“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. ... Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you”.
I first read these lines about Holden's recollections in anxiety long before I could have identified the allusion to Wordsworth, long before I fell half in love with easeful death and Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," long before I would scrawl "stasis" on the blackboard when lecturing about The Catcher in the Rye. And even though I hadn't the foggiest idea about which subway line takes one to the Museum of Natural History, I understood, at sixteen, what Holden was talking about.
In short, there was a time when books--or at least some books--used to matter. One wonders if the same excitements, the same confusions, the same affections persist. Or have formative books gone the way of penny candy and unorganized baseball games? Perhaps our age is too restless, too sophisticated to suspend its disbelief, much less to sit still long enough to read a book. What follows, then, is an attempt, admittedly autobiographical, to talk about certain connections between reading and culture--not as a "reader-response" theorist, not as a statistics-and-graph sociologist, but rather as one who fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye early, and who has been trying to figure out what that has meant ever since.
About some underlying things I am fairly certain: the public indicators that presumably separate one generation in its youth from another (e.g., hairstyling, popular music) are finally less important than the conditions they share. "So much of adolescence," the poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, "is an ill-defined dying, ... A longing for another time and place, / another condition." Roethke may have been wrong about the death wish that I, for one, didn't have, but he was dead right about my ill-defined longings. Like Holden, I yearned for a world more attractive, and less mutable, than the one in which we live and are forced to compete. As Holden puts it, with a sadness he does not fully comprehend:
That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "Fuck you." I'm positive, in fact.
That Holden renders a diffuse, universal condition in vivid particulars and that he gives eloquent expression to what I could not have articulated myself are both ways of saying that The Catcher in the Rye was, for me, a formative book. Others, no doubt, have candidates of their own: Mother Goose, Treasure Island, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes--whatever books they remember as making the imagination's power immanent. But I would argue that our most important formative books are those which lead double lives as cultural statements, fastened as firmly to the here and now as they are to fiction's universals.
One wrestles with genuinely formative books, often in ways that are as divided as they are paradoxical. Recalling his own experiences with such books, Lionel Trilling put the matter this way: "The great books taught me, they never made me dream. The bad books made me dream and hurt me; I was right when 4 years ago I said that the best rule-of-thumb for judgment of a good novel or play was--Do you want to be the hero? If you do, the work is bad."
One could claim, and with some justification, that The Catcher in the Rye encourages precisely the sort of dreaming and heroic identification that Trilling stands four-square against. Indeed, if moral complexity were the sole issue, one would need look no further than Trilling's The Middle of the Journey (1949), an extraordinary novel published a scant two years before The Catcher in the Rye. But that said, who would be comfortable in claiming The Middle of the Journey as a formative book? To be sure, accessibility is part of the formula, but timing is equally important. A formative book catches its reader at a point when options loom larger than certainties, when an admonition to "change your life" can still have teeth.
For those who grew up in the 1950's, The Catcher in the Rye was the formative book. My own case, as I struggle to reconstruct it, was one of sharply divided loyalties, of as many repulsions as attractions. A part of me--the part that was reading a book called On the Road by an author whose name no one in my literary crowd could even pronounce--wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a beatnik.
There were, clearly, no beatniks--at least none in the Kerouac mold--at a cushy joint like Holden's Pencey Prep. My dilemma, I hasten to add, was hardly unusual: formative books come in bunches and, more often than not, send contradictory messages about exactly how one goes about changing one's life. To make matters even more confusing, I kept testing what I read against the life I was actually living. When, for example, ol' Phoebe keeps repeating "Daddy'll kill you," I knew, even at sixteen, that this was so much Oedipal bluster. On the other hand, my father really would have leveled me--that is, if I had pissed away even half the money Holden did, or lugged home a single C, much less a fistful of F's.
It was Holden's voice, rather than his circumstances, that hooked me. Long before the book appeared in its now-familiar bright red, plainly lettered, paperback cover--a dead giveaway that the novel has become a "classic" and can move off the shelf on its own power--I kept faith with a well-thumbed copy sporting a picture of an apple-cheeked, perplexed Holden (wearing his reversed hunting cap) gazing on the debauchery that was, presumably, New York City.
