Catcher in the Rye with Bottlecaps, Study #1
A Separate Peace, Absalom, Absalom, Aristophanes, As I Lay Dying, Barnes& Noble, Book List, Elie Wiesel, Invisible Man, J.D. Salinger, Jason Walker, John Knowles, John Steinbeck, Light in August, Literature, Lord of the Flies, Night, Novel, Of Mice and Men, Ralph Ellison, Randy Pausch, The Catcher in the Rye, The Clouds, The Last Lecture, William Faulkner, William Golding
I’ve tried in these essays to encourage my regular reader to read many books, but on the whole I’ve avoided just providing lists. The reason for this is that I tend to be rather intellectual much like the parody of Socrates in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds where the old man is walking always amidst the clouds of ideas. I realize that this can be a bit galling to readers who are looking for a simpler review, and sometimes you just need somebody to give you a list of books so you can jump into them yourself and decide what you think.
I met the writer of this guest article after taking several online classes with him. It’s an odd moment when you meet somebody that you already knew, but Jason Walker and I became friends and intellectual companions pretty quickly when it was discovered that we had similar interests in literature, education, Queer theory, STAR WARS, and David Sedaris books. He’s expressed interest in writing something for me before and now that he’s managed to vanquish the Beetle King of Xandar-4 and rescue the Robot Princess, Female Processor 0.919, he found time to write up a small essay which should give the reader a reading list for the summer.
I don’t make it in to Barnes & Noble much anymore. Mostly because the nearest store is 30 miles from where I live, but also because when I do go I end up depressed because I don’t have the money to buy all of the books I want to buy. Alas, such is the life of a bookie who is poor. Recently, I had to go because I was getting a graduation gift for a friend. As I wandered through the shelves, salivating in want and sobbing in lack, I happened upon a table filled with an impressive collection of titles, most of which I have read and would recommend as a worthwhile use of time this summer. Right then and there I decided that I must take it upon myself to post my recommendations for all the world to see–or, at least all of the people who read blogs about books to see. There were too many titles to feature them all, so I’ve selected the ones I consider top-shelf (pardon the pun).
From the “Books To Make You Think” table at Barnes & Noble, here are a few of the works I think YOU should read this summer. . .I’ve categorized them for no apparent reason. . .
Books I’ve Read Recently
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
First published in 1959, this coming of age tale follows two teenaged boys, Gene and Finny, as they navigate the complexities of adolescent relationships. Set at a private boarding school during World War II, the novel explores a number of themes including patriotism, war and peace, identity, friendship, and death. Though it has been labeled by a number of modern critics as not having weathered the test of time well, I found the book to be relevant and easily adaptable to the struggles faced by, not only 21st Century adolescents, but to those faced by most of us regardless of age or social status. It is a “slow” read in that Knowles does not write rapid-fire transitions from one scene to the next like many contemporary writers. Rather, he lingers in the moment, thoroughly plumbing the depths of his characters and situations. A Separate Peace is a charming throwback to a simpler time and well worth the trip. It averages 3.5 out of 5 stars on bn.com.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Until compelled to do so when one of my 9th grade Pre-AP English students turned in a surprisingly insightful response to literature paper, I had never read Ellison’s most famous work. To say I found it moving and thought-provoking would be an understatement. The novel was first published in 1952. It chronicles the life of an unnamed narrator as he discovers the harsh realities of growing up a black male during what is a particularly turbulent time in America. At first I found the fact that Ellison doesn’t name the narrator a drawback. I kept going back and rereading thinking I’d simply missed it. As the story proceeded, however, I realized the brilliance of his choice. The narrator is an everyman who soon draws the reader into the story in such a way as to become an active participant rather than a mere observer. Whether it is the isolation of the Southern black community where he spent his childhood, the disappointment of being expelled from a black college, or the violence surrounding his life with “the Brotherhood” in New York, readers come away with, if not an understandiing of, then an appreciation for his description of himself as invisible in a world which refuses to see him. Invisible Man will tug at your humanity in the very best way. It averages 4 out of 5 stars on bn.com.
