The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s lit class classic, The Catcher in the Rye, is the only sane man in a world full of assholes, and it’s driving him mad.

You can relate. We all can. Holden Caulfield holds a special place in the angst-ridden hearts of teenagers too. The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden’s few days of folly in New York City after getting kicked out of yet another prep school. Holden wants to treat himself to a few days of fun before breaking the bad news to his parents, but it all goes to hell. The women he meets are shallow and dull. He gets excited and asks old flame Sally Hayes to run away with him and live in the wildness, but she declines, thinking him crazy. The Broadway shows he sees are lifeless and uninspired (though he’s impressed with  performances by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne). He hooks up with a hooker, but the young prostitute makes him sad, so he sends her away. She returns with her pimp, who demands more money. Holden pays it, but the pimp beats him up anyway. Fun NYC visit so far.

Above all else, Holden Caulfield keeps it real, yo. He hates phoniness in all its guises, and he longs to preserve innocence. The novel’s title refers to a bastardized version of the Robert Burns poem, “Comin’ Through The Rye”. Holden fancies himself “a catcher in the rye,” someone who protects children playing in a rye field from falling off an unseen cliff. He’s angered by obscene graffiti on the walls of his little sister’s school and the museum.

“If you had one million years to do it, you couldn’t rub out even half the fuck you signs in the world. It’s impossible.”

Welcome to adulthood, Holden. Fuck you is everywhere.

With nowhere else to turn, Holden visits an old teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers him sage advice.

“You’re not the first person who was ever confused, and frightened and even sickened by human behavior … Many men have been just as morally and spiritually troubled as you are right now. Happily, some of them the kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them … just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement… It’s history. It’s poetry.”

Then Holden’s pretentious paranoia gets in the way again. Was Mr. Antolini a “flit” (i.e. a homosexual)? Was he hitting on him? Was this more phoniness, another sinister agenda wrapped in the cloak of kindness? Holden flees Mr. Antolini’s home more confused than ever.

In the end, it’s the innocence of little sister Phoebe that saves Holden. He has (yet another) ridiculous plan to move out west and live as a deaf-mute (which, in a way, is kind of what author J.D. Salinger did by withdrawing from publishing and public life after the success of The Catcher in the Rye). When Phoebe agrees to go with him, Holden decides to stay. He never really believed in his crazy  plans, he just needed someone else to. The novel closes with Holden saying he spent  time in a mental hospital but is feeling much better now, thank you very much.

New York City in the 1950s is as vivid a character as any in this book, and the slang Salinger weaves through the prose makes this a kind of timeless time capsule of the era. The Catcher in the Rye shows the eternal struggle of a young man trying to find a moral center in an immoral world.

Good luck with that, Holden.

Meanwhile, why can’t I get The Catcher in the Rye on my Kindle?

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Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

OfMiceAndMen cover
Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

I didn’t read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in high school; we read The Pearl instead — and I don’t remember much about it. I wanted to experience Of Mice and Men for myself, but I didn’t expect to be knocked on my ass by its raw power.

As the father of a son with autism, I identified with George and Lenny’s lopsided relationship, especially George’s caregiver stress. Sometimes it’s hard keeping someone you love from hurting himself or herself … or someone else.

Dear, sweet Lenny — how can you not sympathize with his childlike innocence and eagerness? Everyone in Of Mice and Men is affected by Lenny’s simple-minded focus — he just wants to cuddle with soft, fuzzy rabbits. People let their guard down around Lenny, sharing personal dreams with him. George wants his own piece of land. Candy wants his hand and youth back. Crooks wants a straight back and the same treatment as the white men he works alongside. Even Curly’s slutty wife opens up — she just wants someone to love her; she needs a friend. Lenny lets them know it’s okay to dream; you can live off the fumes of pipe dreams if you have to … and you often do.

Loneliness permeates this novel. There is such longing, such sorrow among these broken misfit characters. Billy Joel says we’re sharing a drink we call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone, while the late great Charles Bukowski suggests you get so alone sometimes that it all makes sense. We’re all connected on a basic human level, yet we remain mysteries to each other, walled up inside our own heads.

Steinbeck said he wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel. Of Mice and Men is pretty damn close to perfect that way. It’s a lean, mean, dialogue-driven machine. This novel is as socially relevant today as it was when it was published in 1937 — a snapshot of a desperate working class, struggling to make ends meet amidst a shrinking job market.

According to literary scholar Thomas Scarseth, “in true great literature, the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art.” Experience Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for yourself, and let the transmutation begin!

