Brand building through storytelling

Holden Caulfield revisited

My friend Joe had a book to recommend. It would surprise me, he predicted. He used to think he already knew the book—until he reread it with his teenage son. “It’s a different book now,” he said. That’s how I returned, after more than 40 years, to The Catcher in the Rye.

Catcher CoverI must have been 13 when my mother handed me a 50-cent Signet paperback edition of Catcher. What was this, some kind of baseball story? (The guy on the cover had a cap on, backwards.) “I hope you like it,” she said. The last gift she hoped I would like had been a prim button-front dress that I attempted to banish from my closet by spilling India ink all over the skirt. My mother, not about to let a new dress go to waste, promptly set out to dye it black and expected me to wear what she got instead—a withering shade of maroon.

Now she expected me to like this book. A classic, she said. Well, so was Dickens, and his overstuffed novels had nothing to do with me. At least this J.D. Salinger had written something short. As a courtesy to my mother, I flipped to the first line: “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…”

Maynard RonaAge14Yes! Yes! Tell me everything! Tell me about the delusions of grownups, the hollowness of the rituals they use to mark their station. Expose the complacency of kids who aspire to be just like their social-climbing parents. Phonies, the lot of them! Take me inside the bruised and bristling soul of a boy wounded by lies and groping toward the truth. Holden Caulfield (what a beautiful name!), you are my soul mate.

For the next four or five years, I kept rereading The Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s prickly disappointment confirmed my world view, so I craved it the way the jilted crave the same breakup song over and over. (I’d never had a boyfriend to jilt me, which deepened my solitary angst.) I read too fast, skimming to reach my favourite excruciating moments: Holden being lectured by a sickly old blowhard of a prep school teacher who smells of Vicks Vapo Rub; Holden explaining to the prostitute that he can’t do more than talk because of a recent operation on his “clavichord;” Holden buying an obscure record for his beloved kid sister Phoebe, only to break it in his drunken wanderings. Yes, that’s life! Lets you down every time!

Classic literary works are like fascinating, complicated, slightly elusive people: no matter how well you think you know them, there’s always more to discover. If you pay attention, they’ll reveal another nuance—if not half a dozen—on each rereading. I didn’t pay attention in my teens. My focus as a reader was myself, not the book.

Like Holden, I admired books that made me wish the author were my special friend, whom I could call on the phone any time. I used to feel that way about J.D. Salinger. When my obsession shifted from corruption and fakery to thwarted desire, I dropped The Catcher in the Rye for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I decided that Catcher was essentially kid stuff.

Its status in my eyes was not exactly enhanced by a real-life Salinger drama that briefly engulfed my family. When I was 23, Holden’s famously reclusive creator came down from his mountaintop to court my younger sister and sweep her away. He was in his 50s; she was a waifish 19, not much older than his daughter. The affair ended badly. This was the all-knowing friend I had wanted to call on the phone?

I no longer care how famous authors conduct themselves. As long as they captivate me with their words, they can be drunks, womanizers or world-class curmudgeons. I can think of the occasional writer whose work suggests a great gift for heart-to-heart talks with strangers, but Carol Shields is no longer around to take my call.

So it goes. Everything ends. People fail one another. The world is never quite what it seems. That’s why writers feel the need to write—and why, as a more or less grownup reader, I turn to books. A book can’t explain the meaning of life, but a great one can remind me that I’m not alone in my perplexity.

I re-opened The Catcher in the Rye with a twinge of unease. I had loved the book for so long that to judge it harshly would have been to disown a part of myself. But I trusted Joe’s taste, and rightly so. From the very first line, Holden’s voice called to me. He was not the Holden I remembered, though—an innocent too wise for this world.

This time I saw his habitual lying, his petty cruelty and his fatal gift for making the worst of a good thing. When people try to help him, he drives them away, starting with the elderly teacher (in Holden’s eyes, ugly and pathetic; in mine, graceless but caring). Meanwhile he reaches out to those most likely to let him down, from bad-tempered cabbies to the crooked prostitute who rips him off and gets him beaten up by her pimp. Hungry for connection, he’s compelled to choose a deepening loneliness that ultimately leads to a mental institution, where he narrates his tale.

My heart goes out to Holden anyway, for his wild wit and flashes of desperate tenderness. But those qualities aren’t going to save him because the very act of confiding in another human being has become a form of self-torture. Salinger’s conclusion is pitiless: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you’ll start missing everybody.”

Rereading the book in midlife, I finally grasped the poignancy of the title. It refers to Holden’s fantasy of children playing in a field of rye that borders on a cliff. He wants to be the catcher in the rye—the one who saves the children from tumbling to their doom. I could have told you that much back in my teens. I was too young to know that the cliff represents growing up, which Holden dreads more than anything.

When I first discovered Holden Caulfield, I thought I’d never know a more exquisitely painful stage of life than adolescence. I’ve been right about that, so far. But I didn’t know then what a perilous time the teen years can be. I didn’t know that some young people (including two of my high school classmates) will be catapulted into their first psychotic break. I had never heard of eating disorders (my sister would later develop one). I had no idea that suicide is a leading cause of death in adolescence.

Even on my blackest days, I still longed to grow up and become a better class of adult than the phonies I loved to criticize. I still had hope, and it saw me through.

Looking back, I’m amazed that I ever thought of Holden as my missing half. He sees beauty only in childhood; he doesn’t want to leave it behind. His tragedy is that he gets his wish. I’d like to tell myself that what befalls him is only a story. But I can’t.

Posted by Rona 

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.