Lord of the Flies by Sir William Golding
I’ve actually read this book three times, most recently with my 9th graders back in February as a class novel. While their reviews of the book were mixed (boys loved it, girls hated it), Lord of the Flies earns its way into the canon of modern classic literature in spades. First published in 1954 (are you getting a sense of the era I most enjoy), Lord of the Flies is the story of a group of boys from a well-to-do private school who are stranded on an island after the plane they were traveling in, fleeing war-ravaged Britain, is shot down over a deserted island. At first, there is actually a sense of relief amongst some of the boys to be away from the restrictions of their lives back at school. They exalt in their newfound freedom. Danger lurks nearby, however. Despite their realization that to survive they must establish order on the island, they soon give in to the animal instincts which lie just beneath the human surface–survival at all costs; kill or be killed. Golding’s raw allegory was the inspiration for director JJ Abrams’s hit television series “Lost” and is a sophisticated ancestor to The Hunger Games series. . .but, do yourself a favor and read Lord of the Flies before you watch “Lost” or read The Hunger Games. It averages 4 out of 5 stars on bn.com.
What Do You MEAN You Haven’t Read These?…Go Now!
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
What is left to write about JD Salinger’s only published novel that has not already been written? Not much, but I’m going to write a bit more anyway. It was first published in 1951 (see…what did I tell you?) and is, arguably, the quintessential American novel. From his
bed in a mental hospital, young Holden Caulfield tells the story of his trek through the streets of New York City on his way home from the second boarding school from which he has been expelled. More than simply telling the story, however, Caulfield engages the reader in a conversation about his life, which could easily be the life of just about any angst-ridden teen. The book is Holden’s ironic commentary on the phoniness of American society, and his search for authenticity, not so much in others but in himself. Many critics have surmized that The Catcher in the Rye is autobiographical in nature, a conclusion which Salinger would, given the little we know about the man, dismiss. This is a book which has delighted, inspired (often dubiously), and infuriated audiences for over 60 years and should be required reading for, well, everyone…in my not-so-humble opinion. It inexplicably only averages 4 of 5 stars on bn.com. (I guess no book is perfect.)
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s 1937 novel about two friends who are migrant workers trying to survive. George and Lennie make their way to a ranch in California where they find more than just work. Lennie is simple-minded and almost completely reliant on George for his well-being. George, often frustrated at Lennie’s habit of accidentally finding trouble wherever they go, is nevertheless committed to their friendship. He frequently tells Lennie the story of how they will one day have a piece of land to call their own and will build a better life for themselves. Steinbeck weaves the tale brilliantly, endearing his surprisingly complex characters to readers through the poignant innocense of their friendship. By the story’s tear-jerking conclusion, readers are left wishing they knew Lennie and George, or Steinbeck himself just to know what happens after the men walk away. No spoilers here…you’ll just have to go read it. Of Mice and Men averages 4 or 5 stars on bn.com.
Books That Changed Me
Night by Elie Wiesel
This book remains the only book I have ever read in one sitting. I bought it and began reading it while on my lunch break from work one day. I was so hooked from the beginning that I actually called my boss and told him that I’d gotten sick while eating and would not be back in that day. I sat at B&N for three or four hours reading until I’d finished. Night is the autobiographical account of Nobel Lauriet and humanitarian Wiesel’s interrment in Nazi death camps during World War II. It is a brutally honest recounting of the unfathomably monsterous acts committed upon innocent men, women, and children by Adolf Hitler’s SS. Wiesel does not spare the reader details of what happened inside the barbed wire fences and gas chambers. Instead he confronts our notions of humanity, morality, death, life, and even of God himself. Night is a clarion call for the entire human race to never forget what can happen if we allow hatred to prevail. This book changed not only my understanding of the Holocaust, but also my understanding of the needs of those who remain oppressed even today. Night averages 4 of 5 stars on bn.com.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
I have a confession–I watched the video before I read the book. But, it wasn’t my fault because I didn’t know the book existed until after I’d already seen the video, so cut me some slack…I still read it. Dr. Randy Pausch was a popular Computer Science professor at Carnegie Melon University. In 2008, after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and announcing his departure from the university, he was asked to participate in the university’s lecture series in which professors were asked to give the lecture they would give if they knew it was their last. For Dr. Pausch, it was literal. The lecture he gave was titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” However, it was about far more than becoming an astronaut or a pro ball player. Pausch’s lecture was about finding ways around the difficulties of life and also about encouraging others to do the same. The Last Lecture is funny, poignant, and inspiring on a soul level. It was after reading this book that I decided to put my past failures behind me and go back to school to finish the degree I had started nearly 20 years earlier. I guarantee this book will jump start whatever stalled out dream you are carrying around. The Last Lecture averages 4 of 5 stars on bn.com.
