Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Adventure classics -- We’ve met the phonies, and they’re us

The Catcher in the Rye

by J.D. Salinger


He was the wannabe bad boy who didn’t want to grow up, the adolescent who craved the company of innocents and the guidance of his dead brother, the kid who wanted to save other kids by catching them at the edge of a cliff. He was the boy writing out his pain in a psychiatric hospital. He was Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of The Catcher in the Rye, the 1951 bestseller that will forever define author J.D. Salinger.

Was Holden in fact Salinger?

Because the agony of Holden Caulfield only makes sense in light of Salinger’s own agony during and after World War II. It was the anguish of the entire whole post-war world. But instead of painting his psychic upheaval on the broad canvas of a conventional war novel, Salinger miniaturized it, transforming it into the story a runaway boy.

“A staff sergeant in the 12th Infantry, Salinger served through five bloody campaigns of the European Theater,” David Shields and Shane Salerno write in Salinger, their 2013 biography cum documentary. “When the end was near, he and other soldiers entered Kaufering IV, an auxiliary of the Dachau concentration camp. Soon after witnessing Kaufering, Salinger checked himself into Nuremberg civilian hospital, a psychic casualty of the war’s final revelation.”

Is there a soldier who doesn’t have a good luck charm? Salinger’s talisman was his manuscript of stories about Holden and his family, the stories that would become The Catcher in the Rye.

The story opens with what would be one of the most quoted first sentences in American literature if it weren’t so long: “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.”

Then Holden is off, a rebel without a cause, a dreamer who doesn’t so much run away from his latest quasi-military school as wander off in the middle of a snowy night, fleeing from the “phonies.”

(The American Library Association lists Catcher as one of the books most often complained about because of its “offensive language”¾ among other issues. But if I were counting, I’m guessing its repetitions of “phony” outnumber the “goddams.”)

Holden suspects he’s become infected with the virus of phoniness himself, proclaiming, “I"m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life." Worse, he suspects phoniness is an incurable disease of the adulthood he dreads. Even while aping the trappings of maturity, he longs to stave it off, yearning for a Neverland where childhood can be preserved like the dioramas of the Natural History Museum, a yearning that can only lead to his final collapse.

Salinger would return to this nostalgia for youthful innocence and its inevitable loss throughout the remaining three volumes of short stories and novellas that comprise his published work. Returning to it as he fled deeper into his own Neverland of isolation. But is this all there was to Salinger the writer? This and the three other slim volumes of short stories and novellas?

Maybe we’ll find out when his literary trust begins publication of whatever he spent the last half of his life writing. Publication, according to Shields and Salerno, is scheduled to begin sometime between 2015 and 2020.

And by the way, if you’d like a nice house in the country, his is for sale now. It looks lovely at the site. Could there possibly be any Salinger stories hidden away in that basement tunnel whose purpose, the real estate people say, “was never discovered”?

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins an October of Halloween horror with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.”)

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