Sleepless with Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”

There are advantages to battling sleeplessness, I suppose; one of those advantages is rereading great novels. I came across an old paperback of Salinger’s lacerating, hilarious, façade-shattering masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye in, of all places, Iraq. I’d read The Catcher in the Rye twice before, but this rereading was the most meaningful so far. C.S. Lewis, another enduring favorite for me, touched on the value of rereading great books: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” Yes and amen. But how is Catcher great? In at least two ways, Catcher is a remarkable piece of fiction: 1) Salinger’s mastery of tone and 2) the way in which he explores how the sensitive person (artist/writer/musician, etc.) sees the nuances, details, and beauties in life that the mass of humanity tramples upon. This sensitivity to nuances alienates Holden from the less perceptive people around him.

First, Holden Caulfield is one of the most realized and believable characters with regard to tone in all of serious literature. He is as real to me as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, as real as Emma Bovary, as real as Santiago on his boat, as real as David Copperfield coming into his own, as real as Lear as he goes mad before his own family and kingdom, as real as Scout and Jem, as they gossip about Boo Radley.

Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old boy, repeatedly expelled from prep school. Why? He doesn’t apply himself, as the adults in his life tell him. He does not play by the rules. He neglects most of his class assignments and focuses instead on writers and books he particularly appreciates (Thomas Hardy’s novels, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc.).

Holden passes his English classes, but even in those, his mind wanders too much; he neglects the discipline required to succeed in the prep school system. He learns more through self-study than he ever does in the classroom. He obsesses (not too strong a word?) about particulars and details 99% of the other students and faculty never notice and/or suppress. (More on this idea below.) But Holden’s speech and mind are believable.

In the passage below, Holden is visiting with his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who has awarded Holden an “F” for his (Holden’s) admittedly shoddy work in class. Listen to the way Holden’s mind works:

Well, you could see he [Mr. Spencer] really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would’ve done the same thing if I’d been in his place, and how most people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.

   The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. (pp. 12-13)

Holden knows his own immaturity with regard to his poor academic performance, but he respects the humanness of Mr. Spencer. He has connected with him in spite of not doing well in his class. Moreover, Holden’s thoughts are preoccupied with the ducks. Who cares for them? Of course any number of connections about providence may be asked here. Is there a caring God over all or are the ducks (and all of the cosmos by extension) alone?

And then, after we as readers sense Holden’s fatal flaw (he retreats from “the system” instead of accepting it, and making the best of it), we see how attuned and compassionate Holden is vis-a-vis his concern for the ducks in Central Park. Where do they go in winter, when the lagoon is frozen over?

How many 16-year-old boys’ minds work like that? You see a boy who uses words like “lousy” and “moron.” But then he frets over delicate creatures. Questions of providence, or the lack thereof, might be asked here.

Another scene where’s Holden’s tone is artfully displayed comes when he’s in New York City. He’s lonely for girls. (Remember, he’s sixteen.) He flirts with some fatuous girls in a hotel and dances with them. But inside, he knows he’s frittering his time because they’ve nothing to offer him. They are part of the “phonies,” too. The irony, of course, is that Holden is often likewise phony towards others. Listen to Salinger’s mastery of tone:

The one ugly one, Laverne, wasn’t too bad a dancer, but the other one, old Marty, was murder. Old Marty was like dragging the Statue of Liberty around the floor. The only way I could even half enjoy myself dragging her around was if I amused myself a little. So I told her I just saw Gary Cooper, the movie star, on the other side of the floor.

     “Where?” she asked me—excited as hell. “Where?”

     “Aw, you just missed him. He just went out. Why didn’t you look when I told you?”

She practically stopped dancing, and started looking over everybody’s heads to see if she could see him. 

“Oh, shoot!” she said. I’d just about broken her heart—I really had. I was sorry as hell I’d kidded her. Some people you shouldn’t kid, even if they deserve it. (p. 75)

Secondly, Salinger explores the deeper issues of Holden’s character. Salinger is suggesting something about the role of the artist in the world. He (the artist) differs from the masses of humanity in that he notices what most never consider and/or suppress. Holden is sensitive to the power of genuine friendship (his relationship with Mr. Spencer, e.g.) innocence (his sister Phoebe, e.g.) and to the vast difference between artifice (what Holden calls “phony”) and the genuine.