A Book I Have Not Yet Read By an Author I’m Determined to Love
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
I have a love-hate realtionship with William Faulkner. I absolutely love his short stories. I’ve been in love with “A Rose for Emily” since I was a senior in high school and have studied it with both middle school and high school students in my classes. They all love it, too, and many of them still talk about it. Faulkner’s short stories make me feel like I’m reading about people I know. They make me feel at home. His novels, however, at least the two I’ve read so far, Absalom! Absalom! and A Light in August…not so much. It’s not so much the stories I don’t like–actually, it’s not the stories at all. It’s the way Faulkner wrote them. I read both books as assignments in graduate school and struggled mightily get around Faulkner’s train-of-thought style which is often laden with description and nearly absent any simblance of proper punctuation. But, because I love his short stories so much, I am determined to love his novels, too. So, this summer, I will be reading As I Lay Dying, of which Faulkner himself wrote, “I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall.” I don’t know what the story is because I stay away from summaries of books before I read them, but I’ve been assured by one professor and one well-read former student, that As I Lay Dying is, in fact, the tour-de-force Faulkner aimed for. It averages 3.5 of 5 stars on bn.com
Other Books I Recommend But Don’t Have the Space to Write About
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Travels With Charlie by John Steinbeck
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Animal Farm by George Orwell
1984 by George Orwell
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
This is, by no means, a complete list (it’s not even close) of books I would recommend to you. These are the books I saw on the “Books to Make You Think” table at B&N, all of which will do just that–make you think. Whether you read any of these books or not, just read something. Reading and writing are noble pursuits, both of which are, sadly, becoming less and less pursued. Don’t miss out on something great. Go pick up and book and give yourself time to let it take you wherever it will.
About the Author:
Jason Walker is a graduate student finishing his Master of Arts in English Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Texas at Tyler. He also teaches 9th Grade Pre-AP Literature and Creative Writing. A life-long resident of East Texas, Jason recently decided to leave his teaching position in order to pursue his true passion–writing. He works as a freelance writer and blogger, publishing pieces for various outlets and covering many topics. Jason is also a classically trained singer and pianist, history buff, and foodie. You can read more of his work on his blog called MEtopia: A Guy Who Writes About Things and Stuff.
URL for the blog:
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Any Human Heart, bildungsroman, Holden Caulfield, Human Developement, J.D. Salinger, Literature, masculinity, Mein Kampf, Nine Stories, Novel, reflective writing, Sexuality, teenager, The Catcher in the Rye, The Little Prince, troubled young man, William Boyd
Reading a book seven times is either the surest sign of devotion or pathetic obsession. Though it’s a sad truth that those two frequently coincide.
In my library there are two books that I have read more than six times over the course of my life, the first is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and the other is The Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger. This admission comes at great personal terror, for while there’s nothing wrong with reading a book multiple times, the adage “You discover new things every time you read it” sings eternal truth,” Salinger’s novel is surrounding by an unfortunate miasma (fancy-pants word for fog, and I just realized too late we live in the age of Google and you could have just looked it up on your own).
I’ll never forget English 3308 and watching my professor break psychologically as he explained how the language used by Holden Caulfield demonstrated a steady dwindling of personal ego thus resulting in an experience where the reader and Holden became one and nothing at the same time. Despite that intro that professor was without a doubt one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. While teaching me about literary/social theory he also managed to share an important “fact.” The Catcher and the Rye due to its troublesome history is one of the most monitored books on the market, for example, organizations such as the FBI are able to monitor the reading habits of civilians and keep lists of people who acquire certain books. Books like Mein Kampf, which attract a particular sort of reader, shall we say of the dickless variety, are watched more than others, however they keep an eye on The Catcher in the Rye because it’s been linked to at least two different attacks by famous celebrities. The man who shot John Lennon was carrying a copy of the book in his jacket when he performed the act, and the man who stabbed George Harrison, apart from being a delusional lunatic, supposedly believed himself to be Holden Caulfield in some form. It also doesn’t help that not long after Salinger published the novel he went into a deep seclusion, hiding from the general public, refusing interviews, and becoming, much like Thomas Pynchon only without the charming Simpsons cameo, the embodied stereotype of the secluded writer.