Apparently, the cover designer sought to blend brows high and low, the lurid (soft porn à la 1955) with the literary (Daisy Buchanan eyeballing Manhattan on the dust jacket of The Great Gatsby). Anyway--as Holden might put it--it was the voice that got me each time I turned to the first page; to get the voice going--or, if you will, talking--all you had to do was sit back and read:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
To call a Dickens novel crap--and in the same sentence that heaves in a "lousy" no less!--was to yank literature away from those who pronounced it "lit-er-ah-tour." Huckleberry Finn warms up to his task by telling us that Mark Twain "told the truth, mainly," but Holden really does it, without an apology or so much as a "by your leave."
At least that was the way I read the book when I was sixteen and itching to pull down a few vanities myself. In those days Holden was my "secret sharer," the part of me that knew, down deep, that whatever Life was, it was decidedly not a game: "Game, my ass [Holden thinks as Spencer hectors him about yet another poor academic performance]. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game all right--I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game."
To be sure, what Holden said in bald print I dared only whisper sotto voce. That I could live with. It was having to share my secret sharer with others that gave me the gripes. Holden was fast becoming a doppelganger-in-residence for an entire generation, including those who pointed to the obligatory fart-in-the-chapel scene and guffawed. What right have any of you, I wanted to shout, to think of Holden as a fellow traveler? Holden would expose you as a "secret slob," as a Joe Flit, as a phony.
It took some years before I realized the painful truth--namely, that Holden would probably say the same or worse about me. As Holden would have it, you can count the nonphonies on the fingers of one hand: Allie, his dead brother; Phoebe, his little sister, and of course Holden himself. Everybody else stands either suspect or convicted.
I took a measure of comfort from those passages in which even Holden wonders if he hasn't pulled the self-righteous trigger too quickly. Mr. Antolini, for example, might--or might not--have been a "pervert." What seemed clear enough when Holden was sleeping on Antolini's couch turns complicated when he hits the Manhattan street: "... What did worry me was the part about how I'd woke up and found him patting me on the head and all. I mean I wondered if just maybe I was wrong about thinking he was making a flitty pass at me. I wondered if maybe he just liked to pat guys on the head when they're asleep. I mean how can you tell about that stuff for sure?"
By this time I was in college: a place where I acquired for the first time that phenomenon known as a roommate, a place where novels like The Catcher in the Rye were dissected and placed under critical microscopes. It had taken the New Criticism two decades to trickle down to the small liberal-arts college I attended, but we soon learned to sniff out a paradox or an ambiguity with the best of them. If Salinger hadn't written The Catcher in the Rye, one of my professors certainly would have. At least that was the way it seemed, so unerring were they on those quirky Salinger touches we enjoyed without quite knowing how to talk, or write, about them: the kings Jane Gallagher kept in the back row; the question Holden keeps asking about the ducks of Central Park; the whole business of being a "catcher in the rye."
A few years later, while browsing through back issues of Modern Fiction Studies, I heard snippets of their dazzling lectures once again, but this time the insights were attached to names I kept bumping into in graduate school: Arthur Mizener, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, James E. Miller, Jr., Frederick L. Gwynn, Joseph L. Blotner--none of whom, I hardly need add, taught at my college. No wonder my professors had wowed the pants off the undergraduates in the third row! Everything they said was safely tucked away in the MLA Bibliography--more critical articles on Salinger than on Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner. What had started out as an effort to give critical respectability (the Academy's Seal of Approval) to a wildly popular book had turned into a gusher of ink.
In short, the burgeoning Salinger industry did its best, but The Catcher in the Rye held up, and together, better than most similarly "saturated" books. After such knowledge, there was--in my case at least--forgiveness. So what if the intimations that would become Holden Caulfield could be unearthed in the wanderings of Odysseus, in the legends surrounding the Grail knights, in Huck Finn's adventures among con men and scalawags, in Quentin Compson's obsession with his sister? So what if my undergraduate professors took in the best that had been thought and printed about Holden's world and then modified it into their own lectures? Salinger's book was more or less the same book it had always been, and Salinger was, of course, still Salinger.
The truth is, however, that our formative books survive not only subsequent readings but also ourselves. In the case of The Catcher in the Rye, it even managed to survive what I would not then have believed possible--a time when I no longer counted myself among the Holden-lovers. The well-meaning but ineffectual Mr. Antolini came to strike me as a better model--despite his bows to Wilhelm Steckel and his penchant for stump speeches about the Great Tradition:
... you'll find [he tells a shaken Holden] that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's beautiful, reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.