Allie, Holden’s deceased younger brother, exemplified the genuine—but he is gone. Allie had a baseball glove that he’d written poems on, and he’d read them when he was in the outfield. Now ask yourself: what would you think of a kid with poetry written on his baseball glove? Exactly. Seems odd. Sissy, perhaps. And if you thought that, you’re playing right into Salinger’s hands.

He is suggesting something about the life of the artist. He (the artist/Holden-like, Allie-like) is an exile in a kingdom that thrives on artifice. He is a rebel doubly cursed because he feels the thorns of life.

When phonies rule the world, where does the artist go? Holden’s repeated flight is a sad commentary on Salinger’s views with regard to that question. The fact that Salinger walled himself off from public life for most his writing life after his military service is not irrelevant here. Perhaps only Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy have been more guarded.

This idea of the artist’s predicament is powerfully captured in the poem “What’s Wrong with Me” by Chase Twichell. Twichell writes of a sick coyote “ . . . crossing the field, /poisoned, injured, rabid, old, the rest of the pack anxious,/yipping and howling back and forth/across the valley as dusk comes on. What’s wrong with me is that/I find their music beautiful. I dwell on it long after it stops/and in the silence afterward I write down its words.” That is haunting and beautiful. Both the images and sounds recorded, and the fact that a person takes notice and subsequently labors to preserve that pathos, are noteworthy. He puts words to paper to capture the power of the cries of a hurt coyote, of the pack yelping, and of the sun sinking another day.

Holden Caulfield is like the speaker in this poem. He notices what most would bypass, as they go on to the next distraction. Yet he’s caught in a dilemma: how does one fight for the genuine and enduring in a world obsessed with artifice and the temporal?

Holden Caulfield is believable because Salinger was a master of tone (he attended to what the mouth reveals about the heart), and through The Catcher in the Rye, we are blessed with not only a master of narrative tone/voice, but also by one with a narrative exploration of how life cheapens or deepens, depending upon our view of aesthetics.

 

Lily’s Return

Vehicles of every make and model were parked in Beulah’s parking lot when Lily returned. She pulled her Honda into a space, grabbed her iPhone, and exited her car. Donald stood outside Beulah’s white doors, smiling at her. He wore black Florsheim shoes with a silver buckle on top, gray slacks, gray shirt, and black blazer. When Lily reached him and went to shake his hand, she caught the scent of Jergens. “Welcome back,” he said, and hugged her.

“Thank you, Donald. I’ll explain later.”

“The congregation is still singing. Come on in. You can sit with us if you like.”

“I’ve caused you enough worry this morning. I’m okay, Donald. I’ll find some folks from Covenant to sit with. Okay?” Donald smiled an avuncular gentle smile, and nodded his head.

Lily walked across the foyer and peered into the sanctuary. She saw Mrs. Ellen Aims. She thought of sitting near her but changed her mind. She looked for Nathanael. Finally she spotted him. He sat near Tim, the Sunday school teacher. Beth Aims and Desiree Dramal sat on the other side of Tim.

The congregation appeared to be between songs, and was now seated. The pastor shared announcements with the church body. Donald walked towards his wife, and Lily moved towards Nathanael.

“May I?” Lily asked. Nathanael looked up and stood.

“Of course.”

Lily moved in and took her place. Nathanael, unlike his aunt, eschewed public drama. Lily sat next to Nathanael, until the music leader asked the congregation to stand again to greet one another, and then sing again. As everyone stood, Lily felt eyes upon her. Nathanael turned to shake hands with Beulah’s members and guests, then shook Lily’s hand again.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Nathanael said.

“As am I,” she said. “Thank you for …”

As Nathanael was about to speak, Beth Aims’ voice jangled.

“Miss Rood, you’re back,” Beth said.

“It seems so.”

“Some of us thought you’d run off,” said Beth smiling maliciously.