These memories and bizarre “facts” are what occur first when I realize that as the Spring semester is about to begin, and I start what will be my last semester of grad school, I will be reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for the seventh time. I’m sure the FBI has now placed me on their “WATCH WITH CARE” list and have probably bugged my library. My Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland now watch me as I enter the room, and the photo of my wife has been eyeing more closely lately…huh.
If the reader is unfamiliar with this actual book it would not surprise me. The Catcher in the Rye has been banned in many schools, and if it hasn’t it has been carefully, and too often silently, stripped from the reading lists of teachers hoping to teach something besides The Great Gatsby or Crime and Punishment. As such, subsequent generations of students are entering college without having read one of the most important novels in American literary history. The novel is the three day journey of a teenaged boy named Holden Caulfield who struggles socially and no this isn’t the story of my life. It isn’t! I swear really! Look I’ve never hired a prostitute, I’ve never even been to New York…you know what I don’t have to justify myself to you. Holden has flunked out of the private boarding school his parents sent him to, and he notes this is, at least, the third time this has happened. He decides to leave early and rest up in a hotel in New York until the Christmas break and surprise his family. However even after he sets himself up in a hotel his restlessness gets the better of him and he decides to go out on the town, going to bars, drinking, calling old girlfriends, hiring a prostitute, getting beat up by her pimp, going ice skating with a girl he doesn’t really like, offers to elope with her to Canada, meets an old teacher who he thinks molests him (though that isn’t entirely clear), sneaks into his parents’ house to say hi to his little sister, goes to a museum with her, and ends the novel watching her ride the carousel.
At first glance this may not appear to be a blockbuster smash and sounds in fact like one of those god-awful independent films that, as South Park so eloquently put it once, is often about cowboys exploring their sexuality. That might be a bit too far, but I understand the trepidation(fancy pants word for…ah ah, caught myself, look it up yourself), listening to a firsthand account from a teenage boy doesn’t immediately scream out a great time, and when I read it the first time as a teenage boy I agreed with that sentiment. The problem with Holden is that he’s deceptive, often leading the reader up to something he snatches away at the last minute. It’s clear from the first line:
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. (1)
There are few first lines that inspire such immediate identification as well as literary resonance. I apologize if I begin to gush but the fact of the matter is J.D. Salinger remains one of the strongest American authors in terms of presenting fully developed character, and not only in this novel. His collection Nine Stories, a series of short stories published originally in The New Yorker stands as one of the most readable and brilliant collection of shorts by an author, no offense Hemingway…okay offense, no homo though…homo. From the first line Holden becomes a person that’s impossible to forget because there’s an immediate distrust between him and the reader. Holden never gives his reader any real territory unless he’s stumbled upon it by accident and even after he’s confessed to something he buries it beneath a series of “I really do” “I think” or “that kind of stuff drives me crazy.”
The identification, at least for a male reader, I’d love to understand what a woman thinks of Holden, is the ego being presented. It’s clear that when Holden talks he’s trying to pump himself and at the same time he doesn’t know how to be confident. Looking back at the passage before the prostitute arrives at his room he thinks about his virginity:
If you want to know the truth, I’m a virgin. I really am. I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet. (92)
This passage reeks of teenage boy. He begins asking if we want to know the truth, then the confession, then he reasserts the validity of the confession, and one can hear the pompous “I’ve had quite a few opportunities,” before he immediately ducks into an explanation to dismantle everything he’s said up to that point. These three sentences constitute a structure of performance that are repeated throughout the novel as Holden crafts an almost fantastical three day journey through New York.
Well so what then, by the sounds of it everything is baloney. If the reader shouldn’t trust anything Holden says why should they bother listening to him whining for 214 pages?
