Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye

The recent attempt by a no doubt untalented hack to publish a sequel to J.D. Salinger's landmark The Catcher in the Rye has placed this troubled book once again squarely on the front pages of our nation's newspapers (and now websites) more than fifty years after it was first published.

Fortunately, for artists and content creators everywhere (and for English literature as a whole, I suspect) in the opinion of this scribe, the courts got this one right. Salinger does still own the copyright to his own work. The sequel, as constituted, does not meet the definition of parody, nor can it be described as anything resembling fair use. Alas, the world will have to wait another twenty years or so for this rip-off (and others, no doubt) to see the light of day.

But between this, some conversations with family members on the subject, and recent references to Salinger's book on this very blog, I've found myself of late thinking a lot about my own relationship with The Catcher in the Rye. And I am somewhat uncomfortable to report it is an unhappy one.

By way of background, I was a voracious reader in my teen years, and yet (not that I was trying) I somehow managed to avoid reading this book. While it was required reading for some of my classmates, it was never required in any of my own classes. Even when I took Advanced Placement English in senior year, it was not included in the curriculum.

And though I do recall my older brother had a dog-eared copy on his bookshelves, for whatever reason, it was not one of his many books I read.

Flash forward a year or two, to the murder of John Lennon, whose assassin ostensibly killed the former Beatle because he was a "phony" and wanted to awaken the world to Salinger's book, and even claimed to have modeled his own life after Salinger's protagonist, Holden Caulfield.

I suppose like a lot of people, I found this a mere curiosity at the time. But I also remember thinking, even then, it was probably a book I should already have read. And again, I put it out of my mind.

(Looking back on it, I wonder if perhaps I did this as a subconscious "fuck you" to the crazy Mr. Chapman. I was a fan of John Lennon. But that's for another time . . . )

Flash forward twenty years or so, and I find myself perusing the outdoor shelves at a used bookstore. I'm holding a paperback copy of the book — an older, but obviously well-cared for English printing — and figure it's high time I learn what all the fuss is about.

So, I read the book, and am confronted with perhaps the most selfish, self-centered, egocentric, the whole world revolves around me, humorless . . . twerp . . . I have ever encountered in literature. I found nothing to like about Holden Caulfield. Nothing at all. And, when I put it down, I remember thinking, well, that explains Mark David Chapman anyway . . .

A few days later, I have a conversation with my friend Danny (my personal Lazlo), who I know has always had a soft spot in his heart for both Holden Caulfield and The Catcher in the Rye. I tell him I've recently finished the book and share my unvarnished thoughts, fully expecting to engage in a row about the merit or lack thereof of the book. To my surprise . . . he just laughed.

"What did you expect?" he asked.

Surprised by his response, I asked what he meant.

"You can't read it now," he answered sagely. "You have to have read it . . . then. You can't expect to understand it now. Nothing personal, but . . . the book wasn't written for you."

That was the end of our conversation.

After mulling it over a while, I concluded he was probably right. It was a plausible explanation anyway.

Flash forward another ten years, and I've got my two nephews staying over, they're twelve and ten. The twelve-year-old and I are watching the tail end of a documentary on John Lennon, when he turns and asks, "Why'd the guy kill John Lennon, Uncle Brendan?"

Now, my nephew's a pretty smart kid. He was the model for Kevin, the precocious, Green Day-loving letter writer from my recent novella A Truck Story (available from a fine retailer near you!).

But how do you answer the question, "Why was John Lennon Killed?" no matter the age of the person asking it?

I think a moment before beginning.

"First of all, the guy was crazy," I begin. "Second of all, he really liked this book called "The Catcher in the Rye." It was about this guy named Holden Caulfield . . ."

"Holden Caulfield?" my nephew interrupts. "Green Day has a song called "Holden Caulfield!"

I did not know that.

So, I get through the mini-synopsis, and then think about it a moment before going over to my bookshelves. He's a really smart kid, I tell myself. I knew he was already reading above his age level. And, if he's not ready for it now, he'll be ready for it later. Or, not at all. That would be okay too.

I bring back my English printing of the book and give it to him, telling him it's my gift. I tell him you may not be ready for it now, but you're a smart kid. And whatever you do, I tell him, most importantly, don't you ever friggin kill anybody over it . . .

He laughs.

Flash forward to last week. I'm at Five Guys with my now fifteen-year-old nephew, reserve tackle on the freshman football team, who's taller than me. Turns out, he's heard about the broohaha over the sequel to The Catcher in the Rye and wants to know my thoughts about it. He shares with me there that The Catcher in the Rye is his favorite book.

And I find that strangely heartening.


Aaron Polson said...

I don't even want to try and read Catcher again. I loved it so much the first time.

The best part of a relationship, especially one with a book, is that you don't have to like it (the book). You still have had a relationship.


Brendan P. Myers said...

Yeah, just missed my chance I guess.

Can't think of too many other books (off the top of my head, anyway) that you can say that about, that there is a window in your life in which you need to read it or you'll miss your chance.

Perhaps that alone marks it for greatness. Or classic-hood at the very least.

Unknown said...

That's ex-reserve tackle, haha. Love your blog, Uncle B.

Brendan P. Myers said...

Thanks, Kev . . . I mean Joe!

And hey, you're a teenager. You reserve the right to change your mind!

Thanks for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

I just read the book this year because my SHS Aspergian 10th grader had to read it for english. It really messed with his head and I found it very depressing. I guess I just didn't get it or maybe it brought me back to my own life at 15 and how messed up it was. I probably would have related better to it then. (an old friend)

Brendan P. Myers said...

Thanks for stopping by!

It's amazing when you think about it they actually make it required reading for kids.

Then again, when you look at the books they made us read: Death Be Not Proud, Go Ask Alice, On The Beach, Lord of the Flies -- all of them dealing with death or dying young -- it's a wonder any of us made it through.

At any rate, best of luck with your tenth grader . . . and welcome, old friend!

(Whoever you are . . .)