< The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls


Friday, February 05, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: While nobody knows what’s in J.D. Salinger’s safe, there is some unpublished Salinger material that’s already found its way to the outside world. Princeton’s Firestone Library has a trove of unpublished Salinger stories. You’re not allowed to check them out or even to photocopy them. But one of our producers, P.J. Vogt, is so obsessed with them that he spent the last two weekends driving the two hours to New Jersey just to sit in a room with them. He’s obsessed with one story, in particular, titled, The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.

P.J. VOGT: This one was the one that had made me go to Princeton to see it in the first place. It’s this story that’s kind of like mythical among Salinger obsessives. It’s written about on the Internet. And because you’re not allowed to publish it, the only thing you can read online are these sort of synopses of what happens in the story. I didn't read it first when I got there because I wanted to save it, and when I finally read it I was just convinced it was the best story I'd ever read.

BOB GARFIELD: Wow, the best story you've ever read. And can you give me — your synopsis?

P.J. VOGT: So, it’s set in the Caulfield family, and it’s about Holden’s older brother, who most people think is a stand-in for J.D. Salinger, and his youngest brother, who in the book becomes his dead sister.


P.J. VOGT: Allie, yeah. In this, Allie is a boy named Kenneth. And, like a lot of young Salinger characters, it’s this sort of wise, like, sage character who is always fated to die. So this is the story of the last day in the life of Kenneth. And it starts really beautifully. It’s about how he always had upturned shoes because he was always stopping to look at things that he found that were wonderful. He'd like stop suddenly and his shoes would turn up. And then it talks about this day that the two of them, Vincent, the Salinger guy, and Kenneth had at the beach. And on the way to the beach, Vincent tells Kenneth about this short story he wrote, which is really bad and cloying, where a bowling ball is like a big plot piece in it. And when they get to the beach, Kenneth, who has a weak heart, decides he’s going to go swimming, and Vincent is looking at the ocean and he’s really worried because it looks like the ocean’s full of bowling balls like it’s just like this — the seas look bad. And so, Kenneth comes out of the water, and there’s this great passage of him like walking up onto the shore and stumbling. And Vincent goes and grabs him and like drives him back to the house, and he dies. There’s a couple of points early on where Kenneth dispenses these like pearls of wisdom that seemed really great when I was reading it. And another thing that happens in that I like is that they talk about Holden Caulfield as being this snot, which you always want J.D. Salinger to say, so that you know that he’s not secretly Holden Caulfield. But I could not tell you [LAUGHING] why I thought, reading that, it was the best story that I ever read.

BOB GARFIELD: You've seen this thing. You've had it in your hands. You didn't steal it, did you?

P.J. VOGT: [LAUGHS] Uh – all right, well, the thing is [LAUGHS] -

BOB GARFIELD: Wow, I was looking for a straight no.

P.J. VOGT: If you read about it online, they make this big hoopla about how tight the security is at the Princeton Library, so, you know, there’s like multiple forms you have to sign and there’s special rooms and there’s a librarian that just watches you the whole time. And the first time I went, I found like it was a little bit exaggerated but there really is a lot of security and they really do watch you. The second time [LAUGHS], there wasn't as much security. And — I'm not saying that I did, but if one were so inclined, one could probably photograph every page of that story – with what –


BOB GARFIELD: With your telephone or something.

P.J. VOGT: Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, if one were so inclined.

P.J. VOGT: If one were so inclined.

BOB GARFIELD: I don't want to have too much information here, but after your second visit did you still think this was the greatest story you had ever read?

P.J. VOGT: No. I don't know if there’s an aura around something that, that you can't possess, and if maybe, if you were to possess it that, that it loses something of the aura. But, yeah, something was definitely diminished, or, or lacking. It’s the same story, but I didn't read it the same way.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. [LAUGHS] P.J., thanks very much.

P.J. VOGT: Thanks, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: P.J. Vogt is an assistant producer for On the Media. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]