Holden's Children

In one of my favorite young adult novels ever, Celine, by Brock Cole, Celine Morienval just can’t seem to make herself rewrite her paper on The Catcher in the Rye. Here’s her brisk take on J.D. Salinger’s classic:

It’s about this boy who is terribly sensitive and is having trouble adjusting to the world. His name is Holden Caulfield and I don’t very much like him because I think he whines just a little too much, and sometimes when he says this very moving stuff I definitely have the feeling that he is congratulating himself on what a sweet, misunderstood kid he really is. (As I think of it, I realize that he would probably admit I’m right, and that he is just a rotten phony like everybody else. He would feel good about admitting this for a while, and then realize that that made him a sort of phony to the second power…honestly, he wears me out.)

The funny thing is that I’d forgotten all about that part of Celine when I sat down to write this post in memory of Salinger, who died this Wednesday. What I remembered—and what Celine doesn’t realize—is that even though she dislikes him, she is just like Holden Caulfield in so many ways: she’s a smart, sensitive, wry 16-year-old who is quietly appalled by the selfishness and hypocrisy of the adults around her, and who is basically alone in the world. Like Holden, who finds redemption only in childhood—in memories of his dead brother Allie, and in his very much alive little sister Phoebe--Celine comes to rely on the no-holds-barred truth-telling of her 8-year-old neighbor, Jake, who’s been dumped on her by his distracted divorcing parents. In fact, if you really want to know, the real reason Celine can’t write about Holden Caulfield is that Celine IS Holden Caulfield. Or at least a very, very close relative.

And she’s not alone. Every year or two, it seems, some new young adult novel is compared to The Catcher in the Rye, which, even though it was meant for an adult audience at its first publication, has come to be considered the first work of what’s now called young adult fiction. Salinger’s best-loved young characters, in Catcher and in his short stories, long to be special, to live exceptional lives, and then despise themselves for that very longing, for their egotism and attachment to the world, for their looming ordinariness. And while the period details might change, that kind of angst—and  fiction chronicling it—are now perennials in the landscape of adolescent literature.

Probably the book that’s been mentioned in connection with Salinger most often in recent years is The Perks of Being a Wallflower; the author, Stephen Chbosky, has called out The Catcher in the Rye as an influence, and his introverted, alienated, hero has a lot in common with Holden Caulfield. But for my money, James Sveck, the narrator of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You, comes even closer: like Holden, James is lonely, cynical, and reeling from a grief he barely mentions and masks with caustic wit. Salinger’s hero wants to “build myself a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life;” James is convinced that if he can just buy a house in a small town in the Midwest, instead of going to college and learning a lot of useless stuff, he can escape the messy hypocrisy he sees all around him, and live happily. Would that it were that simple for either of them.

John Green, who has posted a stunningly smart analysis of Catcher in the Rye in a series of three videos, is a very, very, very Salinger-eque writer. His books are painful and funny and incisive, and his teenage characters throw themselves into the big questions, like: can we ever truly know another person? Is the pain of life worth it at all? And, what does it all mean? The tormented title character of Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska, is probably the most like Holden Caulfield; but Colin Singleton, hero of An Abundance of Katherines, is my favorite.  Like the children of the Glass family, featured in Franny and Zooey and a number of Salinger’s short stories, Colin is a former child prodigy who finds himself panicking—and delving into a flurry of anagrams and far-fetched mathematical models--at the prospect of becoming an ordinary, non-prodigious adult.

There’s more. Much more. Salinger himself, who’s so strongly associated with a certain style of realistic fiction about wealthy, white, mostly male New Yorkers, could never have predicted the range of his influence. There’s a little bit of Holden in the dissolute, tormented hero of the futuristic Feed, by M.T. Anderson, and in Coe Booth’s Tyrell, who’s desperate to protect his little brother from the meanness of the world in general and their Bronx homeless shelter in particular. Cyd Charisse, who gets kicked out of her boarding school and heads for New York City in Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn, is a Salinger relative for sure, as is Cameron Smith, the cynical Mad-Cow-Disease-stricken hero of Libba Bray’s 2010 Printz-winning Going Bovine.

I don’t know if the authors of most of the books listed here would claim Salinger as an influence, or if they even like his stories. All I know is that, as a 30-year Salinger fan, what I love about these books, and about much young adult literature, is what speaks to me in the best of his writing: the way it takes on, along with the scorn so many young people feel for the compromises that almost invariably accompany adulthood, a wholehearted yearning of for a kind of purity of soul, and a struggle to figure it all out and live a life that has meaning.  Whether in 1940’s New York or 21st-century Texas or a future dystopia on the moon, those struggles, and the poignancy and appeal of the characters who embody them, don’t go away.

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