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Entries in Salinger (4)


The Catcher in the Rye

If I were of a certain bent, it would behoove me to inquire with strict scientific objectivity, of course as to whether any other species apart from our own pass through that troubled period of alienation we conveniently dismiss as teenagery. Do penguins and goats suffer as much as the average privileged adolescent who cannot seem to handle the shift from doted-upon scion to responsible adult? What then of the changes chemical changes, everything we do is a symphony of chemicals that we incur as hormones detonate our every limb? How are we to survive this onslaught? Perhaps we can learn from less evolved monsters, and the measures taken against such rebellion and if you subscribe to the nonsense proponed in these last few sentences, please stop here. Go away. Don't come back. These pages are not for you. If, however, you believe that alienation is a specific phase in the development of a creative soul and is re-experienced then defeated as that same creative soul soars above the daily hypocrisy, hatred, and greed that preside over lesser minds, read on. For one such creative soul is the narrator of this iconic novel.  

Our seventeen-year-old protagonist is one of the most beloved in American literature, and it is of rather amazing coincidence that his name was not derived from the stars of this film. The name, Holden Caulfield, is sufficiently pompous and upper class that we know we are dealing with someone of extreme privilege, even if he doesn't seem to care much about what has been given to him in life ("Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad"), simply what has been taken away. He has an older brother, D.B., who is "prostituting" himself as a hack in Hollywood, a younger, highly precocious sister, Phoebe, who corrects a quote of his at a very critical juncture, and another younger brother, Allie, who died recently of leukemia. It is this last sibling and his wretched fate that shape Holden, inasmuch as teenagers can be sustainably molded by external events. Holden does not use his brother as an excuse; in fact, fairly the opposite occurs.  Holden's poor work ethic, general antisociality, and anger directed at the "phony" people around him (a word used dozens of times in the novel), are all typical teenage angsts, especially when the adolescent in question has a very sharp mind and a sensitive spirit to guide it. All these fears could have been discounted by an emphasis on Allie's death, but Holden only has good memories of his brother and does not wish to make him a martyr. He describes his brother's intellect ("He was terrifically intelligent"), his red hair (in a magnificent passage: "He was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off that's the kind of red hair he had"), and Allie's odd predilection for writing poems on the inside of his baseball glove the confluence of two typical strands of boyhood and, indeed, of manhood. Holden fails his way out of one expensive all-boys school after another and, as our story opens, has just been told just before that most giving time of the year in the Western world that he will not be invited back to Pencey Prep.

Apart from his family members, few if any persons have made an impact on his life. He has a ladykiller roommate, Stradlater, and a pimply, hopelessly mistrustful suitemate, Ackley. Both of these boys cannot be as real as Holden because Holden is their narrator and understands them as the sum of their flaws. In any case, both represent the stereotypes and stock confrontations to which a teenager must quickly accustom himself. Very early on comes the lone scene with Spencer, a pedantic old teacher complete with blanket, robe, and "Vicks nose drops"; his approach to Holden's expulsion is akin to a convalescent's raised brow and a tut-tut, a method that will be contrasted much later on with the sanguine wit of another professor, Mr. Antolini. But what really drives the vast majority of young men his age? That would be the fairer sex, and we have a lot of young ladies in The Catcher in the Rye: Sally Hayes, a former love interest who generates the fabulous observation, "If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody"; three thirtyish women from Seattle, who are available for perhaps someone a bit older and suaver than Holden ("I thought the two ugly ones ... were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them.  You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn't blame them"); and a prostitute named Sunny, who is assigned to Holden's hotel room by the lift operator and seems almost her customer's age. His observation of Sunny could be the novel's most telling:

I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell I don't know why exactly.

We, however, do know. We know that Holden Caulfield is a sensitive and thoughtful young man who does not force himself upon women like the rakish Stradlater (who apparently takes neither "no" nor "please, don't" for an answer). Although Holden has had "quite a few opportunities to lose [his] virginity," he "keeps stopping" whenever he is asked, by a girl who values her reputation, not to advance any further. Which makes his claims to being a sex maniac true: he obsesses with something he has never had, but has no real physical courage to get it, perhaps because he fears it will underwhelm him. 

