My girlfriend and I saw Tadpole the other night. It’s not terrible, but the main character, a 15-year-old Manhattan boarding-school student who pines after his stepmother and reads Candide in translation despite his alleged fluency in French, brought back Holden Caulfield to me like a bad oyster. (Note to Tadpole director Gary Winick: nobody prepares grilled cheese sandwiches in advance.)
Holden was 17 in 1951, which means that, like a lot of his fans, not to mention his creator, he’s collecting Social Security. Salinger too is retired; he had the good sense to stop writing when he had nothing left to say. So can we retire Salingeriana and Salinger retreads too? Would that be OK?
What everyone remembers about Holden is his passion, his positive mania, for sniffing out everything “phony.” This keeps him very busy, which is good because he has nothing else to do. Ernie the piano player is a phony because he puts in too many arpeggios. His roommate is a phony because he’s vain and stupid and succeeds with girls by sounding sincere. The guy across the hall is a phony because he describes a great basketball player as having “the perfect build for basketball.” A girl he dates is a phony because she likes the Lunts and says “grand” too often. (Here Holden may have a point.) A teacher he used to like is a phony because he turns out to be an alcoholic homosexual who married for money.
Now all of these people are ghastly in their own way. But showing off is one thing, and vanity is another, and envy is a third, and affectation is something else. It gets us nowhere to lump these traits together and call them “phony.” This can’t be chalked up to Holden’s adolescent argot either. “Phoniness” recurs constantly in Salinger, no matter which book, no matter who’s narrating.
In Salinger’s universe only children are never phony. It helps to be dead too. The only truly sympathetic characters in Catcher in the Rye outside of Holden himself are his sister Phoebe and his late brother Allie, a sort of proto-Seymour Glass who died of leukemia and wrote poems on his baseball glove in green ink.
This harping on “phoniness” is indispensable to Salinger’s continuing appeal. For all Holden’s modesty, his ejaculations of “I’m an idiot, I’m a madman,” at bottom he feels superior to the phonies and provokes the same feeling in the reader. And Salinger’s settings, fancy boarding schools and prestigious colleges, intensify the feeling by elevating the baseline. It’s always pleasant to feel superior, and especially pleasant to feel superior to the Ivy League. And the beauty part, for the reader, is that no actual achievement, no objective superiority, is required: it’s all a matter of having your heart in the right place. (Many readers also appreciate that you can kill the complete works in a couple afternoons.)
But whatever else you can say about Catcher in the Rye, at least no member of the Glass family appears. Here’s a typical example of middle-period Salinger. Salinger is writing in the person of Buddy Glass, in Seymour: An Introduction:
It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a construably romantic affliction or addiction — extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand-scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards. If suicide isn’t at the top of the list of compelling infirmities for creative men, the suicide poet or artist, one can’t help noticing, has always been given a very considerable amount of avid attention, not seldom on sentimental grounds almost exclusively, as if he were (to put it much more horribly than I really want to) the floppy-earned runt of the litter. It’s a thought, anyway, finally said, that I’ve lost sleep over many times, and possibly will again.
This passage is not the best in the Glass works but it is by no means the worst. The comment on his own fervent and rather ghoulish admirers is amusing — Salinger, like the sainted eldest Glass, Seymour, is a sort of suicide poet himself — but let’s look at the style for a second.
Salinger’s books, like many thin volumes, have earned him an undeserved reputation for brevity. In fact, as this passage shows, he is a gasbag. Sentence for sentence, he’s right in there with Thomas Wolfe; he just doesn’t write as many sentences. The snobbish qualification “to put it much more horribly than I really want to” is characteristic. He can’t think of anything better than “floppy-eared runt” yet he wants to let his reader know, sotto voce, that he isn’t really happy with it either. One might object that this is the voice of Buddy Glass, not Salinger himself; but in Franny and Zooey, where he’s narrating on his own account, he writes exactly the same way.
Then there’s the jumbo list of authorial flaws in the middle of the paragraph. Salinger likes lists. Franny and Zooey has one, of the contents of the Glass family medicine cabinet, that’s nearly three times this long and apropos of nothing.
Not having read Salinger in fifteen years I didn’t remember how awful, how self-conscious, how snobbish the style is; how full it is of parenthetical throat-clearing, pedantic qualifications, go-nowhere asides, shuck and jive.
Only the Glasses, among the adults in Salinger, get a phoniness pass. As Zooey says to Franny, “Whatever we are, we’re not fishy [phony], buddy.” This is partly because of their surpassing brilliance, which, like most surpassing brilliance in literature, we have to take mostly on faith; and partly because they’re more like overgrown child prodigies than actual adults. (All the Glasses appeared as children on a quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child.” Wisdom…children…get it?) But the Glasses, like Holden, are all potential, no achievement; all faith and no good works. What do they amount to as adults? Buddy, a literature professor at a cow college. Franny, a student and aspiring actress prone to fainting spells when near vulgarity. Zooey, a television actor. Boo Boo, a Tuckahoe housewife. Walt, dead in the war; Waker, a Jesuit priest. And finally Seymour himself, a suicide at 31. (He leaves 184 double haikus, and they are brilliant, masterly, Buddy tells us so. He can’t actually print any of them, though, legal matter you understand. The trouble with having a literary genius as a character is that you can’t show much of his ouevre, beyond the occasional letter or piece of juvenilia, without being a literary genius yourself.)
And what sort of wisdom do these Wise Children impart to us? I yield the floor to Zooey, who finally snaps his sister Franny out of her religious mania with this:
“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? …Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
All of a sudden we’re not supposed to feel superior any more. We’re supposed to feel humble, because Christ is in us and of us. Gosh, I never heard that before. There’s something cheap about this sort of fake wisdom, something tawdry, meretricious, something…what’s the word I’m looking for? Phony. That’s it.
(Update: I posted this, in a slightly different form, on BlogCritics, which inspired Rodney Welch to comment.)