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King likes to travel back in time, and the creamy, apple pie era he enjoys visiting most often is America between1955 and 1965. King himself came of age during those years, and his personal nostalgia transforms into potent prose in works like “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “The Body”/ Stand by Me, Christine, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis, and It.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
11/22/63 by Stephen King

In 11/22/63 King tackles a time traveling tale head on. Our hero, Jake Epping / George Amberson, finds a loophole that allows him to travel from 2011 to Sept 19, 1958.

Jake/George heeds Jethro Tulls’ advice, and goes ” living in the past,” embarking on a five year journey to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Along the way our hero falls in love, which, of course, nearly ruins everything, but ultimately saves the day.

Unlike some of King’s fantastic flights, this one is firmly rooted in fact, and his impressive research into the Kennedy Assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald gives this novel a muscular framework. King’s familiar narrative tone and comfy characters are his trademark, and fans of his folksy style (of which I am one) will have fun with 11/22/63.

As Todd Rundgren suggests, “The whole universe is a giant guitar.” But in 11/22/63, too many trips through the time-trippin’ wormhole creates too many strings, and everything gets thrown out of tune. Curse you, butterfly effect! Ashton Kutcher, too!

There are shades of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Don DeLillo’s Libra here, as well as dozens of other time-traveling / alternate universe / historical fiction novels. King’s contribution to the genre is a fine one.

Kudos to the enhanced ebook for including a 13-minute King-narrated video about 11/22/63, audio clips read by King, an interview with the author, a readers group study kit, a playlist of songs mentioned in the book, and recipes for the artery-clogging Southern fried food served up in novel. Enhanced, indeed!

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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.

Stephen King brings these things upon himself.

It isn’t fair to compare his latest novel, Doctor Sleep, with his landmark work, The Shining. But comparisons are inevitable — Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining.

Critics will rightfully say, “Doctor Sleep is okay, but it isn’t as good as The Shining.” But how could it be? The Shining is a classic (its status doubly bolstered by Stanley’s Kubrick’s equally iconic film adaptation.) The Shining has enjoyed four decades of popularity, accolades, and analysis. Fanboys like me grew up with The Shining as a culture touchstone, a literary benchmark against which all other horror novels were judged.

So King is practically begging for bad reviews for Doctor Sleep. It’s impossible to fill The Shining’s big shoes. Fortunately, King doesn’t even try, allowing Doctor Sleep to take its own path into new literary territories.

Doctor Sleep finds Danny Torrance all grown up, and suffering from the same alcoholism that plagued his father. It’s a subject King seems to know intimately, and the novel’s most authentic moments unfold when Danny Torrance views the world through a 12-stepper’s hardened-yet-knowing gaze.

There are plenty of fumbles in Doctor Sleep. Female hero Abra is inconsistent; wise beyond her years one moment, and inexplicably innocent the next. There’s a family revelation late in the novel that’s hollow and cringe inducing, along with several Freaky Friday -style body swaps that are equally douche-chilly.

Room 217 lady
Bathtub babe is back, and still partying naked in Doctor Sleep.

That doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep is a bad novel, or an unsatisfying read. It’s nice seeing Danny shine again. Tony reprises his role as psychic messenger, and there are sweet cameos by Dick Hallorann, and the ghoulish ghost from Room 217.  Doctor Sleep is well paced, Rose The Hat is a badass villain, and everything wraps up neatly enough.

Doctor Sleep is okay, but it isn’t as good as The Shining.

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The Shining by Stephen King

I re-read Stephen King’s The Shining recently in preparation for the release of its sequel, Doctor Sleep. I’m glad I did.

The Shining by Stephen King
The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining is a beautifully written novel, simple, elegant, and powerful. There are only four main characters: Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, his son Danny, and the Overlook Hotel itself.

At its core, The Shining is an update of the classic “trapped in a haunted house” tale. It’s also the story of a family coming apart at the seams, strained relationships blowing up like the ancient boiler in the basement of the Overlook.

Jack and Wendy are clearly drawn, easily identifiable, sympathetic characters. Danny, with his ability to shine, propels the story forward. His psychic abilities awaken the hotel’s wicked past, and the Overlook preys on the weakest link — recovering alcoholic Jack.

Stanley Kubrick turned The Shining into an iconic film (which King himself hated). While Kubrick’s film is a classic, don’t forget it was Big Daddy Steve who created this nightmare in the first place. King was the one who created such memorable lines as, “I’m going to bash your brains in, Wendy. I’m going to bash them right the fuck in,” and, “Your wife and son need correction, if I may be so bold, sir.”  All this and Redrum, too. And don’t forget the wicked witch in Room 217.

I read The Shining for the first time in 1980 when I was 12 years old. This book has lost none of its impact over the past three decades. It’s still a magnificent artistic achievement.