Indeed, there will probably come that dreaded day when a bathrobed, bumpy-chested avatar of Mr. Spencer will stare back at me from the mirror. And no doubt I will find him a good deal more sympathetically drawn than I did when I first encountered him reeking of Vicks Nose Drops and made to carry the symbolic role of Sickness Personified.
Teaching Holden's saga in Belgium (under the auspices of a Fulbright grant), I was struck by ironies better than I could have concocted myself, ironies that surely would have made even a Salinger smile. For example, in a university where Fuck You's are scrawled on nearly every bathroom wall (graffiti, apparently, requires plain-talking, Anglo-Saxon words; in Belgium, neither French nor Flemish would suffice), my students--reading The Catcher in the Rye in the expurgated Penguin edition--had trouble figuring out what the dash in "--You" stood for. Nonetheless, they fell in love with Holden at first sight. Our most American books--everything from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Invisible Man--are as portable as they are powerful. To be sure, my Belgian students had some difficulty understanding the easy arithmetic we make between the American West and the American Dream. When, for example, Holden imagines lighting out for the West, we read the passage with Huck Finn and Frederick Turner firmly in mind:
Finally, what I decided I'd do, I decided I'd go away. I decided I'd never go home again and I'd never go away to another school again. ... What I'd do, I figured, I'd go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I'd bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I'd be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me and I'd get a job.
My Belgian students knew about the American West by watching Dallas and Dynasty, but they also knew that riding westward--to, say, Ghent--is at best only a two-hour drive from the German border. In short, they found it hard to make the translation, to feel--as well as to "know"--just how big, how sprawling, America is.
On the other hand, the things that made Holden "fed up"--the competitive and the materialistic, as well as, of course, the phony--struck an easy, sympathetic chord, even in those who found themselves attracted by his description of life among the corporate lawyers: "All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot." At this point the line between my Belgian students and the American students with whom I'm more familiar began to blur. In roughly the same way that the well-heeled students at my college in Pennsylvania cheer when the film series shows "Breaking Away," Belgian students have no trouble empathizing with Holden while simultaneously keeping their eyes on the main chance. Which is simply to say that The Catcher in the Rye has always had more appeal to rebels under the skin than to those who actually lugged their failing transcripts from one prep school to another.
What did not change in my development, however, was my abiding sense of a formative book's continuing power. Granted, I may have accounted for the power in language that changed with the decades, I may have shifted this allegiance, altered that loyalty, to its characters, but the plain truth is that Salinger's death-haunted tale of spiritual yearning, of youthful angst, of dream and nightmare, has much to do with the how-and-why I plug away at teaching literature to a generation willing to settle for a safe job and a three-piece suit. I say this not as Mr. Antolini, much less as Holden; not as Spencer, much less as Salinger. Each of them has become a part of me in the way that Hester and Huckleberry, together with Madame Bovary and Leopold Bloom--from other formative books--also share in the making of my sensibility.
Indeed, the very plurality of formative books is worth speculating about. There was a time, of course, when the Zeitgeist defined itself by a single book: the Bible. In our age, however, one might argue that the itch for the formative book has been replaced by a series of one-night stands: the I Ching, the est Reader, the Beverley Hills Diet Book. To update Thoreau, the mass of men, and women, now lead lives of noisy desperation--either screaming "I'm ter-rrr-if-ic" at an Amway sales rally or shelling out two-hundred bucks to learn the secrets of Greenspring. In this sense, formative books still abound. People stick them in your face with a missionary zeal not unlike those who waved copies of The Sayings of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution. To be sure, the American equivalents are more diversified, more concerned with the pursuit of happiness (defined as everything from "inner harmony" to outer appearance) than with ideological purity, but they share the general belief that a single book can change things utterly.
Intellectuals, presumably, know better. In the late 1930's Bernard Smith proposed a series of essays in which specialists would choose a work of nonfiction and then show how it had helped to shape the contemporary American mind. After all, as far back as Franklin, we have been makers of lists and lovers of the opinion poll. The New Republic warmed to the idea instantly and conducted a lively symposium in its pages.
