Daily Archives: January 28, 2010

From the Whatever Archives: “Holden Caulfield in Middle Age”

On the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s passing, I find it appropriate to exhume from the Secret Whatever Archives this essay, entitled “Holden Caulfield in Middle Age” (also available in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which you should buy, damn you). Enjoy.

July 18, 2001

Holden Caulfield turned 50 this last week, and if the imaginary, fictional world in which he lives has any parallel with ours, right about now, he’s got a kid who is now the age Holden was in The Catcher in the Rye, and that kid is just driving him nuts. Wouldn’t that be a kick.

I never got Holden Caulfield anyway. This partially due to having my own reading tastes bend towards science fiction as a teen rather than the genre of Alienated Teen Literature, of which Catcher is, of course, the classic. If you were going to give me a teenage hero, give me Heinlein’s Starman Jones: He traveled the galaxy and memorized entire books of log tables and became Captain of a starship (for procedural reasons, granted). All Holden did was bitch, bitch, bitch. Put Holden at the controls of a starship and he’d implode from stress. Not my hero, thanks.

(Actually, if you’re going to give me a teenage hero, give me Joan of Arc. There’s an achiever for you: Kicks English tail and saves France, despite suffering from profound schizophrenia (Shaw argues that the voices were an expression of the “Evolutionary Appetite,” but in truth, there’s no reason they couldn’t be both). Thank God she wasn’t born in the 20th century; they would have medicated her ass into catatonia, and then the Germans would have been able to roll right over the French forces at the start of WWII! Hmmmmm.)

But it’s also partially due to the nature of Holden, and my own nature as well. Holden is justly famous in the literary pantheon as being the first major teenage literary character to be allowed to note that the world was a tremendously screwed up place, and to have an intellectually appropriate response to that fact. All the other literary teens of the age were solving low-grade mysteries or having boy’s own adventures or what not, and, golly, they were always polite and respectful to their elders. Holden was the proverbial turd in that punchbowl, and arriving as he did in the early 50s, just in time for rock n’ roll and the first mass teen market, he offered the blueprint and pathology for teenage sullenness that’s still fervently followed to this day (although, admittedly, the tattoos and piercings these days are a new touch).

However, I was not especially pained as a teen, and all attempts in that direction ended up as sort of twee, rather than genuinely dark and isolating. It was too bad, really, since I was all set up to accept Holden as a soul mate. I mean, I went to boarding school, I was somewhat sensitive, I had all that bundled up energy of wanting to change the world and not knowing quite how to do it. But I just didn’t have that certain something – mistrust of society, desire for someone to encapsulate all my inexpressible teenage emotions, basically suspicious and snotty nature, or whatever — that would make me go cookoo for Caulfield. I suppose it’s a shortcoming. I failed angst in high school. They let me graduate anyway.

Fact is, I liked neither Holden nor the book. One can recognize the book has a certain literary merit without needing to like the thing, of course. But it’s more to the point to say that Holden has a certain fundamental passivity that I dislike — the desire for people and things to be different without the accompanying acceptance of personal responsibility to effect those changes. To go back to Heinlein and his juvy novels, his teenage characters are not very big on internal lives, but they’re also the sort who go out, do things, fail, do things again, and eventually get it right. Holden merely wishes, ultimately a man of inaction. He’s a failure — a particularly attractive failure if you’re of a certain age and disposition, admittedly, but a failure nonetheless. I remember reading the book as a teen and being irritated with Holden for that reason; I couldn’t see why he required any sympathy from me, or why I should empathize with him.

It’s been a fortunate thing that Salinger has sat back and rested on his increasingly thorny laurels for the last several decades, because in doing so he’s spared us inevitable Catcher sequel, in which we learn whatever happened to that freaky Caulfield kid. Here’s what I think. After a certain amount of time faking being deprogrammed, Holden goes to Brown and after graduation eventually gets a job at an ad firm, where, thanks to his ability to pitch products to “the kids,” he does very well. He gets married, has a couple of kids, gets divorced, becomes a high-functioning alcoholic but is nevertheless eased towards the door with a generous buyout, and after that — well, after that, who cares? Sooner or later, the rest of one’s life becomes a coda.

Big Holden fans will no doubt be upset with the life of hypocritical mediocrity I’ve provided for their anti-hero, but really, unless he committed suicide shortly after the end of the novel (not at all unlikely, given his creator’s literary tendencies), he has to have caved. He was too passive to do otherwise. No Holden fan would be at all satisfied with this, of course — which may be one of the reasons Salinger packed it in. It’s better for everyone involved if Holden’s life coda begins before he’s out of his teens. Everyone walks away happy, except, of course, for Holden himself. But that’s as it should be.

