I was introduced to the idea of The Catcher in the Rye in 1979. I’d heard about this 1950s novel through my parents, both educators. I’d also heard about it through a Freshman English teacher at my High School. The reason I’d only heard about it and not seen it was because I was living in Tennessee and at the time it was a banned book. By banned, I don’t mean that there were any Fahrenheit 451 Fireman to come and burn them up — although I am sure there were those who wished that to be true. By banned I mean that the book was considered an unhealthy read and stores and libraries were urged not to provide them to young healthy minds. So it was with great delight that I was able to buy a copy of the book in 1981 at the local Walden Books store, who provided it from a box in the backroom and sold to me wrapped in brown paper so no one would see what I’d purchased.
Then I read it and was introduced to Holden Caulfield, who I would soon call a brother because of how he seemed to be me, or at least a shadow of me carried by the hot sun of Salinger’s early creativity. The Catcher in the Rye was one of the only books I read back to back to back. So what was it about Catcher that made it banned? For me, the book was about a young man who wasn’t able to connect well with others. He was a teenager who didn’t really want to grow up and had an idealized view of how childhood should be. All of which was what I was feeling as an adolescent growing up in the ’70s and ’80s.
But it also talked about suicide and mental instability and hints at something other than heterosexuality, as if those weren’t real issues. In fact, it was the very realness of the issues Holden was dealing with that so informed my own quest to understand the increasingly complicated universe of my youth. I’d come to find out that this type of story was called bildungsroman or coming of age and would become my favorite sort of tale.
Fast forward to 2014. I noticed that the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the previous year was a coming of age novel and was titled The Goldfinch. As a writer, I always try and seek out books which win major awards to find out what element of craft the author was able to master. Many major award winners seem impossibly dense, as if they’d been written in a foreign language, causing me to spend extra time translating the prose into something negotiable. But not The Goldfinch. I found it as accessible and as easy to read as a John Irving novel, which allowed me to stunningly quickly descend into the life of Theo Decker, who seemed imperiously to be a transactional Schrodinger’s Cat interpretation of Holden Caulfield. They were the same person separated by time and space and circumstance which meant they were me.
Gina Bellafante in the NY Times article Holden Caulfield Redux, A Look at the New York Novel ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt explicates the main character perfectly:
… the teenage Theo Decker, the novel’s protagonist, roams the city like a feral child while imprisoned by the consuming grief he feels for his mother, who is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mother and son had been viewing “The Goldfinch.”
Roaming the city like a feral child is very much how Holden roams through The Catcher in the Rye’s version of New York City. Both Theo and Holden were inexplicably on their own, navigating the phoniness of adults while trying to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let them live as they wanted to be. But what really linked the pair in my understanding was the use of art as motif.
For Theo, it is the eponymous “The Goldfinch”, an actual 1654 painting by Dutch Artist Carel Fabritius. Theo’s mother dragged him to a viewing of the painting at a Manhattan museum, only to fall victim to a terrorist explosion that kills his mother and many others. In a moment of confused intent, Theo takes the painting and in doing so he becomes The Goldfinch and finds himself as trapped by his ownership of the stolen painting as the bird is by the artist’s details.
As Bellafante describes,
Fabritius painted his goldfinch perched high in the frame and affixed to a delicate, unobtrusive chain. The artist died not long after, victim of an explosion that claimed much of his native city of Delft. In both its seemingly intended and accidental meanings, the painting captures what can feel like the strange nature of captivity — we often can’t see to what or whom others are held hostage, and we rarely know what will take us.
For Holden, it is the Robert Burns poem based on an old Scottish minstrel tune “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” For Holden, the poem is his motif that informs who he thinks he is and how he represents himself to the world. He wants to be the catcher in the rye, the person who catches little children who are about to fall off a cliff. The problem is, much like what Theo discovers, is that the poem like the art is different to those who view it. Holden, either accidentally or on purpose, misremembered the lines of the poem. In the original Burns’ line went Gin a body meet a body, Comin thro’ the rye, with “Gin” meaning if or should. Never once does it mention to catch anyone. And ultimately Holden is caught and trapped by his own failure to remember the poem accurately.
As a catcher, Holden is a protector of not only the innocent, but also his own innocence, but then the idea of being a catcher is of his own device.
Theo takes the painting because he thinks of it as the only link he has to his mother, but it instead entraps him into decisions that all but derail his life.
Both young characters embark on lives based on faulty logic of their own devising. But isn’t that how we all grew up? Didn’t we all have lock-dead-certain ideas of how the universe was only to discover as we aged into our twenties and thirties how wrong we’d been?
I live my own life with an artful motif. The first and last lines of it are tattooed on my arms. My motif is the identity poem I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra by Ishmael Reed. Dr. Lori on the Daily Kos states it best when she describes the poem as “a dizzying mix of references to the Old West, Egyptian mythology and history, religion, African ritual, and jazz, all leading to the question: Who am I?” The poem enraptured me as a child when my mother read it to me over and over at age seven when she went back to school to obtain her English Degree. And it enraptured me at age thirty-seven when I went back to school to obtain my English degree. It seemed to me that I had done more than half of the things mentioned in the poem. To my mind, the poem seemed to be written for me, but most of the critics say that the poem was less about who I am or a search for identity and more about race. Little did I know as a seven or a thirty-seven year old that Reed’s apparent intention with the poem was to use it as a siren call, prophesizing the new ascendance of blackness in America and condemning white Christian Europe. If they are right and I am wrong, does that make it ridiculous for me to still want to be a cowboy in the boat of Ra?
Like Theo and Holden, I found my motif that established a theme upon which to live. Did I do this because of my relationship with Holden? Or is this something we do as humans? I daresay we all have done the same if we examine ourselves closely enough.
Was Tartt’s brilliant novel an intentional homage to Salinger’s masterwork? Is The Goldfinch the new The Catcher in the Rye? I don’t think so. Just as my story is my own, so is Holden’s and Theo’s. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Tartt excavated themes, motifs, and characters from Salinger because they are universal. Growing up when I did, I thought Holden was who I wanted to be, the parents on Leave It To Beaver were the parents I deserved to have, and Thomas Magnum driving a Ferrari was who I was destined to become. Then I grew up and realized that I’d chained myself to an idea and mistranslated what the author wanted to convey and it wasn’t until Theo Decker came of age that I really came of age and realized that I’d already had everything I wanted. And still, I remain a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra, regardless of anyone who wants to shanghai my version of my motif.
Weston Ochse is the author of, most recently, Burning Sky (Rebellion). Here’s the novel’s synopsis:
Trained To Kill. Haunted By The Past. Fighting For Their Souls.
Everything is dangerous in Afghanistan, nothing more so than the mission of a Tactical Support Team or T.S.T. All veterans, these men and women spend seasons in hell, to not only try and fix what’s broken in each of them, but also to make enough bank to change their fortunes.
But seven months later, safely back on American soil, they feel like there’s something left undone. They’re meeting people who already know them, remembering things that haven’t happened, hearing words that don’t exist. And they’re all having the same dream… a dream of a sky that won’t stop burning.
Also on CR: Guest Post on “Planet Jacked!”