Written by Elizabeth Downing Johnson – December 2009
J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher In The Rye has attracted a lot of attention in its 58 years of literary life. Published in 1951, the novel received mixed critical reviews, garnering praise from The New Yorker, The Book-of-the-Month Club, Atlantic, Time, and Saturday Review (to name a few), but receiving criticism from publications like The New Republic, The Nation, New York Herald Tribune, Catholic World, and The Christian Science Monitor. A decade later, schools and libraries would ban The Catcher in the Rye, stating that the language was inappropriate and that the themes were blasphemous and immoral. Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon, testified that he was sure that “the large part of me is Holden Caulfield,” (Jones, 1), and John Hinckley Jr,’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, as well as Robert John Bardo’s murder of a young television star, are also associated with the novel.
Obviously, not all press is good press, and despite Salinger’s notorious reclusive behavior, readers of The Catcher in the Rye can be sure that Salinger’s intention was not to encourage psychotic behavior. Along with this assumption, one could also assume that Salinger’s intention was not to spawn a published “Unauthorized Fictional Examination of the Relationship Between J.D. Salinger and his Most Famous Character,” which is the claim printed on the back cover of a book titled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. This book, written by one Fredrik Colting (pen name J.D. California) was the topic of many news stories in the summer of 2009. In fact, Salinger’s legal representation put a stop to the book’s American publication, stating that the book was a “rip off, pure and simple” (Staff, Concord Monitor). Since the book is still (as of December, 2009) unpublishable in the United States, so far no examination has been made to discern whether the book actually “works” as a sequel or as a “fictional examination” of Salinger and his relationship with Holden Caulfield. In order to do this, one would have to read 60 Years Later and compare it to the themes and style of The Catcher in the Rye. Luckily, (or unluckily), I have done so, and will attempt herein to give an objective analysis of the book and its relationship to Salinger’s masterpiece. Despite any attempt at objectivity, the textual and thematic analysis will prove that Colting’s attempt falls short of its goal.
In any comparative analysis, the best place to start is the text itself. Themes are debatable, but the text itself does not lie. This will be the first step in our journey, only after an introduction to 60 Years Later: Coming Through The Rye for those who have not had the chance (or the inclination) to buy it from another country. The plot of the novel follows an elderly Mr. C., who wakes up in a nursing home thinking that he is still the young Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. He is confused and thinks that his brother D.B. has been there the week before (while we find out later in the novel that D.B. died some time ago from a drug overdose), and he is shocked when he looks in the mirror and sees an old man looking back at him. The narrative is interrupted intermittently by italicized text that is supposed to be Salinger himself pondering over the fact that Holden seems to have had a whole life in the years since Salinger wrote his original story. The second chapter consists of only two sentences, “I’m bringing him back. After all these years I’ve finally decided to bring him back” (Colting, 9). The first four chapters are a slightly hallucinogenic account of Mr. C.’s description of his surroundings and his realization that he is now an old man. The end of the forth chapter ends with another section of what is supposed to be Salinger’s internal narrative, wherein he decides that
The most important rule, the one you cannot break or go around, is that everyone here needs to have a past. It’s really true everywhere but especially so here. If you don’t have a past you don’t exist. So I have to give him something to hold on to; I need to give him a life. Right now he’s confused, the poor boy. Who wouldn’t be? But it will pass. This very moment he is nothing but empty space. He is like a piece of paper upon which you have once started a story,and then locked in a box and buried deep in the ground. Now, 60 years later, you dig that same box up and continue the story from where the last sentence ended (Colting, 36).
There are several problems with the idea of putting words into Salinger’s mouth (or pen, or typewriter). One is the fact that no reader can assume what Salinger himself would sound like now. The other is that most of what we as readers can assume is Salinger’s true voice is the narratives we find from Buddy Glass’s perspective. Colting’s novel has Salinger looming in the background of Mr. C.’s life like a malevolent ghost. In fact, Colting’s Salinger aims to kill Mr. C. in order to “get on with his life” and Colting’s Salinger finds much frustration and confusion at the life that Mr. C. has lived in Salinger’s absence. According to 60 Years Later, Mr. C. was a schoolteacher, was married to a woman named Mary, had a child named Daniel (who later has a child named Michael). Also, the novel tells us that D.B. died of a drug overdose in a cheap motel, that Phoebe has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (the narrative does not specify) and that Mr. C. lives a solitary life in a nursing home called Sunnyside. The main problem in this “new” account of Holden’s life is that many people attached to Salinger have reported that he has been writing this entire time he has been in seclusion. For all we know (and for all Colting knows), Salinger created a whole life for Holden that is not at all what Colting has written. This brings to the forefront the legal argument surrounding Colting’s book: the question of whether a literary character can be copyrighted.