The result is a curious volume entitled Books That Changed Our Minds, edited by Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith. I say curious not because the choices or the discussion about them is odd (e.g., Charles A. Beard on Turner's The Frontier in American History or David Daiches on I. A. Richards' The Principles of Literary Criticism), but, rather, because the book was published in 1939, even as the world tottered on the brink of a war that would call these academic assessments of culture into deep question. (E. L. Doctorow's recent novel World's Fair makes a similar point about the celebrated exposition held in New York during the same ominously foreshadowing and pivotal year.)
That the disillusionments of World War I gave birth to the roaring jazz-age twenties, that the stock market's crash ushered us into the Great Depression, that Hitler's invasion of Poland plunged us into the nightmare of World War II, that Eisenhower's benign, smiling face represented the fifties in bold relief--these become the convenient shorthand we use to mark the passing of one decade to another. And in large measure, literature seemed to cooperate--the jazz-age flappers of Fitzgerald giving way to the tight-lipped Hemingway heroes of the 1930's, the anxious, world-weary protagonists of World War II fiction giving way to the spiritually questing beatniks of the 1950's.
History, of course, does not always cooperate--as we discovered when, for example, President Kennedy had the doubly bad fortune to be assassinated in 1963, a year that teetered uneasily between whatever was left of the somnambulant fifties and what was yet to be born as the militant sixties. Shaped by the art and lives that mattered--in the twenties by The Waste Land, by Ulysses, by In Our Time, by The Great Gatsby; in the thirties by Faulkner, by Steinbeck, by Dos Passos; in the forties by a series of brilliant debuts (Bellow, Mailer, Ellison)--successive generations of critics held faith with the belief that their decade would also revolve around a handful of Great Books.
That it has, alas, not been so--not in the counterculture's grip on the 1960's, not during the nondescript 1970's, not as we pass the midpoint of the 1980's--has come as something of a rude, perplexing shock. Indeed, some literary critics began to make much ado about the death of fiction: literature (or, as it came to be fashionably called, "print media in the linear mode") could no longer compete with film, with television, with the dizzying speed and sheer power of popular culture. As my students used to put it in the late sixties: "Literature just ain't where it's at." Now they tell me it's not "cost effective."
All of which brings me back to The Catcher in the Rye and the Holden Caulfield who roamed Manhattan's unsympathetic streets. When the novel first appeared in 1951, Holden was seventeen years old. To imagine him now in his early fifties is rather like playing one of those Victorian parlor games that encouraged speculation about Ophelia's childhood or about the life Pip and Estella might lead beyond the final page of Great Expectations. The difference, of course, is that American culture takes its blurrings of Art & Life quite seriously. Those who find some measure of solace in Jerry Rubin's turnabout from a Yippie member of the Chicago Seven to a Yuppie wheeler-dealer on the stock exchange are precisely those likely to be cheered by the thought of Holden getting his comeuppance in a New Yorker cartoon.
Mr. Antolini, we remember, had some thoughts about how a moral uncompromiser like Holden might end up:
"I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. ... It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college. Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, 'It's a secret between he and I.' Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer. I just don't know. ..."
To be sure, Mr. Antolini has difficulty imagining Holden beyond thirty, but in that regard he is in good American company. Long before the counterculture turned it into the stuff of slogan, Henry David Thoreau made it abundantly clear that he had "lived some thirty years on this planet, and [had] yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors." Graybeards--that is, those over thirty--were simply not to be trusted. And in our century, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, more than any other writer of stature, who equated life in one's thirties with the loss of all that was once held dear: youth, good looks, romance, infinite possibility. As Dexter Green, the protagonist of "Winter Dreams," puts it:
The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. ... He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.
"Long ago," he said, "long ago there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more."
No other American writer gave himself so completely to our capacity for Dream, and no writer was better equipped than Fitzgerald to write its Romantic elegy. The wags in Hollywood insisted that he was a "failure at failure," but they were dead wrong. Failure was Fitzgerald's subject, just as it is Holden's, just as it is at the center of every sensitive adolescent's complaint. In Theodore Roethke's notebooks--where he did not mince words, where he did not have to curry favor or cover his flanks--he wrote Fitzgerald down in a single, telling sentence: "He was born, and died, a Princeton sophomore."
