Rebecca Tyrrel: 'JD Salinger’s fondness for Tim Henman was hardly his only eccentricity'


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Who knew that JD Salinger, who died two years ago this week, was a big fan of Tim Henman and his parents? And who, quite frankly wanted to know? Re-reading The Catcher in the Rye becomes difficult, if not impossible once you do know it. Did the creator of Holden Caulfield – literature's most celebrated icon of teenage angst and, in Henman tennis context, the American novel's answer to the young John McEnroe – admire that archetype of overgrown Boy Scout goody-goodiness who once told an interviewer that his big ambition in life was to start his own wine cellar... and did he also admire his parental archetypes of rigid home counties, middle-class reserve?

Writing to an old friend in London in 2006, Salinger remarked that he hoped Henman would "knock 'em all down" at that year's Wimbledon. By then, this was a triumph of hope over experience that had long since defeated even the most fervent come-on-Timmers of the Centre Court crowd, which resignedly saw him swatted in the second round by Roger Federer. Salinger liked the Henman seniors, Jane and Tony, for not looking like "professional tennis parents". Which was true, I suppose, if only in the sense that they sat in the box looking as if they were sucking a combination of lemons and bees.

In his defence, the literary world's top-ranked hermit had changed so much by the time he wrote these reflections that he was enjoying group trips to Niagara Falls, while in her book, Dream Catcher, his daughter, Margaret, revealed that Salinger had taken to homeopathy, Scientology, drinking urine and speaking in tongues. He also liked to sit in a Reichian 'orgone box' – a receptacle made of metal and wood which apparently gathers a type of sublimated sexual energy.

So Salinger's fondness for a tennis player who looks like Barbie's boyfriend Ken (an odd leap for the creator of a character whose psyche was so dark it inspired Mark Chapman to assassinate John Lennon), while surprising, was hardly his only eccentricity. But this metaphorical pilgrimage to Henman Hill, where the love for what the late Linda Smith called "the human form of beige" flowed like the waters of Niagara, was surely his oddest, and it confirms the truth of the old dictum that you should never encounter your heroes outside of their own heroic context. If only he had stayed a recluse.