The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

This 1951 novel is the story of a teenager and New York City. Plus his family and his friends. And a few strangers. Holden Caulfield is a precocious kid, a smart-aleck, and if he is also pretentious it is because he is insecure. Here is a brilliant portrait of adolescence, and one can understand why this work is a favorite of anyone under, say, thirty. When one’s own memories of adolescence are so recent.

But as a novel, this work resembles a one-trick pony. It is the story of Holden and his encounter after encounter with fellow students, professors, distant girl friends, two nuns, three tourist women, a prostitute, and finally his young sister Phoebe. And each meeting underscores Holden’s braggadocio, his immaturity, his false modesty, and his desperation to seek out and connect with someone. That is, each meeting with a different person is a variation on a common theme.

Where is this narrative going, I kept asking myself.

Finally, in the very last scene, with sister Phoebe riding the carousel in Central Park, we realize the sense of family that has been the context of all his interactions. He has been contacting all these people in lieu of his family. And each time, as he rationalizes his failure to connect with someone, he desperately seeks out someone else. He continues to make these attempts because he also seeks a connection that he cannot find with the adult world at home.

Holden has been talking about his parents throughout his narrative, as well as about his brothers, one of whom has died of leukemia, and about Phoebe. But he has been afraid to reach out to his family after being expelled from school for not passing his courses. For being thought as stupid. Which he obviously is not.

So why does he encounter failure when he reaches out to others? Perhaps because it is an adult relationship he seeks, but he is afraid of adulthood. One might add that he is afraid of adulthood because he is afraid of death, which has struck one older brother. But he is also afraid of the sex that represents adulthood and that motivates many of his adventures. And so he puts up a wall of cynicism to protect him from that adulthood.

But did Salinger need almost 300 pages to draw this portrait? Yes, these are brilliant pages. Yes, they perfectly capture a smart but troubled youth. Yes, the adolescent tone is remarkably consistent. But technical virtuosity for me goes only so far. Until the very end, this narrative remains on the surface. Once Holden’s shallowness is established, even with all the variations, the portrait goes no deeper.

The title is symbolic of the pleasures of youth, and of saving youth from entering the false world of adulthood. Holden misinterprets the Robert Burns poem, and dreams of children playing in a rye field at the edge of a cliff; and his job is to save these kids from falling off the cliff, meaning into adulthood. He is the catcher in the rye. One critic even suggests that at the end, Phoebe, although she is just a kid, becomes the catcher, because she has persuaded Holden to give up his naive plan to escape the adult world by fleeing out west and living as a deaf mute (so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone).

At one point, incidentally, Holden defends writing that goes off tangent, and introduces a new, disconnected subject. This to me is an indirect defense of his own narrative here, in which Holden not only seeks different characters to relate to but also introduces new subjects in his conversations with them when the talk is not going in the direction he wishes. Skipping about is also, presumably, the way a restless adolescent mind works.

In passing, I would also note that spiritual references hover over this narrative, as it does in many of Salinger’s works. The events here occur in the days leading up to Christmas, and he comments on Jesus and the Radio City Christmas show. Holden also encounters two nuns, who are portrayed sympathetically. And even the frequent “goddam” remarks remind us of the world of religion, along with a youth pretending to be an adult.

The vernacular, indeed, is characteristic of this book’s style. This work, for example, popularized the word “phony,” representing, according to Holden, anything in the adult world. Another pretense of that adult world is using “old” in front of the names of people he meets. Other choice phrases include “shoot the bull,” “chew the fat,” and “get a kick out of that.” All both reverberate with the times, and re-enforce the adolescence of Holden.

To sum up, the more I think about this novel, and the more critics I read, the more I accept that this is a deeper novel than what I thought it was while reading it. More thought went into Holden’s character than I realized, such as his self-protective alienation to avoid what he called being a phony adult. And I can even see this work’s comparison to The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, because it is narrated by an adolescent and is in the vernacular of the boyhood of its era. But Huckleberry Finn offers us glimpses of the world outside Huck, the social setting in which he lives, while Catcher in the Rye exists entirely within Holden Caulfield himself. It is a portrait of him rather than its era, and it also creates its own style rather than satirizes an earlier literary style.

This work does not prompt me to go back and reread other Salinger work. He is an author for younger readers. Indeed, he seems to have inspired some authors to write similarly about their own youth. But he was writing for another era. His was an era of innocence, an innocence that is captured here, but an innocence that no longer exists, an innocence, indeed, that his book has helped us move beyond. For, in its literature, that innocent world proscribed sex, proscribed profanity, and proscribed rebellion, all of which are abundant here. Yes, those aspects are understated, but Salinger in this work helped to open the literary door to this previously unacknowledged reality. He himself was no phony. (February, 2015)

Someone, by Alice McDermott

I should get tired of writing the phrase: This is a beautiful novel. But I cannot, not when it is a beautiful novel. Even if this 2013 work is not structured, as I prefer, chronologically. Even if it is not concerned with story. Even if it is concerned with just one person, its narrator, Marie, from when she is seven years old to when she is enduring the infirmities of old age.