“No, I only forgot something,” Lily said. “But I’m back now.”

Beth’s smiled disappeared. Her lips closed over white daggers. She turned to Desiree, whispered something, and they both turned their faces away as if to sing.

(To be continued)

 

 

Lily At Home

The End of the Matter (Part two)

Lily fled hearing only her own footsteps. “I will be maligned,” she thought. Her pulse thrashed within her eardrums in ridicule. “They will mock me.” She hoped to evade Donald or any other deacons in Beulah’s foyer who might still be welcoming congregants. She thrust one of Beulah’s front doors open. The morning sun blinded her for several steps as she pressed towards her small car. When she entered, she realized she had left her iPhone on the chair inside.

Moments later her apartment came in view. She opened her door, dropped her purse and keys on the kitchen table, and collapsed onto her Queen Anne chair. Alice’s book about hearing from God lay upon the kitchen tabletop. Powerless, she bent forward over her knees and wept into her hands. Several minutes passed. She went to her bathroom and cleared her nose. She stared at her swollen eyes in her mirror. She crossed her apartment again and lay upon her bed and stared at the books upon her nightstand. She longed to be on the moors with Catherine and Heathcliff rather than in Glim with Beth Aims and Desiree Dramal. If Michael saw me now, he would say I look like Miss Havisham, she thought. She was surrounded by literary ghosts, she believed, visible only to her.

“Ms. Rood? May I come in?” Nathanael spoke firmly but calmly from outside her front door.

Lily shook and leapt from her bed and dashed towards her mirror.

“Nathanael?”

“Yes. You forgot your phone. May I come in?”

“How did you know where I lived?”

“Ms. Rood. I’m the headmaster. May I come in, please?”

When Lily opened her apartment door, Nathanael looked at her with complete solicitude. “Thank you. Your phone.”

“Thank you. Come in. I…am sorry, Nathanael. I don’t know—“

Nathanael took a couple of steps into the small foyer where he could see into Lily’s kitchen and into the living room. Books lined the walls. Surrounded by thousands of pages of words, yet she could not speak.

“It is alright. I am not here to pry. You have your reasons. Now you have your phone. I will return to Beulah.”

He turned to Lily’s front door. “I’m glad you’re at Covenant. We are better because of your presence. I remember my English teacher when I was your students’ age. Mr. Winthrop used to read Faulkner’s acceptance speech. He’d read those words about how ‘ . . . the basest of all things is to be afraid . . .'” and Nathanael ceased and turned to leave. Lily had read the same words to her students. Alice’s book lay upon her kitchen table like an oracle. Bronte, Woolf, and the Bard lay upon her nightstand, and Nathanael had come and was now departing, smiling solicitously at her. Already she bore the gravity of his absence.

Hearing with Faith

Lily twitched birdlike at Nathanael’s touch. Nathanael was refined in his speech and manners, so Lily was embarrassed at her nervousness. The cantaloupe in her throat swelled.

“I did not mean to startle you,” Nathanael said softly, as Beth prattled.

“I’m sorry. Yes, Glim is fine. Finding my way, you know, my place.”

From his stool, Tim saw Beth make herself the focus of attention again but he was patient.

“Yes, of course. Desiree, welcome back. We are thankful you have come. And Alice, welcome,” Tim said.

Beth sat with both legs pressed firmly onto the classroom floor, arms akimbo on her hips, waiting for Tim to congratulate her.

“And Lily, welcome to you again, too. We are grateful you have all come. I think everyone else is our marrow. Glad to be gathered with you all,” Tim continued.

Beth glowered at Tim, crossed her arms over her chest, and the sleeve of bracelets on her arms looked to Lily like a brass Slinky toy.

Lily’s eyes twinkled when she looked amusingly at Nathanael. He sat composed with his coffee, apparently thankful for Tim’s acumen.

“We will resume in the story of Ruth this morning,” Tim said. He had a worn Bible on the music stand serving as a lectern and colored Post-its and bookmarks taped throughout with annotations. Suddenly Lily thought of her own Bibles and books of literature and writing in her classroom and in her apartment with their notes and her musings on her reading. She warmed to Tim more each time she came to Beulah.

