I’ve spent the past year rereading books I was assigned in high school English, a project that had two consequences. 1) Every great book I heard about this year that I did not read in high school went into a future-read pile that now resembles a sleeping baby rhino in the corner of my bedroom and 2) this year’s reading felt like being ages 16 and 39 at the same time. Which meant I remembered not liking a lot of novels because I had to read/quote from/essay upon them but saw them in the entirely new light of 20 of almost-middle-age adulthood.
My favorite example: The Catcher in the Rye.
Let us ignore that I was that idiot in 10th grade who wore a red earflap hat and trenchcoat for a few weeks because Holden Caufield “understood me” and move to this: How many siblings does Mr. Caufield have? We all remember younger sister Phoebe and probably older brother DB, the one working as a screenwriter out west. But do you remember Holden’s younger brother Allie, who has died recently when the novel opens? In a pivotal scene — the one right before he meets Phoebe at the Natural History Museum — he is wandering Park Avenue, lonesome and heartbroken, and each block reciting “Please Allie, don’t let me die.”
I missed Allie the first 10 times I read Catcher and focused on what everyone else did: That Holden Caufield is a brat, perhaps the ur-pain-in-the-ass-surly teenager to bond with or recoil from. But that stereotype didn’t really exist in the mid 1940s when Salinger conceived of him while enlisted as a soldier, a young man just a bit older than Holden when we witnessed handfuls of his friends die in battle. Holden helped birth the surly-teen generation (he arrived a good few years before rock n’ roll, the panic over juvenile delinquency and Rebel Without a Cause) but came from the one before, who knew the refrain of “please don’t let me die” from Normandy and Dunkirk.
Holden Caulfield may “understand us” when we are lonely, heartbroken teenagers too. He may also seem too embarrassing or stuck in time to revisit as adults. But I was a bit older this round, had some context and the ghost of a dead brother whispering through the pages like a sigh heard in the dark. I may now just think Holden is a kid who is lost in grief. And chances are as we all are a little bit older, we’ve been there too and understand.
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