But even more, I believe, this novel is concerned with life. As personified by Marie. Which is probably the reason for the title: Someone. Marie is someone, someone McDermott makes us concerned about. Not for what she is, as much as for what she experiences. Which is life.

Yes, she is plain and nearsighted. And when jilted by a supposed boy friend, she is near despair. ”Who’s going to love me?” she asks. And her kind brother Gabe answers: “Someone. Someone will.” And, yes, this gives the novel its title; but it is meant to do more, I believe. It is meant to give Marie a more generic life, to make her represent more than herself, to make her represent everyone. To make her represent the life that everyone experiences.

And this is why McDermott does not tell Marie’s story directly. Why she jumps around chronologically. We are not to focus on Marie. We are to focus on the life she lives. As representative of the life we all live.

Not that it is easy to get used to a structure in which childhood, adolescence, motherhood, and old age do not appear in sequence. That is, we experience her first heartbreak and her eventual marriage; her brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest, his loss of his vocation, and his breakdown; her parents’ deaths; her “temporary” ten-year job in a funeral home; life at home with squabbling children; and the changing world of Irish-Americans. Marie labels everyone as fools for thinking anyone cares about us in a world in which we are victims of suffering, injustice, and mortality. But the novel suggests many do care. And the life of fools that we endure is a condition of this life that the novel celebrates.

Because Marie’s story is not told in sequence, we read of her pregnancy before her marriage, of her grown children before she gives birth. As a result, we read to learn not what will happen next to Marie, but to learn how what has already happened grew out of her earlier life. Thus, there is a different kind of suspense, based on a different kind of reader curiosity.

As with life, this novel reaches no conclusion. The ending recalls the opening pages, but what really happens when Marie recalls the death of a childhood friend from a fall on cellar stairs, as she herself climbs down her stairs in the dark? Is it that she has just helped to protect her brother Gabe’s life? And now: “We’ll see what happens next.” Who knows? Just as I was not sure why her beloved brother left the priesthood and later was confined to an asylum. Yes, there were hints and rumors, but, as in life, there are no sure answers; and McDermott offers an anecdote by husband Tom to stress this.

It also happens that Gabe is the most interesting character here, undoubtedly because he changes and yet there is no explanation for those changes. Because of the author’s skill and compassion, however, we feel not frustration as a reader but a greater understanding of Marie’s own concern.

One can only conclude that this uncertainty is part of the ordinary life that the author is depicting here. For that ordinariness is at the heart of this novel. Indeed nothing extraordinary occurs here—nothing besides death, childbirth, madness, and love—that would make Marie’s life different from any other. And the key to conveying that ordinariness is a prose style that is simple, that itself is ordinary, that focuses on the presumably insignificant details, on intimate family scenes, on familiarity with both physical and emotional pain, and, overall, on an empathy for the human condition.

Kevin Spinale sums this up in America. “It is the story of woman’s life—someone named Marie.…Yet, the majority of the story is empty, emphasizing the beauty of the story that is given—how fragile and subtle someone’s life is. How indefinite and ordinary and beautiful anyone’s life can be, if there is someone, anyone with whom one can share it.”

And Roxanna Robinson adds in the Washington Post: “Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief. Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom and caritas, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.”

This is not a novel that required research, or a special knowledge. It simply required a way of life to have been lived, and then to capture it in a simple prose that matches its subject matter. It required a middle-class Catholic life lived among a changing urban society. And an author who understands, identifies with, and sympathizes with that way of life.

Interestingly, this is a novel written out of a Catholic sensibility but not one in which Catholicism plays a major role. Its heroine Marie, indeed, rebels against her faith’s restrictions, just as she does against the conventional wisdom of others, including her parents and her doctors. Even when her brother Gabe leaves the priesthood, it is accepted rather than explored.

In an interview, McDermott calls herself a contrarian. One wonders how much her Catholicism has contributed to that sense of herself. For the Catholic way of life is not only separate from the mainstream of traditional American society, it is also out of the mainstream of the traditional literary world. Catholics, with their own values, look at life differently. And surely this novel looks at an American life differently from most current novels. I refer not to the structure but to the ordinary life shown here in that structure.

To sum up, may this not be the capstone of McDermott’s career. But it could be. For it simplifies a novel down to its basics. It is about one life, and yet about all lives. It focuses on the ordinary, but the ordinary that encompasses all our lives. It is about the limitations to our knowledge of others, rather than the usual omnipotent delineation of others by the author. And it is about writing simply, without the flourishes of an author calling attention to herself. (July, 2014)