Proof positive resides in the heroine of the novel, the heroine who is permanently absent, the subject of memory and rumors, Jane Gallagher. Jane is many things to Holden; some say she is his imagined soulmate; others may claim, with a great deal of insight into teenage boys, that what teenage boys need is someone to idealize, to talk about, to desire from afar, the classic princesse lointaine of the romantic poet. If you do not have an ideal woman as a romantic poet, then you are not a romantic poet, or at least not one anyone would ever bother about; precisely the same can be said for a teenage boy. So Jane, someone he once comforted and ended up kissing "all over .... her whole face except her mouth and all," becomes what Holden needs to sustain himself against the inevitable disappointment that is teenagery. Her quirk may be the checkers reference that does not impress Stradlater, who much to Holden's chagrin has a date with Jane at the beginning of the book, but another character trait is far more essential to understanding her:

Most girls if you hold hands with them, their goddam hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they'd bore you or something. Jane was different. We'd get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we'd start holding hands, and we wouldn't quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were.

This passage may be read several different ways, but the strict literal reading is what should be encouraged. I do not spoil anything of the novel by admitting that we never get to meet Jane, because that would violate her status and all those dramatic conventions we hold dear. Jane must remain apart; too much of her would show Holden what he most fears: that she is no different from any other girl.

What happens next is not predictable, not episodic, and, above all, not crude or vulgar. It is simply what adolescence comprises for a boy: a schedule imposed from without; a series of meaningless meetings with people who know more than you do about life or, in the case of some coevals, pretend that they do; and frustration with your lack of control, your inefficacy, your inability to be taken seriously even though you'll have the rest of your life never to be taken unseriously again. To ban this book, as it so often has been banned, is to eliminate all the madness of adolescence, the wildness that may not mean as much now but was our world then. There are undoubtedly more detailed works about being a teenager, but one would be hard pressed to come up with one that better captures its trials. The voice that Salinger chooses for this journey is so remarkable and original, we are stunned to look back on the novel and find the grating slang of the nineteen forties, utterly authentic, one presumes, at the time and now, in no small irony, utterly outdated or "phony" if compared to the current generation's lingo and buzz words. Every so often Holden makes grammatical errors (notice his idiosyncratic usage of "on account of" and "hell") and spells dialogue phonetically, which is the commonest fault of young writers aiming for authenticity, but the key word is still "phony." Being a teenager, in our modern age at least, means being neither fish nor fowl. It is not a real existence, clearly defined as a child's innocence or an adult's sober perception of life's vicissitudes and tragedies. For that reason alone, more wisdom and self-awareness can be found in The Catcher in the Rye than in all the combined works of all the so-called existentialists, who are, anyway, simply adolescents trapped in adult bodies. And why haven't we explained our work's mysterious title? Now that would be a lousy thing to give away and all.


The Laughing Man

The bus, as usual, was quiet when he climbed in as proportionately quiet, at any rate, as a theatre with dimming house lights.

The Comanche club, you may not have heard of it, is an organization devoted to the betterment of young boys through camaraderie and physical fitness. The boys range from eight to ten or so, a good distance from the perilous hormonal threshold that will transform their lives in every way possible. As such, their primary focus is to be boys and have fun doing boy things, which involves first and foremost the pursuit of age-appropriate sporting activities (baseball) as well as the development of a narrative that each boy has, a narrative of where he came from and where, if anywhere in particular, he is going. I say boys tend to possess such inner stories not because girls don't as well, but because little girls tend to mature much more quickly than little boys and, with similar speed, develop values that they will keep for life. A girl can be fully-formed around fourteen; a fourteen-year-old boy never possibly could. A young teenage girl may have loved and lost and loved again; a young teenage boy will have gotten a glimpse at this mysterious power from only two sources: from books, in which love may play a greater or lesser role, and from observing older boys, whom we eventually begin to call men.

What is a man? Every society has its list of ingredients. Being familiar with not too many men at this point, our Comanche club members unanimously nominate their Chief (all Comanche tribes need chiefs) as the best example of what they think a man is. A description is provided by our narrator:

John Gedsudski, of Staten Island. He was an extremely shy, gentle young man of twenty-two or -three, a law student at N.Y.U., and altogether a very memorable person .... he was an Eagle Scout, an almost-All-America tackle ... and it was known that he had been most cordially invited to try out for the New York Giants' baseball team. He was an impartial and unexcitable umpire at all our bedlam sporting events, a master fire builder and extinguisher, and an expert, uncontemptuous first-aid man .... The Chief's physical appearance ... is still clear in my mind. If wishes were inches, all of us Comanches would have had him a giant in no time. The way things go, though, he was a stocky five three or four no more than that. His hair was blue-black, his hair-line extremely low, his nose was large and fleshy, and his torso was just about as long as his legs were. In his leather windbreaker, his shoulders were powerful, but narrow and sloping.