Well dear reader the problem is with one of the words you used in your critique. The word whine is a word that I’ve resisted and wobbled on with each reading of The Catcher in the Rye. The first two times I read the book I did believe that Holden was whining about his life and family, then the next two times I thought Holden was a brilliant philosopher, then the next two times I thought he was whining, but the whining was justified, and as I approach reading this book for the seventh time I believe I understand where the young man was coming from. Puberty is a vicious hell. That’s a fact. Those of us that live through it are ultimately scarred in some form or fashion, but what many of us remember is the pain and seemingly endless anxiety. Now I can’t speak for what it’s like for women, but often in young men the response of puberty is anger: we hate the world, we hate being confused, we hate the people and forces that are making us anxious and confused and looking back to Holden there’s certainly plenty of anger. He attends, like I did, a private school run mostly by spoiled rich kids, he’s lost one brother to death and another to Hollywood (though some might argue that’s the same thing), his family’s home environment is less than pleasant, and he’s beginning to recognize more and more that he’s not a child anymore and entering into a world that appears bizarre and, at times, perverted.
After he left, I looked out the window for a while, with my coat on and all. I didn’t have anything else to do. You’d be surprised what was going on on the other side of the motel. They didn’t even bother to pull the shades down. I saw one guy, a grey-haired, very distinguished-looking guy with only his shorts on, do something you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. First he put his suitcase on the bed. Then he took out all these women’s clothes, and put them on. Real women’s clothes—silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, brassiere, and one of those corsets with the straps hanging down and all. Then he put on this very tight black evening dress. I swear to god. Then he started walking up and down the room, taking these very small steps, the way a woman does, and smoking a cigarette and looking at himself in the mirror. He was all alone, too. Unless somebody was in the bathroom—I couldn’t see that much. Then, in the window almost right over his, I saw a man and a woman squirting water out of their mouths at each other. It probably was highballs, not water, but I couldn’t see what they had in their glasses. Anyway first he’d take a swallow and squirt it over her, then she did it to him—they took turns, for God’s sake. You should have seen them. They were in hysterics the whole time, like it was the funniest thing that ever happened. I’m not kidding the hotel was lousy with perverts. (62)
This is followed however by a careful and knowing statement:
I was probably the only normal bastard in the whole place—and that isn’t saying much. (62)
The “perverts” leave an impression upon the reader, like they did on me when I first read the book as a high school junior, and I read the passage I like many before me, assumed that Holden was placing himself above other people completely ignoring the second line. The passage is also hilariously familiar for who doesn’t remember the shock they experienced when they recognized that some people exhibit their sexuality in a different way than dressing up as a Penguin and pasting pictures from Playgirl around the room while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance…right? Who doesn’t do that?…ahem.
Holden has been almost deified by a population of readers as some kind of philosopher or leader providing secret messages of life through his words. If my reader says that’s bullshit I’m with them completely. The conflict pf Holden is that he has been surrounded by wack-jobs looking for philosophy in teenage angst, however much like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver the real conflict is not that Holden is some kind of prophet, Holden’s conflict is that he is broken after the death of his brother Allie who died young, and dealing with the end of his childhood and entrance into the complex and often confusing reality of adulthood. Near the end of the novel when Holden sneaks into his parents apartment and talks with his little sister he explains what he’d like to do:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s what I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy. (173).
At this point in the novel Holden has encountered person after person in New York desperately trying to find someone who understands or feels the same way about the human condition that he does. He’s watched his imaginative adventure crumble under the weight of reality in New York, he’s been beaten up, rejected, and his little sister Phoebe is last hope. Looking then at this passage what seems missing from the larger interpretations of The Catcher in the Rye is the fact that the novel is an exploration of coming of age.
Before the reader says “fucking duh” hear me out. The pitfall of teaching about phase-of-life crises in a classroom is that often the teacher has to resort to cheap platitudes. “Nothing lasts forever,” and “the innocence of children dies away,” to which I call bull-fucking-shit. Children are never the innocent creatures people would like them to be, they are simply ignorant of the complexities of human life. When people talk about their childhood dying they often pretty up the acquisition of responsibility comparing it to the death of a gentle cherub, when in fact what is happening is far more complex. As we age we begin to recognize the fault in others as more than simply “he’s good/he’s bad” we recognize that people act out of selfishness, desire, ambition, greed, or fear and so it becomes difficult to call someone purely bad, but we’re told in our youth that people are purely good or bad and so the mind struggles to understand this paradox. Being a teenager is difficult enough biologically, but from a social viewpoint many of us suffer from Holden’s fear.
