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Moats: A Distinctive Voice

02/08/10 7:55AM By David Moats
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(HOST) Commentator David Moats has been thinking about one of the most distinctive - and elusive - voices in American literature.

(MOATS) After J.D. Salinger died, I read Catcher in the Rye - for the third time.

Each time I saw something different.

The first time I was young, and I was right in there with Holden, the young hero, unsure of my place in the world, having cast off from the safe harbor of my family, adrift among strangers, annoyed by phonies.

The second time I read it, I came away saying: "Wow! He's depressed!"

If you read the book with a clinical eye, you see Holden is exhibiting all the signs of depression - the passivity, the inability to connect, the hostility toward others, suicidal thoughts.

Throughout the book, he says it: Everything seems to depress him.

It came as a surprise to realize that he is actually telling the story in retrospect from the institution where his parents have placed him to recover.

It turns out we have been watching - not a young hero bolding venturing forth - but a young man in the midst of a breakdown.

And right at the beginning there was a clue as to why: the death of Holden's brother Allie three years before seems to have undone him.

And yet this reading of the book wasn't quite satisfying.

Reading literature as a shrink would reduces it to symptoms and syndromes.

It takes the poetry out of it.

I probably saw it this way because I was older - I was further removed from my own youthful struggles, and I was learning to take a detached and observant view toward the way people behaved.

On my third reading, I responded to the book with greater understanding of Salinger the man and a more thorough knowledge of the sweep of our literature.

I saw that this was an odd little book, reflecting the point of view of an author who also seemed to have trouble connecting.

At one point Holden fantasizes about escaping to Massachusetts or Vermont, where everything will be simple, just as Salinger eventually escaped to New Hampshire.

It seems readers were hungry for works that celebrated the individual who was struggling to find a distinctive voice.

Salinger certainly did that.

The book was full of gimmicky verbal mannerisms that made me think of Kurt Vonnegut and long, beautifully meandering paragraphs that reminded me of Philip Roth.

It made me think of Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.

With this third reading my sympathy for Holden returned, not as a fellow anti-hero and not as a case study, but as if he were my own kid and I needed to throw my arm around him and then sit down and talk - really talk - not as a phony, but as someone who wanted to hear his story - not as the parent who was going to yell at him for getting kicked out of school again, but as the parent who understood his struggles.

We've been through a lot, kid.

Sometimes, as Holden would say, it's a royal pain and all.

But we're doing all right, aren't we?
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