BY ANGIE LEE
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever. Read other installments of the series here, get your own copies at Powell’s, and explore other series like this on our Special Features page.]
I’d love to have the sensibility to pack something useful, such as Stalking the Wild Asparagus, or anything else by Euell Gibbons, or perhaps Tintin in Tibet by Hergé, or even The Quest for Karla by John Le Carré. But God, who wants to lug that thing around, especially since cold war spy stories don’t have much of a shelf life after the first read. Besides, with a Tintin book I might end up saying nothing but “!” or “Wooah Wooah!” for the rest of my life, and with Le Carré I’d spend too much time thinking about stupid stuff, like why the BBC made only two insanely good mini series movies out of the trilogy (starring Obi-Wan Kenobi as head of Britain’s intelligence agency), and whether Karla would have been more formidable if he wasn’t Captain Picard, and so on.
Growing up in New Mexico among mathematicians and backpackers I’ve learned a thing or two about how to pack well when leaving civilization. There’s a tricky equation involving the actual weight of something in ounces, the emotional weight of what the thing is going to give back to you in terms of happiness, and some random factor of how many other uses you can get out of the object and the value of these other uses should things turn ugly. For example, a Frisbee can be used as a plate or a cutting board; it’s also good for fanning fires, and collecting rainwater. The stuff-sack that holds your sleeping bag during the day can be filled with fleece in the evening to make a nice pillow. A good night’s sleep improves the possibility of good decision-making under severe weather conditions. If you are not rescued for many years, you can wear the stuff-sack to keep your hair out of the way. Alcohol at high altitude is a fun thing, but beer is heavy, and the glass has to be hiked back out, so we compromised by leaving a 12-pack in a cooler at the trailhead as a reward for coming back to the real world, causing many of us to break into a run for the last mile. Some of us packed schnapps, which provided more bang for the bottle and went beautifully with hot chocolate like a game of Pooh sticks at a river crossing. Oranges were hotly contested, as was dental floss, open toed shoes and bakeless cheesecake mixes.
Should I have to pack up for a good long time, possibly forever, I’d bring a pair of chopsticks (can be used to divine for water, and makes a good fishing rod, cocktail swizzle, and hair clip), my warm fuzzy pants, and Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. Even though I would be alone in the world (no stupid egos, no Lane Coutells, no unskilled laughter coming my way), and every day that I live would be for the Fat Lady, and I wouldn’t need the fake Buddy phone call to get me through tough times, F&Z is just so marvelously perfect. The paperback I have has a white cover with good reflector qualities to send SOS signals, and it’s a good size for swatting flies, that is, until I get good at nailing them with my chopsticks. The glossy surface makes a good coaster for coconuts, and the soft spine can be rigged into a trap for scorpions, which I can spear with a chopstick and roast into a crispy snack.
Two green stripes run horizontally across the cover; this is worthy of at least a few years of contemplation. What do they represent? One stripe for each story? But didn’t the hardback have only one green stripe and that one stripe ran vertically? Then there’s the font—pre-digital age of course—is it meant to be mystical? On the title page it states that both stories were previously printed in The New Yorker in the 1950s. I can lie in my bathtub that’s really an ocean and wonder: Did The New Yorker actually print Zooey in its entirety? Were they that cool back then, that they would actually devote 155 pages to readable fiction?
It would be a relief to have something that was written pre-Internet, to avoid being reminded of it, as there are no gadgets mentioned in the book other than martinis and cigars. Plus I can spend an awful lot of time hopelessly romanticizing a typewritten letter, or patting my bathrobe pockets for smokes and buried treasures. I can write my favorite quotes from the books I didn’t bring on palm fronds (the island equivalent of shirt cardboards), and rest assured that although things may seem dire, at least I am not stuck in some fancy prep school on the east coast.
“Why do millions of Americans desert their comfortable and convenient apartments and split-level houses for a time each year to go camping under comparatively primitive conditions in our forests and national parks? For that matter, why does anyone go for a walk on a woodland trail when one could be speeding along a superhighway in a high-powered automobile?” —Euell Gibbons
“He’d have said anything that came into his head. He wanted the action. He was an old spy in a hurry. You used to say they were the worst.” — “Toby Esterhase”
“My whisky… safe…That’s the main thing!” — “Captain Haddock”
But so the book is really four, maybe five books in one. There’s The Way of a Pilgrim, the book Franny carries in her purse about a pilgrim with a withered arm learning how to pray incessantly, also a good skill to learn on a deserted island, and the book goes into detail how to do it; there’s the sequel called The Pilgrim Continues His Way; and its impossible to read Franny and Zooey without raising the stink of the other Glass family stories: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Hapworth 16, 1924, Seymour: An Introduction, and parts of Nine Stories.
Every time I read F&Z the book seems to change, (or maybe it changes me), and in this way it’s a little like a prayer, a little like walking the perimeter of my own little island. I know when I am old and toothless, sitting in my hemp-strapped chair with a stuff-sack on my head mouthing something-something-something to nobody it will feel good to crack open that “pretty skimpy-looking book.”