Colting’s book starts out with a dedication to Salinger: “To J.D. Salinger, the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (Colting, dedication). Colting, in an interview with Michael Miller of The Village Voice, sends a great deal of mixed messages in regards to his book. He says that he thinks “60 Years Later is a super-original novel. In many ways…as original and creative as Catcher,” but in the next breath he says that he’s always respected Catcher, for the sake that it is old. He then states that he thinks that older art (including the Mona Lisa) should depart and make way for new art. Colting’s previous works include The Pornstar Name Book: The Dirtiest Names on the Planet, and The Macho Man’s Drinkbook: Because Nude Girls and Alcohol Go Great Together. Colting asserts that “just because you say something funny or goofy doesn’t mean you can never be serious.” He says that he has attempted to “seek out the true meaning of (the reality of life vs. the reality within a book), and the true relationship between Salinger and Holden. Holden has become just as real as Salinger himself. To anyone who hasn’t met Salinger, and most of us haven’t, he is simply a fictive character himself living in our minds” (Miller).
Putting aside legal concerns, copyright issues, and the idea of intellectual property, perhaps a turn to some textual examination will help establish a springboard for this discussion. These legal concerns, etc. are applicable no matter if 60 Years Later succeeds in its goal as a “fictional examination of the relationship between J.D. Salinger and his most famous character” or not. Whether or not Colting should be allowed to publish his novel in the United States is not the point of this analysis, though it is a very important topic of discussion for the themes of the novel and how they compare to the themes of The Catcher in the Rye – a topic we will cover after we take a look at some plot points and some textual questions.
Donald P. Costello, in his article “The Language of The Catcher in the Rye,” talks about Holden’s language in the terms of “teenage vernacular in the 1950’s.” He says that “the book will be a significant linguistic record of a type of speech rarely made available in a permanent form. Its linguistic importance will increase as the American speech it records becomes less current” (Costello, 41). This presents two problems for Colting. One, as a Swede whose native language is not English, he is hard-pressed to linguistically recreate the patterns and quirks to Holden’s narrative. Two, as a 33-year-old man in 2009, even if he succeeds in recreating a linguistic match to Holden’s time-capsule speech, it is out-of-date, and potentially out-of-place in a 60-year old character. This can do two things. It can explain Colting’s variations on Holden’s speech patterns, and it can speak to the theory that Holden was well left in the 1950’s as a teenager, given that we have no true idea of how Holden’s character progresses through time. Colting does try to mimic the narrative of Catcher – Mr. C uses Holden’s favorite adjective, “goddamn” several times, and the repetitive qualities of his narration are attempted, though not successfully.
Goddman, I try to say to no one in particular since I have my own room and all, but I only manage to croak. My voice sounds dry and raspy and what I could really use is a cool glass of water. If I could only find the goddamned light switch I could get up without tearing the whole room down (Colting, 13).
It is important to note that Colting uses these devices with less frequency after Mr. C. realizes that he is, in fact, and old man and that he lives in a nursing home. Perhaps Colting is leaving the “Holden vernacular” with the 16-year-old Holden who wakes up not knowing where he is or how old he is, but as we can see from the passage above, it lacks the “flavor” that Costello talks about. Holden’s repetitive use of “it really was,” and “I really did” serve as markers of Holden’s individual narrative style, and this is not mirrored effectively in Colting’s novel, even though he attempts to recreate it.
In Colting’s defense, the Holden Caulfield that becomes Mr. C. has a language all his own, which is more reasonable in an older character than if Colting had tried to make Mr. C. talk like the Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. One can suppose that the narrative style Mr. C. adopts once he realizes that he is, in fact, Mr. C. is a new style all its own. Colting, since he likes so much to think of his book as “new” would likely say that this new style is wholly indicative of an older Holden Caulfield, and since no one else had bothered to attempt to recreate Holden, why would this style NOT be Holden’s style, after all? A fair argument, if we were under the illusion that Colting had studied at length the character of Holden Caulfield. If Colting had modeled his Mr. C. faithfully after the Holden Caulfield in Catcher, after much analysis and great thought, we might be able to see this interpretation as a tribute or a faithful interpretation of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.
