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Frank Portman

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Salinger Is Dead. Happy Now?

Posted: 01/29/10 11:18 AM ET

That's the sort of message you get, it turns out, when you've written a book whose narrator hates "The Catcher in the Rye" and the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" dies of natural causes at the age of ninety-one in his secret New England hermitage. It is notoriously hard to tell genuine outrage from tongue-in-cheek teasing on the internet, and this one could be either, or indeed both at the same time. I've received cranky/teasing messages in the same general spirit with dependable regularity ever since publishing my debut novel "King Dork" in 2006. Tom, the narrator, hates "The Catcher in Rye" with all his soul, after having it pushed on him relentlessly by teachers and parents throughout his life; he attributes this activity to the machinations of a sinister "Catcher Cult" and develops a general theory identifying the book as an emblem of everything that's wrong with the world and the "psychopathic normal people" who run it.

This was an overblown satirical conceit, to be sure, and, on the theory that a good writer always tests his ideas by pounding them as far into the ground as they will go just see what happens to them, I had lots of fun with it. Salinger and his most famous character continue to cast a preternaturally long shadow over contemporary American literature, and over teen fiction in particular. Holden Caulfield, the icon, hovers over anything you write about teenagers whether your text specifically acknowledges it or not. My approach was to acknowledge the hell out of it and to play around with the well-established convention that everyone's angsty, smart-ass teen narrator try as hard as he can to be mistaken for him. But I'm not some kind of anti-Salinger activist. I was just trying to be funny, honest.

The truth is, though, that there really is a Catcher Cult, and I've always found its persistence remarkable and a little puzzling. It goes beyond a simple appreciation of the book's literary qualities, impressive though they may be. It is Holden himself, as a symbol, as a kind of fetish of adolescent authenticity, that seems to inspire such devotion. Desecrating this fetish can drive a certain sort of person wild with fury, which is kind of funny because it is, after all, supposed to be an icon of rebellion. Maybe it's my punk rock background or my Bay Area upbringing that make me think that the thing to do with a monument is to try to smash it up, even if it happens to be a monument to smashing up monuments. If I got to be that way partly through being brought up by people who venerated this particular fetish (a distinct possibility), that's a further paradox, of course.

That said, unlike Tom, I didn't hate "The Catcher in the Rye" when it was first thrust upon me by numerous parents, teachers, priests, counselors, and other authority figures. I knew I was supposed to revere it, to identify with Holden, and to keep it close to my bosom and all that. "Finally," I would say, obediently following the script provided by helpful, smiling, over-eager adult facilitators, "someone who understands..." Maybe I even kind of meant it. And they would pat me on the head, or on the back, depending on how tall they were in relation to me. Eventually, though, I began to wonder. What does it mean when you're in a room full of people who all have the same, exact opinion on something with little or no divergence? It's kind of creepy, whatever it means.

I've had a complex, ambivalent relationship with the book ever since, and I've remained skeptical about icons. In fact, I'd say that The Catcher in the Rye's duties as a massive cultural symbol, its status as the supposed ultimate depiction of teenage angst, have tended to upstage and crowd out the narrative itself, which has quite a lot going for it as a plain old character study apart from all that icon stuff. I didn't even notice that till I learned to stop thinking of it primarily as "angst therapy" that didn't happen to work particularly well on me. In my defense, that is pretty much how we were encouraged to think of it, and all other approved books, and everything else. But everything doesn't have to be angst therapy. Angst therapy is, I eventually realized, pretty dull. I guess that's growing up, sort of.

Happy now? Well, not particularly, no. Dumb question. But there's not much I can do about it either way except to say RIP and all that jazz. In some hard-to-pin-down way, we wouldn't be exactly where we are now without Catcher, and, really, how many books can you say that about? So yeah, I'll commemorate that, no problem.