What elements of this passage are poppycock and what are the plain truth? Well, in the Chief's "leather windbreaker," which will not be worn at a key moment later in our story, his shoulders were probably indeed "powerful." What they were for certain is more powerful, more manly, and more imposing than any of the shoulders of the Comanches, with our nine-year-old narrator being no exception. Everything about the chief says man, strong man, tough man, a man's man. We have left out, however, the Laughing Man.

To describe the tortures the Laughing Man endures to achieve that hideously ironic moniker is hardly worth our consideration. His tale, as it were, is merely a pile of well-boiled clichés woven into a preposterous and never-ending plot. It was begun by the Chief to appease his weary tribe on the bus ride home every afternoon, a time in which what weighed upon the Comanches' minds was why they could not always be Comanches:

We Comanches relied heavily and selfishly on the Chief's talent for storytelling .... Once he started narrating, our interest never flagged."The Laughing Man" was just the right story for a Comanche. It may even have had classic dimensions. It was a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the bathtub.

The story even features one of literature's oldest chestnuts: the child who was kidnapped by bogus parents, and who is really the child of a king waiting to be rescued. Except that the king and his queen are not royalty at all, but a pair of missionaries, and the kids who so adore the Laughing Man's tale are his own progeny:

I was not even my parents' son in 1928 but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their slightest blunder as an excuse to move in preferably without violence, but not necessarily to assert my true identity. As a precaution against breaking my bogus mother's heart, I planned to take her into my underworld employ in some undefined but appropriately regal capacity. But the main thing I had to do in 1928 was watch my step. Play along with the farce. Brush my teeth. Comb my hair. At all costs, stifle my natural hideous laughter.

Perhaps I had not mentioned that these events occurred in 1928; perhaps it does not matter. We have all known young boys who like to think of themselves as secret operatives in a world of infinite codes. Yet the Laughing Man, forced into his despicable life by despicable cruelty, has somehow evolved into a hero for these callow ignoramuses; he is the literal lone wolf, with his best friend being a canis lupus called Black Wing. When the Chief stops the bus on an unusual corner, "some twenty back-seat drivers at once demanded an explanation," but he simply hushes the jeers with another installment of the saga. Again, this does not matter; only a fool would expect more. What matters is the Laughing Man, which doesn't seem to interest the chief quite as much as a young lady by the name of Mary Hudson.

Mary Hudson is one of the three girls the narrator has ever seen who were blessed with "unclassifiably great beauty at first sight"; the other two are so superbly and pithily described that we shall leave them as enigmas for the curious reader. This fact is important in the way that, however much he may deny it, a woman's beauty is important to a man. A woman's beauty is what most makes her different from men; it remains her most feminine ability, the ability to be something completely different, and exotic, and delicious, and wonderful. Over time, some men grow immune to all but the most ravishing of beauties, the true "lookers" or "knockouts" (women are attributed some of the finest terms in a man's imagination, as well as many others) that one comes across once in a very blue moon. But we are still dealing with the world of little boys, little boys who "for poise" would "pick ... up a stone and throw it against a tree," who sometimes display that "some-girls-just-don't-know-when-to-go-home look," a policy most of them will radically reverse with time. So when Mary Hudson insists on playing baseball, insists that the Chief, to whom she nurses an unknown relationship, let go of her bat, and then swings "mightily at the first ball pitched to her and hit[s] it over the left fielder's head," we get a most complimentary remark from our narrator: "It was good for an ordinary double, but Mary Hudson got to third on it – standing up" (later on we are told that "she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base"). We wonder, however, with all this admiration, whether she would take umbrage at the Laughing Man's referring to her as Black Wing.


For Esmé - with Love and Squalor

We've all heard that adage about bad peaces and good wars, and on this matter historians will continue to dig in opposite directions until, perhaps, they both meet in China.  Countless horrors are born from war, and lucky are those who convert those experiences into fortitude of mind or body; luckier still are those who pledge henceforth to quell all conflict forever.  But luckiest of all are those select few who funnel their experiences into artistic creation.  We could never imagine Böll not having been a soldier, or Solzhenitsyn not having been a prisoner of war as well as a prisoner of conscience.  And our imagination likewise cannot but dwell on the military past of the author of this magnificent tale.