Holden, of course, remains frozen in his adolescence--in a novel dominated by images of stasis, of freezing (the snowballs he lovingly packs but refuses to throw at cars or fire hydrants because they, too, look "nice and white"; the icy lake of Central Park; the unmoving, Keatsian figures at the museum). And despite our knowing better, we hope against hope that Salinger will also remain the same pipe-smoking, tweed sports-coated, "sensitive" young author who appears on the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye's first edition. After all, didn't Salinger himself say, in a contributor's note he wrote for Harper's in 1946, "I almost always write about very young people"? And as the Glass family saga unfolded through the 1960's, Salinger kept faith with his manifesto. He wrote of the young and for the young, so it seemed only fair that the work should continue to be written by the young as well. No matter that the mind knows Salinger is now old enough to collect social security; the heart insists that he remain, like his characters, forever fixed, red hunting cap pulled over his ears, the broken pieces of "Little Shirley Beans" in his pockets.
This insistence takes a bizarre, fabulist turn, in W. P. Kinsella's recent Shoeless Joe, a novel in which a cast of improbable characters (e.g., Shoeless Joe Jackson, Moonlight Graham, and J. D. Salinger himself) are assembled at a baseball stadium the protagonist has built in, of all places, Iowa City. Baseball is the stuff that American Dreams are made of. When an announcer's "voice" tells Ray Kinsella "If you build it, he will come," Ray turns his bulldozer on the cornfield and--voila!--Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. And when the voice tells him to "Ease his pain," Kinsella sets off for Salinger's New Hampshire retreat, fully prepared to kidnap him, to drive him across country to Iowa, to "ease his pain."
The rub, of course, is that Salinger's major pain is being pestered by the adoring, the curious, and the downright crazy. As Salinger, the character, puts it:
Serenity is a very elusive quality. I've been trying all my life to find it. I'm very ordinary. I've never been able to understand why people are so interested in me. Writers are very dull. It's people like you who keep me from achieving what I'm after. You feel that I must be unhappy. A neurotic, guilt-torn artist. I'm not unhappy. And I have no wisdom to impart to you. I have no pain for you, unless ... you and your family were to be plagued with strangers lurking in your bushes, trampling your flower beds, looking in your windows. ... Once someone stole the valve caps off my jeep. I suppose he sold them or displays them under glass in his library. I don't deserve that!
One could argue that he doesn't deserve a fate as "character" either. After all, a public writer like Norman Mailer leads with a cocked right fist; that he is dragged, kicking and screaming, into Alan Lelchuck's novel, American Mischief, has a measure of poetic justice about it. By contrast, Salinger has been eloquent about his "silence." Unfortunately, any public figure appears to be fair game in an age that takes a special delight in blurring the distinctions between what we used to know as fiction and what we have learned to call "the new journalism."
Part of Salinger's problem, of course, is that he represents a time when literature formed literature, when allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Return of the Native, to The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, could be incorporated into the fabric of a novel like The Catcher in the Rye. No doubt the deconstructionists would give Holden poor marks, but he is a critic of sorts, nonetheless:
The book I was reading was this book I took out of the library by mistake. They gave me the wrong book, and I didn't notice it till I got back to my room. They gave me Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen. I thought it was going to stink, but it didn't. It was a very good book. I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot. ... What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while. I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don't knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.
One has the sinking feeling these days that Holden's counterparts at, say, Yale or Johns Hopkins would prefer to shoot the theoretical breeze with imaginative critics rather than with imaginative writers.
Small wonder, then, that most discussions about Salinger's work begin and, all too often, end in nostalgia. As John Romano would have it:
... those who were young and literate in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years can be said to have received such pictures [e.g., Zooey's blue eyes, which were "a day's work to look into"; Franny muttering the Jesus prayer under her breath; Phoebe, in her blue coat, going around and around on the carrousel] with utter credulity and in a state of mind resembling awe. Some of us founded not only our literary taste but also a portion of our identity on Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass: we were smart kids in a dumb world or sensitive kids in a "phony" one, and Salinger was playing our song.
Now it is Ann Beattie who plays somebody else's song in the pages of The New Yorker, but the tunes that blare out of her characters' radios sound unfamiliar, and the characters themselves strike us as inarticulate. Allusions shrink to last season's TV schedule, a movie, a "hot" rock album. To be sure, people in New Yorker stories still suffer angst, but if technique is still style, theirs is a threadbare version.