The fact is, however, that Colting is not a great fan or student of Salinger’s work. In fact, Andrew Albanese’s piece in Publisher’s Weekly, Colting is quoted as says that he has only read Catcher twice, “once when I was fifteen and once before I started this book”, and says “I still have a hard time understanding why it is such a popular novel. To me, it’s just some book” (Albanese, 1). Putting aside the questions this raises (why try to write a sequel to “just some book” anyway? why try to write about a character you have only met twice? why go up against the most notoriously protective author alive in the United States for the right to write that sequel to “just some book?”), one can easily see why Colting’s novel lacks the continuity one would expect from a novel that borrows so much from another author’s work. In fact, many of the plot points in Colting’s novel are direct misquotes and misinterpretations from the original text.
Some are obviously cultural errors. When Mr. C. reminisces about the day Holden went to see Mr. Spencer, he says “I was standing on a hill watching the soccer game being played below” (Colting, 60). We know that Holden was looking down on a football game with Saxon Hall (Salinger, 2) – an American football game. Perhaps this is an editing error, or perhaps merely a cultural one, but to the devoted reader of Catcher, it smacks of carelessness. Also, in Colting’s novel, Mr. C is walking with “Charlie,” a former student who saves him from a suicide attempt and later tries to make love to him, and as he is carrying her books he muses, “It’s as if I’m back in high school” (Colting, 175). As we know, Holden went to all-boys schools, so it is unlikely that he would be carrying a girl’s books. The last error to address is contained in the italicized Salinger narrative wherein he says that he is the “only God there is” for Mr. C. He says “He’s had more time than he could ever ask for, creating a life out of those 5 days” (Colting, 211). The events of The Catcher in the Rye take place over the course of three days, not five.
What do these factual errors do to Colting’s novel? Can they be written off as unimportant minutiae, or is continuity of plot of paramount importance when trying to establish credibility in a “fictional examination” of an author and his “most famous character?” Most literary critics and students would say the latter is true. While the omission of these factual errors would not affect Colting’s standing in the lawsuit he was hit with, it would certainly help his chances of being taken seriously in the literary world. While the legal and ethic question is not totally relevant to the question of whether or not Colting’s novel works as a sequel or a thoughtful “examination” of Salinger’s work, an understanding of Colting’s position on the matter (and Salinger’s, for that matter) might help us come to some conclusions about the validity of Colting’s work.
In The Village Voice interview mentioned previously, Colting expresses surprise at Salinger’s reaction to 60 Years Later, saying
Frankly, I’m still having a hard time believing that, in this day and age, in a civilized world, someone can go to such lengths to try to ban a book. And what blows my mind is that I don’t think Salinger has read the book. If he had I think he would understand the points I think I achieved in it…I find it appalling that things that belong to everyone, things you can’t own, are being vandalized by greedy authors that are hiding behind laws that were meant to boost creativity and creation, not hinder it…Dreams and creations have to be able to roam freely, otherwise we wouldn’t have popsicles nor would we have had people walking on the moon. That’s the whole point of creativity, to think outside of the box, not to stick it inside a pre-measured mold and chop off anything that dares to stick outside. This is what moves things forward and my exploration will shed new light over two of the greatest characters in the history of US literature, Salinger and Holden (Miller, 2).
I apologize for quoting this interview at such length, but it so succinctly synthesizes Colting’s intention with 60 Years Later, and it clearly shows that Colting feels he has succeeded in showing the “true’ nature of the relationship between J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield – one as a bitter writer who longs to murder his finest creation, one as the rebellious character who has managed to forge a life for himself despite his creator’s intentions.
One could be tempted to take issue with this intention. Critics have long speculated on the “true meaning” of The Catcher in the Rye, as a post-war narrative, as a testament to adolescent angst, as a post-Freudian novel, as a religious narrative, and as a classic and perfect example of the fictional anti-hero. Helen Weinberg, in her article “Holden and Seymour and the Spiritual Activist Hero,” says
In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger gives us an open, innocent, protean hero who lives, antisocially, on the periphery of conventional sanity – a modern rebel and existential hero, in fact. And he places this hero in a closed, corrupt, highly structured society, the alleys and byways of which become the ground of his exploration during his journey of adventure, his dark night of the soul during which he wanders through New York City (Weinberg, 65).
