Someone to Run With, by David Grossman

This is a fine novel from 2000 about two teenagers caught in the underworld of Jerusalem. It begins: “A dog runs through the streets, a boy runs after it.” The boy, Assaf, belongs to a poor family, and has a summer job with the city. The dog, a yellow Lab, is Dinka, and belongs to the teenage girl, Tamar. Actually, she has lost the dog before the novel begins, and on the opening pages Assad is following the dog as she seeks out her mistress’ former haunts.

We thus confront a simple beginning, but a complicated novel, complicated because its story does not does not flow in sequence. It is told in different time frames, switching us back and forth between Assaf and Tamar. And to compound the confusion that Tamar’s story has happened before Assaf’s begins, we learn in progressively slow stages why Tamar and Assaf are even doing what they are doing. Indeed, Tamar’s story has nothing to do with her dog. Dinka is simply with Tamar as the girl attempts to join an underground street gang for, at first, unknown reasons. In sum, it is not easy to adjust to the fact that the first story, Assaf’s, is actually happening after the story of Tamar, which soon dominates the novel.

And so while we begin with Assaf running through the streets behind Dinka, who is looking for her mistress, it is really Tamar who is the main character, as well as a more complex character. At first, we do not even know why she wishes to catch the attention of the gang, why she wants to be invited to join it. Slowly, we gather that she wishes to rescue someone in the gang and that she is desperate to do so. But all we know about this gang is that it is run by hard-nosed Pesach, a Russian thug who distributes drugs and sends young runaways out into the streets to perform and collect donations, while gang leaders pick the pockets of those who stop to listen or watch.

But Tamar realizes that the only way she can get inside the gang is to be invited, and so she offers her talent as a brilliant singer. It is a dangerous decision, for once you are in the gang it is difficult to leave. And we do not understand her decision to join, moreover, until she starts planning the rescue. And only when we know whom she wishes to rescue do we realize the reason for her commitment. Much less, the difficulty she faces in rescuing this victim who has been seduced through drugs into joining the gang.

Meanwhile, we keep switching into the future to follow Assaf as Dinka leads him to clue after clue in the search for her owner. And Assaf himself receives, like the reader, a tour of seedy Jerusalem and an introduction to a range of unusual characters. These alternate time frames are somewhat confusing for a while, but each teenager is so well drawn (Tamar, an extrovert, older and wiser than her years, and the introvert Assaf, an innocent confronting the darker side of the city), that both come alive in their world of self-doubt. And so well captured is the desperation of the victims Tamar finds caught in the gang, and so well captured is Assaf’s innocence as he encounters Jerusalem’s unknown world, that we are caught up in both their tales.

What is most remarkable about this novel is that the two main characters meet only at the novel’s climax. Otherwise, they do not know that each other exists. Yet in their yearning, in their search for fulfillment, in their idealism, they seem meant for each other, and the reader cannot wait for them to finally meet. But, of course, the entire structure of the novel has been created to keep them apart. They exist, after, all in two time frames.

This becomes a story of love on many levels. It begins with Dinka’s love of her mistress, as well as Tamar’s love of her dog. It is even more Tamar’s love of her family, since the main action of the novel is built around both the rescue of a loved one and her effort to weed him from drugs. And, finally, there is the burgeoning love of Tamar and Assaf, as each finds in the other what has been missing from their lives, essentially a tenderness that breaks through the hard shell they have built around themselves to survive.

As for love at the family level, it exists in both Tamar’s and Assaf’s family, even though a few do not recognize it. There is even love within the gang’s victims, especially between Tamar and her roommate Sheli. And Assaf has his friend Rhino, who will play a crucial role at the end.

That ending, in fact, is for me the only mis-step in the novel. It is too dramatic, almost soap-operatic, in its turn of events. In particular, its drama contrasts with the development of a tender relationship between Tamar and Assaf, a relationship that seems headed for love, until rudely interrupted. And I was not convinced by either that interruption or the fortuitous rescue that followed. At least, the novel ends on a grace note, as Grossman returns to the possibility of love. The last sentence reads: “Tamar noticed that she had never met a person she felt so comfortable being silent with.”

While some have considered this a young adult novel, the Germans even honoring it as such, it is also a valid adult novel. It simply has two teenage protagonists. And if the movement is fast-paced, to appeal to a younger audience, the novel also probes its characters’ interior lives as well as tension within the contemporary Jewish society in which they live.

Grossman has also been criticized for continuously withholding information from the reader. To enhance the suspense. To entice younger readers who are more interested in plot than in character. The Times reviewer Claire Messud writes: “As readers, we are being toyed with.” She also writes of the author’s manipulation of his two heroes: “Where are the parents of these young people? Why aren’t their surrogate guardians more attentive?… Grossman’s tale requires that Tamar and Assaf be independent agents in order that they may fulfill their respective quests and (inevitably) find each other.”

To me, this is accurate, but unfair. We would not have a story if the lead characters were not on their own. They would not have the independence that leads them to one another. Nor the recognition that they complement one another. We would have an adventure story without a love story. We would have a young adult novel rather than an adult novel. This is not Grossman’s only novel, incidentally, about the search for love. (September. 2016)

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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)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)