Saturday, July 16, 2011

I Was a 38-Year-Old Catcher in the Rye Virgin

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye.  Ten years ago, I wrote a tribute to J. D. Salinger's novel. I had just finished reading the book for the first time and I was like the virginal bridegroom who rolls over in bed, feeling the new blush of orgasm coursing through his veins.  So, take it for what it's worth.  Or don't.  See if I care.

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On July 16, 2001, Holden Caulfield—arguably the most talked-about youth in literature (get in line, Huck Finn and Harry Potter!)—turned 50.  That same day, my own mother turned [edited for delicacy’s sake].  So, Holden and Mom share the same birthday.  That just kills me, if you want to know the truth.  Anyway, I don’t think they’re related.  But if they are…well, that would explain a few things about my character.

And let me take a moment to explain something about my character.  You probably don’t give a good goddam about my character.  I’m just a micro-blip on the computer screen of your life, and that’s fine, it really is, but I think, and please correct me if I’m wrong, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I never read The Catcher in the Rye.  Not until July 16 in the Year of Our Lord Two-Thousand-and-One, that is.  On the occasion of Holden Caulfield celebrating a half-century of shelf-life, I finally introduced myself.

That’s right, ladies and germs, if my literary life is a tabloid headline, it would scream: I WAS A 38-YEAR-OLD CATCHER VIRGIN!

“I don’t know how it happened really.  One day, I was fifteen and reading everything I could get my hands on—John Updike, Saul Bellow, Erich Segal—page after page, book after book.  Complete and utter lack of self-control.  I was [sob] a library slut.  And then, I turned around, and I was grown up—a saggy past-his-prime man who’d never read J.D. Salinger.”

I always wondered what the fuss was all about.  What was in this book—that paperback edition I’d seen so often with the orangey-red cover and simple yellow-lettered title—what was it, exactly, that I was missing?  And how had I let so many opportunities to read it pass me by?  I consoled myself with the fact that I personally knew some highly-educated people—good, honest people with sheepskin degrees on their wall—who had never ever read Moby Dick (the losers!).

It’s not like I grew up in a close-minded community (don’t let the fact I’m from Wyoming fool you).  No, I could have put my sweaty-slick teenage hands on Catcher at any point during my Acne Years.  Certainly my 10th-grade teacher—the balding, beak-nosed man from Alabama—the same one who had an unpublished novel called “The Scatological Implications of Brick-Laying” sitting at home in his top desk drawer—that teacher of mine was progressive enough to have assigned the book to our class.  But he didn’t.  Which is curious.  He is, after all, the one who encouraged me to read Updike’s Rabbit, Run, which is sort of like Holden Caulfield, the Later Years if you want to know the truth.

No, I have no one to blame but myself.

Whatever the reason for my virginity, I feel I have to be openly honest with you, the anonymous you floating out there in cyberspace.  Just so you see all my cards on the table here in front of us.  I come to you with no extra baggage, no wild-eyed, saliva-lipped ravings of “I’ve read Catcher twenty-eight times, forward and back, upside and down, and I can recite any passage to you at the drop of a hat—go on, pick a page, any page.”

I won’t sit here and tell you J.D. Salinger first introduced the world to Holden Caulfield in two short stories, “I'm Crazy” and “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” which were published in periodicals during the 1940s.  You probably already know that.

And I won’t bore you with the fact that Time called The Catcher in the Rye a “tough-tender first novel” or that The New York Times loved Holden’s narration, calling it his “own strange, wonderful language.”  Or that the book, beyond anyone’s expectation, rocketed up the bestseller list and stayed there for seven months.  Or that the title comes from a Robert Burns poem (“if a body meet a body coming through the rye,” though Holden thinks it’s “catch,” not “meet”).  You probably know that, too.

Nor will I ramble on and on about the censorship—how Australian customs officers impounded a shipment of the book in 1957; or how, a year later, Catcher in the Rye was displayed on a “Smutmobile” parked in protest outside the state capitol in Oklahoma City; or how it was banned in school districts throughout the 1960s and 1970s and how, as recently as 1992, school libraries in Iowa and Florida took it off the shelves due to its cursing and “lurid passages about sex;” or how Salinger one day in 1953 just up and retreated to Cornish, New Hampshire and, as states, “hasn't published a syllable since 1965” or how the novel had its darkest hour in 1980: on the evening when Mark David Chapman fired five bullets into John Lennon, then pulled Catcher out of his coat pocket and sat down to read.  You know all that.

No, I’m simply going to tell you how I, a slump-shouldered man of nearly four decades, approached the book like I was an inexperienced 17-year-old bridegroom unbuckling his pants on his wedding night.  I had no clue what was in store for me.  Or how it would change my life.

Now, I crack open my 1951 hardbound edition (no dustjacket, plain black board cover, deckle-edged pages, faintly yellowed--sniff them and they smell like fifty years of back shelves in bookstores).

Now, I read.

Now, I finish, look up at you and say (voice fluttery at the edges): “It’s goddam good.”

Reading Catcher in the Rye—especially the first time—is like sitting astride a galloping horse.  You bounce and jounce, you make that funny uhn-uhn-uhn sound, you lose your breath then catch it again.  In the end, all you can do is grab those deckle-edged pages and hold on tight for the 277-page ride.