“Let’s review, shall we? First, there was a famine in Judah, the hometown region, if you will, of the main characters—Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Naomi, along with her husband and two sons, travels to Moab out of desperation. The sons married Moabite women. But Naomi’s husband and two sons die, and she is left with two Moabite daughters-in-law. She is a widow in the ancient Near East. She had gone seeking relief from the famine and instead found herself a widow, a decade later, with daughters-in-law, bereft, and longing to return to her home back in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah.”

“As I said last time, Tim. Remaining at home and fighting for what’s yours is often the best way. That’s what Naomi should have known,” Beth interjected.

“Really?” Tim asked. “You think that’s what is going on here? After all, Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, was taking his wife, Naomi, and their two sons to Moab in hopes of providing for them because there was a famine in Judah. Yet you think Naomi should have remained in a barren land to fight for what was hers? What exactly was hers? And what would she have been fighting for?”

Lily and Nathanael smiled to themselves and fought the urge to look at Beth.

“I just know that moving away does not win any victories,” Beth exclaimed.

Looking up from his Bible, Tim asked, “Do others have thoughts about this? Would Naomi, as Beth suggested, have been better off to remain and, as she said, fight?”

Nathanael sipped his coffee as if pleased with the class’s silent response. Lily stared at the empty seat between Nathanael and her; she wished it were not there.

“Tim, I know I’m a guest, but I see something here.” It was Alice.

“Yes, what is it, Alice?”

“It reminds me of a book I read recently about hearing from God.”

“Can you explain? I’m not sure I follow you.”

“Naomi was learning that hearing from God involves trusting his nature, especially when tragedy strikes.”

“That is excellent, Alice. Can you continue?”

“Naomi and her family were desperate. They left looking to God to provide for them. She was doing what any reasonable believer should do—go. Go, but go trusting God.

“And as she went, more tragedy struck. The men in her life died and she was now more destitute. But she was about to hear from God, even through the tragedies, right?”

“It is as you say, Alice. Thank you for that,” Tim said.

Lily pictured the unread book about hearing from God on her kitchen table and burned in shame.

(To be continued)

 

 

 

The Lump

Lily’s Adam’s apple transformed into a cantaloupe, she believed. Suddenly she felt unable to swallow. Beth’s voice crashed inside Lily’s ears and the ruined hair appeared garish gold under the Sunday school room’s fluorescent lights.

“Good morning, Alice. It’s nice to see you,” Lily said.

“You bet!” Alice said smiling.

Lily turned next to greet Desiree Dramal but was interrupted.

“Looks like someone finally got to a classroom before you,” Beth said. “I came early with two of my oldest friends.”

Lily smiled in silence at Beth.

“Ms. Rood, have you been visiting Beulah long?” Desiree Dramal asked.

“Since moving to Glim, yes,” Lily said. “And you?” Lily longed to elude being the subject of public conversation.

Desiree shifted one long leg six inches behind her as if she were coiling to strike. “Not exactly, Ms. Rood. My family and I are members of Beulah but we don’t feel obligated to attend as if that were more pleasing to God. We know better.”

Lily felt the cantaloupe in her throat again. Is it possible, she wondered, for Beth Aims and Desiree Dramal to be more loathsome? Did evil replicate more than good?

“Lily, welcome back. I’m glad to see you have met some more new friends.” Tim had seen Lily enter and disappear into the den of Beth, Desiree, and Alice.

“Thank you, Tim. I was eager to hear you teach again,” ignoring the part about new friends.

“We’ll be in Ruth again, okay. Anyway, I’ll let you ladies continue. Just wanted to welcome you back.” Tim walked back over towards his stool and lectern. Lily glimpsed Nathanael sitting where he had sat before when his parents came. Nathanael sat sipping coffee in equipoise and resumed a subdued conversation with Tim. Nathanael looked at Lily and smiled and said “Good morning” silently with his lips.

“Lily, sit here by Beth, Desiree, and me,” Alice said. “I saved a seat for you.”

“Thank you, Alice, but I was sitting over there this morning,” nodding in the direction of Tim and Nathanael.