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The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage by Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin’s The Passage is an impressive work. The first book in a planned trilogy, The Passage reads like a series of short novels and novellas stitched together, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

There are shades of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises here. The Passage is a long, sprawling, character-driven novel. It’s got werewolf-like vampires in it (enjoy, Twihards!), and there’s a magical child at the heart of the story (Potter Fans rejoice!). There are also parallels to Max Brooks’ World War Z — portions of The Passage detail a military response to an exponentially expanding army of the undead.

The Passage takes us through the before, during, and after of a vampire apocalypse. The book begins with a Men In Blackstyle government agency gathering subjects for mysterious medical experiments. All of the subjects are death row inmates, except for a little girl named Amy. The test subjects are turned into something no longer human, and the long teeth and thirst for blood suggests there’s a vampire in the woodpile.

Cronin’s vampires — nicknamed virals, jumpers, and smokes — have more in common with killer bees and werewolves, than Count Dracula. The virals are feral killing machines, but they retain a remnant of their humanity. These monsters long to remember who they once were.

My favorite passage in The Passage is Cronin’s detached depiction of the fall of the United States. Amy spends the Fall of the Western World in a remote Oregon cabin with a protector / disciple / father figure named Wolgast. America crumbles out of frame, in the background, with Cronin dropping hints that fall as softly as the Oregon snow. (A three-month-old newspaper headline, “Chicago Falls!” … the flashbang and fallout of nuclear warheads exploding in the distance.)

Three hundred pages in, we meet the novel’s primary characters — a band of survivors embarking on an epic quest to return Amy to the Colorado lab that spawned her. Along the way there are many Mad Max-style battles with both human and virals. Life beyond Thunderdome isn’t easy, even though Amy is a pretty powerful good luck charm.

I won’t spoil the ending of The Passage. But I’ll say that Cronin comes up with one of the most creative and compassionate solutions to the zombie apocalypse ever imagined.

Cronin’s compelling characters tell a unique story. The Passage is a page-turner, and Cronin a masterful storyteller.

As much as I dislike series/trilogies (What ever happened to stand alone books? The Great American Novel isn’t part of a series, damnit!) The Passage has me hooked. I’m all in for its sequel, The Twelve. The end of the world was just the beginning!

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Desperation by Stephen King and The Regulators by Richard Bachman

Sifting through old computer files, I found this November 1996 review of Stephen King’s Desperation and Richard Bachman’s The Regulators. Enjoy! — R

en King Desperation review
Desperation by Stephen King.
Richard Bachman The Regulators review
The Regulators by Richard Bachman.

Stephen King’s Desperation, and The Regulators — penned by King’s alter ego, Richard Bachman — feature the same cast of  characters in polar opposite roles.

In Desperation, the Carver family of Wentworth, Ohio — father Ralph, mother Ellen, son David and daughter Pie — encounter an evil spirit named Tak while crossing the Nevada desert.

In The Regulators, the Carver family — Father David, mother Pie, son Ralphie, and daughter Ellen — are going about their daily routine in suburban Wentworth, Ohio, when their simple existence is turned into a surreal child’s nightmare by (you guessed it) the evil spirit, Tak.

King doesn’t really tell us what Tak is. Evidently, it’s an ancient Lovecraftian spirit trapped beneath the earth’s surface, waiting to be set free. Why? Again, King doesn’t really provide a solid motivation for Tak in Desperation.

Things aren’t much different in The Regulators, though Tak does reveal a few of his favorite earthly pleasures: watching TV, drinking chocolate milk, and feeding off the pain and suffering of humans.

The villainy that is Tak has more holes than Swiss cheese, but Tak isn’t what carries these stories along. That responsibly falls on the shoulders of  King’s compelling characters. Allowing the family members to assume different roles over the course of two novels adds a depth to their characters that no single book could illuminate alone.

One of the more interesting characters is Johnny Marinville, the character most closely identified with the author himself. Marinville is a “literary lion” in both books, and in Desperation, Marinville is making a cross-country trek by motorcycle, much like King himself did on a promotional tour for 1993’s Insomnia.

Desperation is the weightier of the two books, and not just because it’s 300 pages longer. King tries to tackle some larger-than-usual themes in this book, like God’s propensity for “cruel refinement.”

The Regulators is faster-paced and plot driven, leaner and meaner than Desperation. King doesn’t tackle any major issues here, just tells a whirlwind story. Maybe writing under the Bachman pseudonym allows King a certain “non-artistic” freedom. The Regulators is packed with lots of  delightfully fun blood, guts, and gunplay.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew good.

Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.

“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.

“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.

“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”

“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”

Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.

The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.

The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.

Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.

“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”

Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.

“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”

Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.

If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:

  • It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
  • It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
  • It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.

Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.

Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.

Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.