Here, for instance, is how Salinger bursts out of the starting gate:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.  They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.  They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell.  Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

That’s jet-propulsion writing if I’ve ever seen it.  As they say in the movies, He had me at "lousy childhood."  I was hooked like the trout that swallowed the fly.  But that’s the thing about Salinger, see.  One sentence moves you to the next and the next and there is rarely a time when you want to stop, look up, then decide to put the book down and go do household chores.  The laundry can burn and the dinner can go unfolded as far as I’m concerned.

Holden’s is a simple voice, a voice full of angst and self-pity and frustration and depression.  And yeah, profanity.  That stuff kills me.  Not to get on a soapbox or anything, but Holden Caulfield swears because, as John Lee Hooker said, “it’s in him and it’s got to come out.”  His profanity is not there for shock effect; it’s an expression of his rage against the system—the mindless, do-as-they’re-told masses.  Those slump-shouldered gobs of humanity (like you and I) tend to get all squirmish around Holden and his fierce independent spirit.  Four-letter words are both his sword and shield against their conformity.  Holden uses “goddam” to slash and burn, thrust and parry, serve and protect.

So maybe you’re out there in cyberspace, mouth-breathing all over your monitor, and you’re wondering what exactly I’m talking about because you, like the former me, are a Catcher virgin.  It’s okay.  Nothing to be afraid of.  Stay calm and everything will be all right.  We’ll get through this, you and I.

The first thing you need to know about the book’s plot is this: nothing happens.  And yet, everything happens.  It’s that simple.  Salinger takes us on a journey through 48 hours of one boy’s life as he gets kicked out of Pencey Preparatory School (“molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men”).  He’s flunking every class but English.  This is just before Christmas, so you can imagine what this must do to his peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-men spirit.  He decides to ditch the last couple days of school and head for home where he hopes to say good-bye to his much-loved younger sister Phoebe before he heads out West where it’s pretty and sunny and nobody’d know him and he could pretend to be a deaf-mute.

That’s it.  That’s the “action.”  Over the course of those 48 hours, the 16-year-old Holden fights, smokes, drinks, hires a prostitute (unconsummated) and writes an English composition about a baseball glove.

Through it all, there’s his voice.  Oh, what a voice.  Salinger builds the book based on the cadences of language.  Every “anyway,” every “boy,” is carefully calculated according to the Principle Law of Staccato and Repetition.  Holden is a drumbeat on our ears: pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

He reminds us of every anguished teen we’ve ever seen.  James Dean.  Go Ask Alice.  The Breakfast Club.  Young Elvis.  Ponyboy and the Outsiders.  Those snap-fingered kids from West Side Story.  Maybe—no, probably—Holden reminds us of the slightly-confused person who used to stare back at us from the mirror years ago.  Holden’s just trying to find his place in the world.  Aren’t we all?  Isn’t there a little bit of Caulfield in each of our spleens even now?

“Did you ever get fed up?” Holden asks a girl he’s taken out on a date.  “I mean, did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something?”

The funny thing is—or the sad thing, if you want the truth—Holden, for all his talk and bravado, never does strike out West, but ends up taking his sister Phoebe to the park where he watches her ride the carousel—a ride that goes around and around but never gets anywhere.  But yet there’s always the promise of the prize.
The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything.  If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.

And so, on the one hand Holden is a bit more self-aware by page 275.  On the other, he’s the most imperfect of tour guides through the journey of life.  His reliability is called into question early in the book.  Chapter Three begins:
I’m the most terrible liar you ever saw in your life.  It’s awful.  If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera.  It’s terrible.

But we stick with him anyway (if nothing else, to find out what is real and what is conjured from the thicket of his mind).  It’s impossible to resist the pull of his voice.  He is the moon, we are the tide.

So, now you’ve come this far with me.  I hope you’re not expecting a goddam medal or anything.  If you’re anything like me, you’re drippy with sweat and you have to pee really badly.  Well, tie a knot in it, Junior, because I’ve got just a little more to say to you.  Yeah, you, the mouth-breather who’s leaning too close to the computer monitor.  (That kills me.  It really does.)

Listen, I can’t say this any other way:  If you read only one book this year, read The Catcher in the Rye.  If you were lucky enough to have someone force it down your pink quivering throat back in the Acne Years, fine.  Fine and jim-dandy.  But if it’s been years (decades, even) since you sat down with your tatter-covered, dog-eared copy, well then you know what you need to do.

And if you’re one of those poor schmucks who’s managed to make it this far in life without your eyeballs rolling across Salinger’s pocketa-pocketa prose…

Well then...

It’s about time.

Oh, and Happy Birthday, Holden, you old so-and-so.


  1. Wouldn't that be a cool idea for a group blog -- people reading the young adult/high school classics in their 30s and 40s and 50s and then reviewing them? Or just classics in general that somehow they missed out on early in life, weird reading lacunae. Like coughcough someone who's 48 years old and has never read Dickens...

  2. You are so right, it is all about the voice. You've channeled him brilliantly. Anyone who can't see that is a phony. Happy Birthday, Holden, thanks for all the memories.