Like war itself the story's beginning is a mere excuse for its middle, and its end is, shall we say, a great relief.  A former U.S. military officer, who shall abide no name other than Sergeant X, has received a wedding invite from a girl he knew six years ago in England.  Attendance at this event is unlikely for a number of reasons, most of all the distance and expense; but our sergeant takes advantage of this occasion to "jot down a few revealing notes on the bride."  We may expect something awkwardly prurient, the bitter send-off of a jilted lover, but nothing of the kind is portrayed.  It is April 1944 and Sergeant X is in Devon participating in a "rather specialized pre-Invasion training course"; later, the Sergeant will receive a letter dated the day after that 'special invasion.'  When the rains come, as they must in that part of England, the sergeant usually finds himself sitting "in a dry place and read[ing] a book, often just an axe length from a ping-pong table."  What we discern about the sergeant's personality is gradual, but disturbing, even if we know that he is writing well after the traumatic wartime events:

I remember standing at an end window of our Quonset hut for a very long time, looking out at the slanting, dreary rain, my trigger finger itching imperceptibly, if at all.  I could hear behind my back the uncomradely scratching of many fountain pens on many sheets of V-mail paper.  Abruptly, with nothing special in mind, I came away from the window and put on my raincoat, cashmere muffler, galoshes, woolen gloves, and overseas cap (the last of which, I'm still told, I wore at an angle all my own slightly down over both ears).  Then, after synchronizing my wristwatch with the clock in the latrine, I walked down the long, wet cobblestone hill into town.  I ignored the flashes of lightning around me.  They either had your number or they didn't.

One wonders whether a military unit would be more effective or less effective if all its members shared such opinions but we digress.  The narrative needs to furnish us with our title character, and we wince slightly when the sergeant's eyes are drawn to a very young girl in a church choir, "about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of earlobe length, an exquisite forehead and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house" and with an introduction like that, we know we've found her.   

The sergeant proceeds from that church into a café pardon me, we're at war, so a café has been replaced by a "civilian tearoom" and does what soldiers tend to do on such occasions, loiter and marvel at being part of normal life.  Well, perhaps "normal" is too strong a word.  Soon Esmé, her little brother Charles, and their governess Miss Megley appear and make a "good" table selection, "as it was just eight or ten feet directly in front of" our American serviceman.  Conversation is inevitable, but what could a thirteen-year-old girl say to capture the attention of a man roughly twice her age?  Thankfully, the excitement the sergeant displays at Esmé's choice of seats is never repeated, and no agenda of any kind is furthered.  Rather, it is she, the newly minted teenager, who mixes fine English expressions that have no meaning to children, a smattering of French, and more than the occasional malapropism to convey to our sergeant that she appreciates an American presence just as the war seems to be on its last act.  And what about Esmé and Charles's family?

'He misses our father very much.  He was s-l-a-i-n in North Africa.'  I expressed regret to hear it.  Esmé nodded. 'Father adored him.'  She bit reflectively at the cuticle of her thumb.  'He looks like very much like my mother Charles, I mean.  I look exactly like my father.'  She went on biting at her cuticle.  'My mother was quite a passionate woman.  She was an extrovert.  Father was an introvert.  They were quite well mated, though, in a superficial way.  To be quite candid, Father really needed more of an intellectual companion than Mother was.  He was an extremely gifted genius.'

From this remarkable passage an entire blueprint of Esmé's familial relations may be extrapolated: that her parents favored Charles; that Esmé favored her father; and that her mother favored men who were not her husband.  Without fear of perjury one may also conclude from this and other snippets that Esmé believes herself to be a remarkable person (she even refuses to give the sergeant her surname because, she tells him, "I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles.  Americans are, you know"); and although she stands out among her coevals in the choir owing to her physical gifts, it is clear that the most remarkable thing about her is to what degree she deems herself remarkable.            

The story's author died last year, one of the great losses of American letters as his reclusive nature and spiritual searches seem to have conspired against his artistic ambition.  That Salinger continued to write extensively, to borrow a Russian dissident expression, "for the drawer," that is to say, with neither hope nor intention of ever having the works published, and that there may be around a dozen unseen novels pending must remain, at this time, rumors of the utmost interest.  What can be substantiated, however, is that Salinger was an artist of the top rank.  He seems to modern ears overly concerned with and knowledgeable about youth not surprisingly, since he effectively ended his career in his forties.  But his genius is obvious in the details: "The two sat quiet for a moment, hating Bulling"; "Clay left his feet where they were for a few don't-tell-me-where-to-put-my-feet seconds, then swung them around to the floor and sat up"; "He thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack"; and "She wrote to him fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamations and inaccurate observations" one of the most sensational sentences in the English language.  I must admit that another mention of "house-counting eyes" was a unforgettably beautiful reference when I thought it was an epithet for the children's governess, but this is a minor regret.  Observers far more politically-minded than I will assume that little Esmé and her rather unpleasant sibling represent those who are born into privilege and think themselves above the world's petty conflicts; indeed, those conflicts are definitely for others to handle.  And we haven't even gotten to the squalor.