By this interpretation, we see another way in which Colting fails at his task. His Mr. C. is not as innocent as he is confused, and while he does teeter on the edge of sanity, his confusion and the hallucinatory nature of his adventures are supposedly because of his reemergence into reality after being a “closed” book. Mr. C. is seeking death, and Salinger’s little soliloquies want the same for his character. He is not exploring through the “dark night of the soul” to an existential end, only toward death, with the idea that he should have never lived in the first place. This certainly was not Salinger’s intent with his story, nor is it “new light” that should be shed on Salinger’s character. It cheapens and degrades Salinger’s achievement.
Jonathan Baumbach’s article, “The Saint as a Young Man,” paints Holden in an even more positive light than Weinberg. He states that Salinger’s fiction “is actively for innocence – as if retaining one’s childness were an existential possibility” (Baumbach, 64). He says that “Holden’s fantasy-version of standing in front of a cliff and protecting playing children from falling…is, despite the impossibility of its realization, the only positive action affirmed in the novel” (Baumbach, 64). He goes on to say
..Holden’s wish is purely selfless. What he wants, in effect, is to be a saint—the protector and savior of innocence. But what he also wants, for he is still one of the running children himself, is that someone prevent his fall. This is his paradox: he must leave innocence to protect innocence (Baumbach, 65).
Colting’s novel is devoid of this theme of innocence, save Mr. C.’s second attempt at suicide, where he spits up a handful of pills in the park as to not commit suicide in front of children, “Not with kids around, I whisper to myself” (Colting, 193). Colting’s Mr. C. wants to die to be with his late wife, and then eventually wants to live to nurture the relationships he still can – with his son, his grandson, and with Phoebe. Mr. C.’s needs are basic – he wants love, and protection, safety, and comfort. Holden’s needs are much different. He wants truth (in that he wants no phoniness), and he wants to prevent himself and others from “Falling,” Colting’s Mr. C. has already fallen, been resurrected poorly, and is settled comfortably back into a nursing home, where he is content to visit with his son and ask him, “Did I ever tell you about the catcher in the rye?” (Colting, 277).
The final piece of Colting’s novel to discuss is what can be argued as the “turn” of the novel for both Mr. C.’s character and for Salinger’s character. As stated before, most of the narration is from Mr. C.’s perspective, though the narrative is peppered with little snippets of Salinger – at first sympathetic towards Mr. C.’s confusion, then confused and angered by the life that supposedly took place between the two novels, then a strong desire to kill Mr. C., then a final reckoning wherein the character and author meet, and Salinger sees fit to give Mr. C. some peace. This meeting is likely the “turn” of the novel, where both characters reach a point of no return, and the narrative progresses from there with no other option. Two things to point out before we examine this scene: one, Salinger’s character is crude, and uses the expletives “shit” and “fucking” (Colting, 83), words that Holden never used in his own narrative (the f-word appears in Catcher four times, but only in the context that Holden sees it written), and Salinger continuously calls Mr. C. a “schmuck” (Colting, 211, for one). This aggression Colting’s Salinger feels for Mr. C. is, presumably, the “new light” Colting sheds on the relationship, but as any reader of Salinger’s fiction and autobiographies know, this animosity is unlikely. Although Colting’s Salinger character goes back and forth, calling himself Mr. C.’s God (Colting, 47, 211), saying that he made “the boy” out of his own blood (Colting 62), and eventually that he loves him (Colting 233) and that he thinks Mr. C. is beautiful, “made from tiny pieces of ink, piece by piece stacked on each other” (Colting, 232), we do not have any biographical evidence that Colting’s “new light” is any more than speculative, uninformed fiction.
For, if it is true that Salinger did love the Glass children “more than God loves them,” as John Updike said (Hamilton, 182), it is certain that he loved Holden Caulfield just as much. Both biographers Hamilton and Alexander quote family members of Salinger in saying that Salinger often talked about Holden as if he were a real person. With the added possibility that Salinger has been writing all these years, there is also a possibility that he has already written Holden’s past, present and future. Without that information, how could Colting presume to “shed new light” on a subject that he, for all intents and purposes, knows nothing about?
