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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My problem with Catcher in the Rye


        
I finished reading the book last night.  It took me three nights; I couldn’t just skim it.  I started reading the words, looking for clues.

I last read Catcher in the Rye in the early sixties, early on in college.  I was so naïve in those days whole concepts were explained to me.  “Stoned,” for instance, on the release of one of Bob Dylan’s songs.  Holden Caulfield’s ideas are straightforwardly complex; I know I didn’t need any code words explained.  I read the book, probably wrote a required composition on adolescent issues, probably concluding Holden would join the adult world and be no different than the rest of us. 

Remembering only a kid who was affluent enough to live on his own in New York City for two days, I started in again.  I ploughed two thirds through before I could begin to engage with the book.  An alert here; Holden had a brother who died at a young age, and I also have a brother who died too young.  Holden’s Allie died of leukemia around eleven years of age, I believe.  My brother Melvin took his own life at age twenty nine.  The book began having parallels for me.

Holden was troubled about Allie almost from the beginning, and as his state of mind became more obvious, I thought about my brother troubled over his beautiful daughter becoming deaf at six months.  One of Holden’s escapes was alcohol, my brother’s was street drugs.  Probably a drug added to marijuana, PCP, triggered my brother’s paranoia and mania.

When Holden walked from the bar, too drunk to be functioning, asking Allie to get him across the streets and down the blocks, the book finally engaged me as a treatise on mental illness.  I remembered my brother’s despair at the treatment of bi-polar disorder in the 1970’s.  The drugs that made him “sane” kept him asleep day and night.  Without them he could be violent.  And, he was a big man, over six feet, broad shoulders, curly blond hair, cornflower blue eyes that twinkled, an impish smile.
 
Mel sat at my kitchen table one day that spring of 1976.  We were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking about his illness.  “I’ll never be Melvin again, will I?” he asked.   I knew he wouldn’t, but, of course, I lied.  I figured he’d be someone, and Mel trying to be Mel was OK with me
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It didn’t work out any way.  He closed his garage door, started the car, put all his music on and laid back and listened to the end. 

I was grateful Holden’s planned withdrawal from the world would be as a deaf mute, a plan so unworkable I had to smile at teen age angst.  And that Holden felt enough responsibility for Phoebe not to draw her into his eight dollar plan of running away.  We still end with Holden sitting in the California sanitarium finishing out J.D. Salinger’s cliff hanger:  will he go over the edge or not?  All these years later, I don’t know.  I’ll be interested in my grandson’s take on this one.




17 comments:

  1. Very sorry to hear about your brother.

    It sounds like Catcher in the Rye really resonated with you after you'd lived your life some.

    I recently re-read a classic, East of Eden. The first time I read it, I absolutely loved it and have been recommending it to all and sundry since then. My second reading of it was not such a love in.

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  2. Thank you. It was so, so long ago, 37 years, the world is different, but the same. I wonder how the current class will look at the book.

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  3. Time is supposed to help with tragic events. I don't know for sure. I like to think time lets our memories bring up mostly the good fun times we had with family/friend who have left. Wishing you happier memories.

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  4. You are a wonderful writer, Joanne. You daw me in with each of your posts and I think about them long afterwards. You are telling your stories, and they all touch me.

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  5. I'm sorry about your brother, too, Joanne. There are still way too many unknowns about treating mental illness. It is heartbreaking.

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  6. Well darn you! Now I'm going to have to read it again.
    When I first read it I knew nothing of mental illness and none of it made sense to me.
    Maybe now it will, since I've been married to man who suffers depression and paranoia and I have a niece who is bipolar.

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  7. I know I read this book in high school, but for the life of me I can't remember the story. Doggone it! That's my memory for you.

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  8. I am also so sorry about your brother. I don't think grief ever goes away we just (mostly) find ways to live with it. J D Salinger lived on the dark side so perhaps Holden doesn't survive. Idealistic me assumed he did when I first read it - but I don't know. I will be interested to hear Hamilton's take on the tragedy (which it is, regardless of whether he survives or not).

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  9. I've never read the book & had no idea what it was about though obviously know of it.
    Your brother looks so troubled in the photo. How tragic. Oh my goodness mental illness - so mis understood and the deapair of suiside.
    You write with such honesty I too am drawn into your world.

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  10. Suicide always leaves so many unanswered questions for those who are left behind.

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  11. My brother Bill left home and never returned. He spent his entire life in dangerous jobs, trying to get killed. Finally he died at age 44.

    Your pain is like an open wound. Some things never heal.

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  12. A book comes alive when you can identify with it. Sometimes with a book like that I can read it three times over. So sad for your brother and yet he is one of many. Life is never easy.

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  13. I read this oh, so many years ago, Joanne, so I can't help you there. One book that I have read a couple of times is "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck.

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  14. what a heart-breaking post---i am so sorry for your brother's loss----i had to confess, i have never read this classic---my daughter loved this one---sending love your way :)

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  15. How difficult. I'm sorry for the losses: his and yours.

    Pearl

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  16. The spine is red-it is someplace in the bookcase behind me.Must re-read it..In the meantime found, "the Christ Commission" by Og Mandino. Maybe my daughter "borrowed" Catcher...will need to track that down.

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