Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Greatest Novels Heal Your Soul Even As They Break Your Heart # 2: The Catcher in the Rye - Part II

[Continued from Catcher in the Rye Part I]
For Best Novel Ever #1 click  Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood."

What is so artful about "Catcher" is that it is anything but a journal. Are there pieces of Salinger's childhood in the book? Of course there are. But is Holden Caufield Jerome David Salinger? No! Not remotely. Because only by creating/inventing a character so true can he really resonate with an audience so deeply. We still talk centuries later about the Hamlets, the Sancho Panzas and the Huck Finns because they resonate. Even if you think "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is a great book (and I do), no one talks about the main character in Dave Eggers story. And that book is not even ten years old. But Holden Caufield like Ebenezer Scrooge is a name that more than half a century later people remember.

How do you portray a teenager in fiction? Has anyone ever done it better than Salinger? Only Mark Twain's creation could compete (and it should be noted that "Huckleberry Finn" is alluded to in "Catcher" because Twain's book was such an obvious influence - there is, after all, nothing new under the sun; nobody reinvents the wheel ... add cliched truism at will). Here's Holden, sitting on one of the washbasins in the bathroom describing Stradlater, his roomate at Pencey Prep:

Stradlater kept whistling 'Song of India' while he shaved. He had one of those very piercing whistles that was practically never in tune, and he always picked out some song that's hard to whistle even if you're a good whistler, like 'Song of India' ... The reason he fixed himself up to look good was because he was madly in love with himself. He thought he was the handsomest guy in the Western Hemisphere. He was pretty handsome, to - I'll admit it...

And that's the other thing, like with Murakami's "Norwegian Wood" (Murakami who recently did a new translation of 'Catcher into Japanese, that's how big a fan he is), "Catcher," which is filled with loneliness and the challenges of growing up, is funny. Holden's got wit, boy, he really does.

Take most people, they're crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they're always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that's even newer. I don't even like old cars. I mean they don't even interest me. I'd rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake.

An English professor of mine once attacked me for loving "The Catcher in the Rye," saying it was just a silly book about an upper-middle class kid whining about his problems. This professor, it should be noted, had us reading books about black lesbians suffering in America. Suffice it to say I am no longer insulted by his opinion because I don't think great art has to be about Big Issues. Because it seems to me that the capital A academics reading that most opaque kind of Big Issue literature for their post-doctoral papers are the ones who go read Harry Potter when on that beach in Costa Rica.

Are we really only supposed to swing in literature from that Harry Potter lite extreme, to the Holocaust, slavery unhappy other? Is there not a place in literature for books with characters that go through the hardships we go through here and now? A book that manages to entertain and edify at the same time? I think there is. I think it's the hardest kind of stuff to write, to write well. But it's out there. And it's the stuff I love.

I can't listen to Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb' anymore, but some 17 years since that first read and be it on a beach or in a lecture hall, "The Catcher in the Rye" still wows me. That's why it makes it to my island.

[For Best Novel Ever #3 click Arundathi Roy's "The God of Small Things."]


  1. Kingsley3:34 p.m.

    Catcher is still one of my favorite books(of the few I've read lol!). What gets me most is how cynical Holden is. Thats pretty much how cynical I was too. He was one scared little boy. Just like me! Now that I'm older, its nostalgic.

  2. There is a cynicism there for sure. The teen me also related, no question. But you go back and there is also Holden's undying idealism. I love the kind of art that has the courage to show heart. "Catcher" has it in spades.


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