In 60 Years Later, Salinger and Mr. C. come face to face. Mr. C. finds one of Salinger’s notebooks in his room, travels to Cornish, and rings Salinger’s bell in an attempt to return the notebook. The narrative is choppy, switching back and forth between Salinger’s mind and Mr. C.’s mind. Salinger picks up a heavy dog-shaped paperweight with the intention of killing Mr. C. as he bends over a file cabinet full of folders about his life. Instead of killing Mr. C., Salinger bursts into tears and realizes that he loves his character, and that he is willing to sacrifice himself for that character:
There are things you can give and there are things you can’t. I’m giving him he things you can’t give because I’m taking it from myself. I’m taking pieces from myself that I will never get back and I’m giving it to him and I feel it is the right thing to do…Now that I just found him. If I could wish for one thing it would be for him to be here, close to me, forever. But just for that reason I can not allow it. This is what I will give him, the gift that makes him whole. I will be his knight and I will show him the way home (Colting, 234).
Mr. C. then travels to collect his sister and they both return to the nursing home where the story started. Apparently Colting’s “new light” is that an author must set his character free in order to move on. The trouble with this idea is that we do not get a sense that Colting’s Salinger has moved on, only that he has let go. A very convenient turn of events for, say, a young author who wants to write a story about that character.
Incidentally, I cannot help but think of another situation in which a writer comes face to face with his main character. It is not in the realm of great fiction, but Stephen King’s 7-book Dark Tower series makes the mistake of breaking what in the theatre world is called the “fourth wall” in a similar way. The sixth book, Song of Susannah, has Roland, The Gunslinger, and Eddie travel to Maine to Stephen King’s house, where they interact with the author and encourage him to finish writing the story. One cannot help but wonder if Colting read this story and was inspired to recreate the same kind of situation for Salinger. As a plot device, it did not work in King’s work, and I am not afraid to admit that for one reader, it did not work in 60 Years Later, either.
If Colting professes that his intention with 60 Years Later is only to “shed new light” on Salinger and Holden, he not only throws into relief his inability to do so, but he also sells his own work short. 60 Years Later may not succeed as a true representation of Salinger’s relationship to Holden Caulfield, but it does effectively comment on man’s mortality, and depicts the adventure of a man in his late-seventies on a quest to find himself and make himself right with the world. Almost as if by accident, Colting creates a character who, at 76 years old, has lots of life left in him and lots left to say. If Mr. C. had been an original character, one might be able to see that the novel, behind its pretenses as a “fictional examination” is not poorly written, once Colting forgets to try to write like J.D. Salinger. As Colting said in his interview with the Village Voice, there is no reason a writer who once wrote humorous fiction cannot write something serious. Of course, writers write and creators create. It is obvious, however, that Colting’s attempt to recreate Holden Caulfield, and to assume the responsibility of shedding “new light” on the relationship between the character and his creator, falls woefully short of its goal.
Perhaps Sanford Pinsker’s assertion that The Catcher in the Rye is an undeniable classic (and many, many critics and readers agree) is what makes Colting’s project doomed almost before one opens the first page. An objective reading only confirms what one thinks when they first hear about Colting’s book. Between the “how dare he?” and the “what nerve!” thoughts one has, we can rest assured that it is Salinger’s Holden Caulfield that “has joined the gallery of great American characters that includes such names as Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener and Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, James’s Daisy Miller and Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway’s Nick Adams” (Pinsker, 16), not Colting’s Mr. C. While someone might be able to get away with writing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and someone might actually (maybe Colting’s next project) decide to “shed new light” on another famous author’s relationship with one of their characters, that someone might be better advised to pick an author who is not willing to still fight for his legacy. In this situation, thank goodness Salinger is still willing to fight to protect Holden from all the phonies.
Albanese, Andrew. “Groups Urge Injunction Be Vacated in Salinger Case.” Publishers Weekly, 8/7/2009.
Alexander, Paul. Salinger: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Baumbach, Jonathan. “The Saint as a Young Man.” Major Literary Characters: Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Colting, Fredrik. 60 Years Later: Coming Through The Rye. London: Windupbird Publishing, 2009.
Costello, Donald. “The Language of The Catcher in the Rye.” Major Literary Characters: Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J.D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988.
Jones, Jack. Let Me Take You Down: Inside the World of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon. New York: Villard Books, 1992.
Miller, Michael. “Interview Fredrik Colting, a/k/a John David California, On His J.D. Salinger Sequal 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, and Getting Sued.” The Village Voice, 6/24/2009.
Pinsker, Sanford. The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence Under Pressure. Woodbridge: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
Weinberg, Helen. “Holden and Seymour and the Spiritual Activist Hero.” J. D. Salinger, ed. Harold Blkoom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.