“Children’s lives are fiendishly hard. Adults, having survived childhood, turn their minds to the future, and if they have a choice, generally retain only the rosiest of childhood memories.” ― Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked
You know those irresistible sites that show you how child celebrities look now as grown ups? That’s kind of what I’ve done with Catcher’s Keeper, yet focusing on voice rather than appearance. It was the subject of my recent talk at the Chronicle Book Fair yesterday.
The Catcher in the Rye perfectly captures a voice of the quintessential troubled American teen, whose problems seem so insurmountable there is no option but to run away. This famous, coming-of-age story captures a tenuous time in a young person’s life in a realistic voice that is—ironically—honest as well as unreliable, as most teens tend to be. Having taught high school (and remembering what it was like to be a teen), I know first-hand the phenomenon of the adult/child that is the teen. They may look like adults, but they are children. They still need clear boundaries. They need clear explanations on right versus wrong. Unable to foresee consequences for their inevitable misguided actions, they need leadership. They need unconditional love. They need forgiveness. They are confused and fragile while trying to figure out exactly who the heck they are and what role they could possibly play in the world and society, facing huge life choices (college, career, etc). At the same time discerning peer pressure, as well as juggling homework and hormones and activities and work and, now, social media…
Can you think of a better embodiment of “the teen” other than Holden Caulfield?
What would this teen be like as a grown up? How would you hear his voice?
In order to answer these questions, you have to first answer: What happened to him from the time we met him as a privileged, anti-war, anti-phony 16 y/o in the 1950s to the time of Lennon’s death in 1980?
He was a hippie, of course. A draft-dodger. And as a 40 y/o in 1979, he’s emerging from his drug-induced, carefree lifestyle funded by the family trust. He’s trying to get his life together, but he still struggles with the loss of his baby brother, Allie (a huge theme in The Catcher in the Rye), and (in recent years) the loss of his mother. Here’s my version of him, coming home to his big brother’s pad where he’s crashing a while. (Character list is as follows, Jerry: big brother, Janine: Jerry’s ex, Fiona: little sister, Allie: deceased little brother)
Lucky me. Jerry’s gone when I get in. I shuck off my kicks and watch a little news. But then I get sucked into this true story of a football player who battled cancer and won, and then came back out to play before all his hair grew in again. And he was better than ever. Coach said he played with more heart. They made this big deal about his hair growing in different. Curly. They say that it sometimes happens with cancer survivors. The story just about kills me. I mean, I have to wipe tears off my goddam cheeks. The heavy background music doesn’t help. Geez, they really know how to tug at your heartstrings. I get that this is a totally awesome outcome for this guy, but all I can do is think of Allie, whether his hair would’ve grown in different. If it had a chance to.
I click off the boob tube and decide to take a shower. Sometimes I think better under a rush of hot water. I can’t get Allie’s hair out of my mind, though, which makes me think of Fiona’s hair when she was a kid. I’m still dripping from the shower when I search the closet in Jerry’s spare room for an old photo album so I can see it—the color. Just the brightest, most far-out red. Neither one of them loved it. Fiona knows how to work hers now, though. Besides it’s changed, like it’s matured along with her. Now it’s this dark auburn shade other chicks go bananas for.
I find a thick forest-green album of Jerry and Janine’s vacation to Aruba or somewhere beachy. One photo catches my eye. Jerry’s beaming at the camera, just beaming, and Janine has her hand near his face, her fingers curled around his ear. And she’s looking at him with this half smile, like she’s thinking of something else. I can’t stop looking at this pic, see, because it seems to explain why they called it quits. I’m sure to you they would look like a sweet, happy couple. But I can see it in her eyes; she’s not totally there with Jerry. She’s already halfway gone.
I slam the book away and dress in haste. Suddenly it’s way too quiet in the apartment. I turn on Sgt. Pepper. Loud. Good ol’ “Penny Lane.” I sing along at the top of my lungs. Boo-yah! I sit down at the machine, the tunes full tilt, and start typing with my pointers. I’m totally fast now. Just cruising. I crank out two chapters lickety-split. I decide to stretch my legs and print out what I have so far.
The sound of the printing is driving me crazy, so I venture out to see if Jerry’s got any Coke. Something tells me I drank his last. And I’m right.
Some readers have criticized Alden’s voice claiming it is too immature for a forty year old man. However, at 41, I know from personal experience that some forty-somethings still act like children. (Heck, some fifty-somethings still act like children.) With affection, my inspiration for Alden’s childlike character was inspired by one of my childhood friends who is now a grown man with a free spirit, a liberal use of jargon, and an enormous propensity for fun. Perhaps Alden’s use of slang seems unrealistic to some, yet if you consider who he was (Salinger’s Holden) and what he would have lived through (death of sibling, failure at school…and then Vietnam, hippie 60s), perhaps his mannerisms are not that unrealistic. Taking poetic license as an author, it was also a clear way to distinguish his voice from his brother’s, which was a concern of mine.
For Catcher’s Keeper, getting voice right was crucial. If my readers did not believe in my characters, they would never believe what happens when they do finally meet Mark David Chapman—who appears as an overzealous fan who shows up on the book tour.
What do you think—will my characters succeed? If Holden Caulfield were a real person, would he be able to save Lennon? You’ll just have to read the book to find out!