A Perfect Day for Bananafish

"You're badly sunburned?  Didn't  you use that jar of Bronze I put in your bag? I put it right —"
"I used it.  I'm burned anyway."
"That's terrible.  Where are you burned?"
"All over, dear, all over."
"That's terrible."
"I'll live."

Considering that the name of this story's protagonist is a homophone of  “see more glass,” and the young girl Sybil on the beach has quite a history behind her name, it would make sense to analyze the name of Seymour's wife, Muriel.  In Hebrew, my research tells me, Muriel means the myrrh of God (as in one of the gifts from the Magi), which is appropriate.   But in Gaelic it is even better: it means the open sea itself.

The story has two perfect halves, then a small postscript.  The first half has Muriel speaking on the phone to her mother.  Her mother, like all mothers who give a damn, is worried about her.  More specifically, she's worried about whether Muriel should have waited out the war for her fiancé, now husband to return.   This husband, a fluttering and empty creature we only meet in the story's second half, has been doing strange things since his discharge.  Apparently he's rammed a car into a tree, tried something fishy with the chair of Muriel's grandmother and said disconcerting things about her plans for death, insisted that Muriel read a book of German poetry, although she cannot read German, and otherwise behaved with no regard for society, its mores, and how normal, unshellshocked people go about their day.  Muriel's mother understands all this, and sees it as rightly tragic.  But maybe Seymour should not have been released from the military hospital (her mother calls this "a perfect crime") in the first place.  He is, after all, as fragile as glass.

We find this fragile Mr. Glass on the beach, where you can also find this strange phenomenon.  He is approached by a little girl whom he has befriended, and when she first addresses him, he lets "a sausaged towel fall away from his eyes."  He himself is no longer much older than Sybil, although he has seen more horror than she could ever think possible.  He takes Sybil to the ocean with a floating toy and proceeds to talk to her about bananafish, fantastic creatures who lead "a very tragic life":

They're very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in.  But once then get in, they behave like pigs.  Why, I've known some bananafish to swim into a bananahole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas.

Some might see a sexual connotation here, especially since Sybil's mother refers to her by a playful children's name that also happens to be a naughty adult word and Seymour kisses her foot at the end of their playtime (perhaps the same foot used when Sybil "stopp[ed] only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle," a line that this author calls one of the best he has ever read).   But Seymour kisses her because she is innocent, and he is not.  He kisses innocence because he can make up stories like a child, he can shun responsibility and tact like a child, but his childhood is lost forever under a heap of bombs and bones, and he will never recover.  Those bananafish are young men, and they become pigs when they are told to go kill other young men.  Upon their return from battle a general might ask them whether they are in good health, whether they used the protection that the army gave them.  They did, but they became pigs nonetheless, roasted pigs burnt all over.

An allegory of war chock full of signs and symbols is easy enough, yet Salinger actually goes a step further: it is an allegory of an allegory.  Soldiers, some barely out of their teens, return to their civilian lives and become little boys again without the one trait that always distinguishes a child from an adult, innocence.  What would a fallen child be like?  What would he say and do? How can a child not be innocent?  Perhaps he "won't take his bathrobe off"; perhaps he will pretend to remember the number of tigers in a children's tale (as children love to pretend to know something they don't), the same number of bananafish that Sybil supposedly espies (as children love to imitate and one–up).  So when Seymour finally does remove his robe he is as pale as Muriel is burnt, and then we realize he is not pale but empty.  An unfilled vessel that can never regain its color.  And the color would be yellow, the color of Sybil's swimsuit and the color of the fish Seymour makes up to compete with her yellow swimsuit, just like any child would.     

The postscript reflects both perfect halves: Muriel, the sea, the scent of God, eternity, peace, and love that survived a war; and Seymour, glass crunched into sand particles and scattered onto a beach with millions more who have died for nothing or who have gone on living while already dead.  And when Seymour tells the woman in the elevator that he notices she's been looking at his feet (the part of Sybil he kisses in celebration of her innocence), we know that his own feet have walked through fields of abject destruction.  And we also know that bananafish, like all fish, have no feet.