Thursday, October 15, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

My list of literary crushes from Tuesday is lacking a few noticeable entries. After all, when you read as much as I do, such a list could easily be pages long. But one of the more noteworthy absences was Holden Caulfield, the easily-identifiable hero of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. When I first read this novel at the age of fourteen, I both loved and hated Holden. He was a little annoying, what with his constant use of the word "phoney" and his recklessness. But in him, I also found a damaged fellow teenager who just needed a confidante. And of course, I wanted to be that confidante.

Here's the problem with The Catcher in the Rye. It's a book that can only mean something to you if you read it at the perfect time - say, when you're an uncertain, bookish fourteen-year-old with a love for tragic, sad boys. Unfortunately, the book has not worn well as I've gotten older and more mature. I still like to read it - it's too full of my own youthful anxieties and troubles to discount - but it's lost a lot of its early luster. Holden's voice can grate on the nerves after awhile, and it's easy as an adult to pick apart his overly-simplified arguments. But there are occasionally breathless and beautiful passages that make the book worth every reading. I've probably read the book five or six times in the last nine years, and certain lines or paragraphs still bring me to my knees. I am most moved by the passages in which Holden tries to deal with the death of his younger brother Allie from years earlier. These are raw and terrible emotions, and Salinger does a great job letting Holden unfold them on his own instead of inserting his writerly intuitions of making everything mean something bigger. When Holden begs Allie for help in crossing a street, for example, it's impossible as a passionate reader not to get caught up in the moment and nearly weep for both these lost boys.

Which brings me to my passage of the week. In this scene, Holden is writing an assigned composition for one of his schoolmates, Stradlater. Instead of doing the assignment as asked, Holden instead decides to write about Allie's death. It's a sad, clear passage so steeped in denial and anger and pain that the Reader Who Enjoys Tragedy in me could not resist it.

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

The thing was, I couldn't think of a room or a house or anything to describe the way Stradlater said he had to have. I'm not too crazy about describing rooms and houses anyway. So what I did, I wrote about my brother Allie's baseball mitt. It was a very descriptive subject. It really was. My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder's mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he'd have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up to bat. He's dead now. He got leukemia and died when were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You'd have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren't just shooting the crap. They really meant it. But it wasn't just that he was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest, in lots of ways. He never got mad at anybody. People with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie never did, and he had very red hair. I'll tell you what kind of red hair he had. I started playing golf when I was only ten years old. I remember once, the summer I was around twelve, teeing off and all, and having a hunch that all of a sudden, I'd see Allie. So I did, and sure enough, he was sitting on his bike outside the fence - there was this fence that went all around the course - and 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. God, he was nice kid, though. He used to laugh so hard at something he thought of at the dinner table that he just about fell off his chair. I was only thirteen and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don't blame them. I really don't. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand couldn't do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I'll admit, but I hardly didn't even know I was doing it, and you didn't know Allie. My hand still hurts me once in a while, when it rains and all, and I can't make a real fist any more - not a tight one, I mean - but outside of that I don't care much. I mean I'm not going to be a goddam surgeon or violinist or anything anyway.

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