“It’s okay, Alice. Not to worry,” Beth said. “We’ll see Ms. Rood soon enough.”

“You bet, Lily,” Alice said.

Lily walked over towards Nathanael and sat next to him with one seat empty between them, opened her Bible app again on her phone, and felt stares upon her. When she looked over towards Alice in hopes she had not hurt her feelings, Desiree Dramal had her right leg twisted around her left one like wild ivy vines around a tree. Lily felt the cantaloupe in her throat.

“Good morning, everyone,” Tim said, settling onto his stool behind a black music stand serving as a lectern. “What an impressive group we have this morning.” Lily felt her throat muscles begin to relax when the sound of metallic bracelets filled the air.

“Tim, I wanted everyone to see two of my dearest friends—Desiree and Alice. Please make them feel welcome,” Beth interjected.

Lily’s cantaloupe pushed against the walls of her throat as Nathanael touched her on the shoulder.

“Good morning, Ms. Rood. Glim treating you well so far?”

(To be continued)

 

 

 

 

Sunday Morning

Lily awoke in the predawn. Mauve light bathed her bedroom walls and bed. She cherished early hours, especially sunrises, as if they declared messages. Her worn copy of Wuthering Heights had tumbled onto the bedroom floor beside the bed. Lily leaned over the side of her bed and retrieved the novel. She placed it on her nightstand beside the other books. She showered and dressed for Beulah. She brewed coffee and toasted an English muffin for breakfast. Finally she brushed her teeth and checked herself in her bathroom mirror again before driving to Beulah.

When she arrived at church, several cars were there. Deacons and elders, she assumed, came early to prep the classrooms and church grounds for Sunday’s services. The sun grew higher in eastern sky. Lily planned to sit in her car to gather her thoughts before going to Tim’s class. She opened her purse, retrieved her iPhone and checked her Bible app. She began to read. Suddenly the shadow of someone darkened her side of her small car, startling her. She looked up nervously from her car. Donald smiled down at her. Lily smiled and exhaled. She opened her car door and grabbed her phone.

“I hope I didn’t scare you, Miss Rood,” Donald said. “I saw you pull in and thought I’d be sure you were okay.”

“I won’t lie. You did scare me, but I’m glad it’s you,” Lily said.

“Hopefully coming to Beulah does not frighten prospects,” Donald said, smiling. “May I walk you in?”

“Yes, yes. Please. No, I enjoy Beulah very much, but I had some interesting encounters at Glim’s Wal-Mart. I’m skittish now.”

“Wal-Mart? Well, I’ve lived here before Wal-Mart came, and I went there as often before they came as I have since.”

Uncertain whether she understood Donald, Lily smiled and raised her eyebrows to signal him to continue.

“I’m a farmer, Miss Rood. Well, I was. Now my boys run it. For me, Wal-Mart signals a huge shift, one I’m not sure I’m fond of.”

“I see.”

“But you said you had an interesting encounter? I hope you were not in danger,” Donald said.

“I was accused by a couple of hitting their car door with my car door in the parking lot,” Lily said, “but I didn’t. I parked about as far away from the front as possible and this couple parked right beside me when there must’ve been four acres of parking lot they could have used.”

“Sounds like there’s more to this, Miss Rood. Perhaps we can continue over coffee this week with Thomas, if you have time,” Donald said. He opened the church doors for Lily and they both entered Beulah’s narthex.

“I’d welcome that, Donald. Thank you. I know where Tim’s class is, so I’ll go on alone. I’m good now.”

Donald extended his hand and Lily inhaled the Jergens.

“Is it okay with your wife if I hug you?” Lily asked.

“I’m old enough to be your father, dear. I don’t think there’s any danger of jealousy.”

When Lily turned towards Tim’s classroom down the corridor, she heard voices issuing from within. She checked her iPhone to confirm it was on silent mode and crossed into the class, looking for Tim and Nathanael.

“Lily!” Beth said. “Welcome back. So glad you came again. I’ve brought two of my oldest friends. You know Desiree and Alice, of course.”

(To be continued)