State of the Union 2010

One word: Eh. More words: It was a bit weird; the rhythm was herky-jerky and the audience didn’t seem to know if it wanted to applaud or not in places, and basically the whole thing felt like school play with the main character thrown off his game by no one else knowing their lines. Note this observation has nothing to do with the content, merely the presentation. But the presentation matters, and this was a little off for me.

Content-wise I liked it just fine, which isn’t surprising, since in a general sense I like most of Obama’s policies and platform; it strikes me as generally sensible politically, economically and ethically. But then it would, as I’m cut out of the same moderate-left cloth as he is (note to wingers on both sides: expressing the opinion that Obama is not in fact moderate-lefty in the current US political spectrum, but is instead whatever thing you hate the most, is an IQ test in itself. Try not to fail it). If most of what he proposed got through, I wouldn’t complain.

But Obama’s real problem is not Obama or his own policies; Obama’s real problem is that in Congress, his allies are incompetent cowards and his adversaries are smug dicks. I find it genuinely appalling a Democratic president has to prod his party members in the Senate, with a 59-seat majority, to stop acting like spooked children. The lot of them need to have a stick jammed up their ass, because it’s clear they don’t have much in the way of a spine. As for the Republicans, a recent reader was distressed when I said they were “hopped-up ignorant nihilists,” but you know what, when your Senate operating strategy is “filibuster everything and let Fox News do the rest,” and the party as a whole gives it a thumbs up, guess what, you’re goddamned nihilists. There’s no actual political strategy in GOP anymore other than taking joy in defeating the Democrats. I don’t have a problem with them enjoying such a thing, but it’s not a real political philosophy, or at least shouldn’t be.

The gist of it is that I feel genuinely sorry for Obama that he has to be president in this political climate, with the allies and adversaries he has. He deserves better in both respects, and so do we. As noted before, despite this he’s managed to be pretty effective in his first year, something he doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for, and I do imagine that in the next year he will continue to be so, despite both the Democrats and the Republicans on the hill. For all that, if I have one wish for Obama, it’s that he play harder ball than he’s been content to do so far, and that includes with his own party, not just against the Republicans. He’s from Chicago, he knows how to do it. If he wants to get his State of the Union agenda through in an election year, I suspect he’s going to have to.

The Big Idea: Sara Miles

Where is the story of the world being told? It might be in the place you least expect: far away from news cameras and press releases. Sara Miles finds her work in those margins — she is the founder of the St. Gregory’s Food Pantry in San Francisco — but more than that finds the inspiration and ideas which inform her latest book on faith, Jesus Freak. Below, Miles goes into detail about looking where others don’t to see something new… and explains why doing so may be what we’re meant to do.

SARA MILES:

In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time writing about wars, mostly revolutions and counter-revolutions–– like the ones in El Salvador or the Philippines––and hanging out with soldiers, guerrillas, peasants and death squad members, as well as other journalists. My big idea then was really a technique. If I had to cover what everybody else thought of as the main event––an election, a massacre, a press conference by some crazy general––I’d focus on the stuff that was happening off to the side.

So I’d ignore the official announcements, the formal interviews with important people, and instead I’d chat with the lady mopping up in the back room of the Presidential Palace, or check out which movies were playing next to the Army headquarters, or spend an afternoon drinking Pepsi with guys stuck digging graves on the outskirt of town in the aftermath of a battle. I liked looking at things slant.

As a methodology, this approach kept me interested––even when I came back to the United States and started writing about electoral politics. The official version, prepared by handlers and delivered by hacks, was always just unspeakably dull. The dutiful Q&A was mostly an opportunity to be lied to. But some really funny things happened when nobody was paying attention. (Ask me about the pool party in Silicon Valley where Tipper Gore played drums with an aging Grateful Dead cover band.)

And this approach to writing remained useful when I had a totally unexpected mid-life conversion to Christianity and wrote two books about faith, including my latest, Jesus Freak. In fact, the methodology became an idea.

Because it turns out that God is very much interested in the margins: in the unlikely, ridiculous, and outcast. It turns out that the center of power––military, political or religious––is actually not where most change takes place. And it turns out that Christianity is all about the unexpected.

Think about the prophets with their mad faith the mountains will be flattened and the valleys raised up; think about Mary, with her conviction that the poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. Consider the impossible idea of an almighty God who chooses, of all possibilities, to be born to a shameful unmarried teenage mother in a barn; who scandalizes politicians, priests and his own family; and who spends his time on Earth hanging out with crooked cops, whores, and the dirtiest, least attractive foreigners around. Imagine a God who winds up as a despised, tortured criminal, condemned by religious authorities and executed by the state.

“Look away” is a big idea, if one embraced more by fools and losers than by the smart and powerful of our world. But my experience is that the more I look away from the way things are supposed to be, the more I get to see.

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Jesus Freak: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Jesus Freak. Visit Miles’ food bank.