, dragging you to the window, pointing to the clouds, the moon, the stars...the whole wide universe. While Salinger gets at the Divine through the tiniest of details, Bradbury wants to wrap his arms around God, yank him down to earth and kiss him full on the mouth. Here’s a passage from the essay called “Predicting the Past, Remembering the Future”:
My own belief is that the universe exists as a miracle and that we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?
We are that audience.
We are here to see and touch, describe and move. Our job, then, is to occupy ourselves with paying back the gift.
People have called Bradbury a science-fiction writer, a fantasist, but I don’t think either label applies. He’s a preacher, a rhapsodist, an interfaith—no, interdimensional—minister. I’ve rarely encountered anyone who more eloquently encapsulates the sheer sacred joy of life. When he’s done, when he’s given his last oratory, spun his last tale, Ray crushes you in another bear-hug then races out the door, leaving you utterly exhausted, inspired—and grateful to be alive.
And how grateful I am to both these literary giants, these treasured, beloved friends. I will hold fast to them till my last breath. And, I suspect, long after that.
© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis