Why do we read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye? So we don’t feel so alone. So we’re reminded that others share the same struggle growing up. At least that’s how it’s presented in English Lit. But more importantly, we read Catcher in the Rye because Holden Caulfield is sexy. He’s intelligent, sharp, aloof, witty, always a little tipsy, always a little flirtatious, and always pensively sucking on a cigarette. He’s only seventeen, but he’s taller than six feet, and already has grey hairs. He’s mature for his age, and is always a bit more perceptive than his friends and colleagues. However, regardless of your age, if you had met Holden Caulfield at a party, you would probably hate the kid’s guts. You’d find him pretentious, faking this aura of mystery, trying hard to seem older and sophisticated. A modern day hipster.
I’ll admit when I first read Catcher in the Rye as a young, angsty adolescent, I hated the book, because I hated Holden. Sure, I empathized with his thought processes, his talent of observation, and his hatred of everyone around him, but I personally felt like I was better than him, which, in retrospect, ironically made me more Holden Caulfield than Holden Caulfield. But when I read it again recently, I realized I didn’t just dislike the guy, I absolutely loathed him. Like, wanted-to-rip-his-nails-out loathed him. Allow me to explain my case by comparing H.C. with my preferred H.C. of Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, Henry Chinaski.
Henry Chinaski is a German-born immigrant living in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. He is the son of an authoritarian, but small man, the kind of man who, when unemployed, would drive to his non-job at 9am and come home at 5pm, as a way of telling the neighbors, “I put bread on my table just like the next guy.” To amplify a sense of poverty even further, Chinaski is forced by his dad to attend a school for LA’s affluent, possibly to have the aspirations of the wealthy bleed into his own ambition. However, speaking from experience, being placed at a financial disadvantage–especially in a situation where change is outside of your own control–doesn’t incite ambition; if anything it begets cynicism, cynicism which can morph into outright misanthropy. For example, further in the book, when attending the city college during World War II, Henry jokingly champions fascism, just to spit in the faces of his jingoistic instructors and peers. He feels like he has has nothing to lose by doing this, because he has nothing to gain from this war. After all, he’s not like everyone else. He’s a Kraut.
Of course it’d be too easy for Chinaski to be solely from, what he calls, “peasant blood.” Shit typically comes in twos and threes. And so, in addition to being deprived of money, Chinaski is deprived of an ordinary appearance. Like Job, Chinaski is inexplicably smote with boils all over his face and chest. They are so bad, that sometimes an accidental bit of pressure would rupture one, causing blood to seep through his shirt. Now, the most dismal scene in the novel comes when Chinaski walks over to the senior prom at his school. Dateless and friendless, he doesn’t go inside, but instead walks up to a window and stares at the beautiful girls and the handsome boys, their artful dancing, and their natural conversations. Then, his vision shifts focus. He sees his own reflection with his ugly face covered in boils and scars. He then looks back at the dancers and reflects, “I hated them. I hated their beauty, their untroubled youth, and as I watched them dance through the magic colored pools of light, holding each other, feeling so good, little unscatched children, temporarily in luck, I hated them because they had something I had not yet had, and I said to myself, someday I will be as happy as any of you, you will see” (194). At that moment, Chinaski is the voyeur who can see, but can’t touch. But rather than become mired in despondency, licking his wounds, Chinaski will make certain that the future will vindicate his sufferings. It’ll suck now, but it’ll be worth it, just later.
“I would never set any trends or styles” (254), says Chinaski. What a contrast between him and Caulfield! Caulfield would become the voice of, not only his generation, but every successive generation, every new batch of struggling teenagers desperate to find allies in their loneliness. Conversely, Chinaski isn’t trying to become a trend, because he’s too idiosyncratic to ever be one. That’s why I called Holden sexy, because Holden’s difficulty conforming with his peers at private school, or to the expectations of his parents and instructors, is an accessible and easily relatable struggle. We’ve all hated the other kids at school, and we’ve all fought with our parents. But now try conforming without the natural advantages of wealth and looks.
To top it off, Henry’s alienation is so much more profound because of the beautiful balance he maintains between wounded, cornered beast and soulful poet. Moreover, his self-destructiveness manifests itself not just in intelligent thought and observation–as it did Holden–but outwardly through actual crime, alcoholism, and misogyny. Chinaski, the ugly, the poor, is the type of person who exists amongst us, as a kind of silent majority that will never get their due attention. Their experiences are so much more poignant than Caulfield’s amorphous malaise, yet their stories are practically unmarketable to a general audience. That’s why I personally feel that Ham on Rye is what Catcher in the Rye never dared to be, and maybe could never be. You have to dig a few tiers deeper to tap into Henry Chinaski, but I guarantee you’ll be much more rewarded for your labors.
-Nathan Le Master, May 2016