In this sense, Jay McInerney's recent Bright Lights, Big City is also a book about the glitz, the fashion, the tempora et mores of Manhattan's faster lanes. As Holden's saga is simultaneously a satiric attack and a cautionary tale, so too is McInerney's. Moreover, behind Bright Lights, Big City's smart talk about Bolivian Marching Powder (i.e., cocaine) and its quick studies in SoHo eccentricity lies a long history of American writers who equated the City with infinite possibilities, and who surrendered themselves to its Dream: the Hawthorne of "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, the Dos Passos of Manhattan Transfer, and of course the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby.
Bright Lights, Big City has its Salingeresque connections--in the way, for example, that its protagonist describes one woman as having "cheek-bones to break your heart" or another as having a voice "like the New Jersey State Anthem played through an electric shaver"--and, more important, in the way it has apparently been adopted by many as an etiquette book for the eighties. But the real connections, the shivery ones, are to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay McInerney is News--whether the "news" be about the $200,000 he received to turn Bright Lights, Big City into a Hollywood screenplay or his accounts of "partying" with Mick Jagger. He is sleek, handsome, barely past thirty, and an "established author" on the strength of one book. In short, McInerney is a secret sharer with the Fitzgerald who rocketed to stardom, literary and otherwise, by way of This Side of Paradise.
But this is also a case in which history repeats itself with a difference. If Fitzgerald's account of "parlor snakes" and "petting parties," of Princeton undergrads who got "boiled" at dances and vamps who had been kissed by "dozens of boys," was both a sensation and a Victorian shocker, McInerney's guided tour of Manhattan night life will, no doubt, strike even the most permissive parent as an updated, and upsetting, equivalent:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. ... Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush.
Shimmering surface details are, of course, only a small part of what make Fitzgerald and McInerney such fascinating doppelgängers. At a deeper, more significant level, what they share is a vision about failure, about breakdown, about crack up. With an i dotted here, a t crossed there, this passage from Big Lights, Big City might have been lifted from the Old Master:
You started on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad's mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren't is more fun than where you are. You are awed by his strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like that. You also think he is spoiled and dangerous. His friends are all rich and spoiled. ...
This is the sort of world my students can "relate" to, the sort of world they hope to discover themselves after graduation. That most of them are not yet reading the book McInerney has written is a matter we will take up--with mixed results, I suspect--when Bright Lights, Big City elbows its way into the syllabus for English 263: Contemporary American Novel. Then I will tell them that, in Holden Caulfield's day, the Joe Flits wore tatters all vests and gray suiting; now they deck themselves out in designer jeans and Reeboks. What doesn't change, however, is the single word required to write both down: phony.
No doubt my students will shake off what I say about their current favorite, and perhaps they should. After all, when those in the know about postmodernist fiction wag their fingers at The Catcher in the Rye and call it "counterfeit," I continue to listen to the voices that mattered, and that still matter--namely those in Salinger's novel. Given the choice of being "suckered in" by fiction or by a critic of fiction, I know where to take my stand. And I hope that my students do too.
What worries me, however, is not so much that a hot book like Bright Lights, Big City may or may not weather the storms of time (few novels do), but that the notion of formative books per se may be sunk. Our culture moves with a speed as blinding as it is fickle. Mark Twain once quipped that few humorists last forever, and then went on to define "forever" as thirty years. "Forever," I would submit, has grown considerably shorter in our own time, and if we have not quite reached Andy Warhol's dream of everyone in America being famous for fifteen minutes, we are coming dangerously close. Even the most "with-it" of my students would squirm if they had to read yellowing copies of People magazine or sit through reruns on MTV. That, they would argue, is so much history, which Henry Ford, in another time and place, called so much bunk.
Rather than formative experiences, contemporary culture demands new ones--slicker, trendier, and (most important of all) disposable. Bright Lights, Big City--sandwiched uneasily between a film like St. Elmo's Fire and the current Land's End catalogue--is simply the latest, most interesting example of "This is how the world goes. ..." I take some consolation in reminding myself that this, too, shall pass--and no doubt with deliberate speed--but I take a larger measure of satisfaction from my certain knowledge that, despite everything, and at 50+, Holden Caulfield still has an honored place in the minds of what might well be the last generation to have formed its imagination, its sense of who we were, from the pages of a formative book.
Source: Georgia Review, Vol. XL, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 953-67.