Holden is beginning to recognize that people aren’t perfect, in fact sometimes people can be dicks, what he has yet to find however is a functional social support, a network of friends that care about him and are able to provide him emotional buffering and that is where Phoebe comes into it. By the end, Holden finds himself alone in the park, no place to go, no human contact whatsoever, until he has a thought:
I started thinking about how old Phoebe would feel if I got pneumonia and died. It was a childish way to think, but I couldn’t stop myself. She’d feel pretty bad if something like that happened. She likes me a lot. I mean she’s quite fond of me. She really is. Anyway, I couldn’t get that off my mind, so finally what I figured I’d do, I figured I’d better sneak home and see her, in case I died and all. (156).
There’s more to the story of course and I could describe how every time I read the ending scene with Phoebe riding the carousel and Holden sitting on a bench in the rain laughing I cry, in fact I just did, but this essay is meant more as a reflection as I once again consider this book for a seventh time. I’ve struggled with the character of Holden, with his stupid red hunting cap, and I remember a line from William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart:
Rereading my old journals is both a source of revelation and shock. I can see no connection between that schoolboy and the man I am now. What a morose, melancholy, troubled soul I was. That wasn’t me was it? (458)
Unlike the protagonist of Boyd’s novel, I still see many lingering habits, or at least ghosts, of my former-self in Holden, and perhaps that’s why reading this book a seventh time will be so haunting. I’ve grown tremendously over the last few years and so visiting that troubled young man, who has no earthly clue what to do or who he is or what he wants isn’t exactly a dream come true. I see day by day, my efforts to stamp out that part of my life and there is revealed a larger problem with not teaching The Catcher in the Rye. Many people look back upon puberty as I described it before, as Hell, and for the most part people don’t want to remember Hell. They want to enjoy their life and not dwell on the embarrassments of the past, or else the mediocrity that may have been their former selves, but in doing so we forget what it was like to be a teenager. When we forget those anxieties, those first loves, and those egos it becomes easy to dismiss the problems of people who are living in that grief. When we attempt to forget who we were, it makes it easier to lack empathy for the people who suffered as we did, and so opportunities to bridge the divide between the generations is only further intensified.
I read The Catcher in the Rye three times for school and three times for personal enjoyment because I, like many young men before me, recognized a familiar plight.
Fifty years on and Salinger’s work can still perform the wonder of connecting me to my former self…and my former self really needs a haircut and a shower. Jeez dude it’s called deodorant, and you wonder why no girl goes out with you.
Before I begin this review, I must tell a brief history. I had been avoiding his class for at least two years. I had enjoyed his 3308 Literature Theory course, not because of the subject, but because of him. His presence. His charisma (I know that sounds pathetically predictable but let me have this dammit). The man was simply unlike anything I had ever seen before. I felt I was in the presence of a real genius of creative spirit and intellect. And okay, I was originally and selfishly interested because he was a published writer. When the class ended I didn’t feel comfortable taking another one of his classes so soon. I developed a mimic version of him that impressed my friends but something kept me away. He would say hello and I would talk but something wasn’t ready to join him in a class again. Finally I felt ready and I signed up for Creative Writing I with Professor Luke Goebel. The first semester I was reminded immediately why I loved his class so much. Apart from the real lack of grading (not that you didn’t earn your grades, you certainly did) Luke created a space that is indefinable. Like Heavy Metal music and truly great salsa, it has to be experienced in every core of your body soul mind psyche spirit, ya dig? Each day in class he exposed us to new writers who were writing texts that made the books in other classes seem predictable or old hat. He taught us what could be done with language, that everything wasn’t simply subject, verb, object. You could play with writing. The best sentence I ever heard from him was, “You don’t read a story to figure out what happens, you read a story to figure out how it’s told!” There was not a day I did not laugh. When it came time to present my stories there were three moments before the final experience that made me the writer I am today. He seemed to like my first story, he offered suggestions. My second story he liked until it reached one paragraph. And finally I brought him two stories to his office and he ripped me apart. Crying at a table near the library of my university I felt that he was right, that perhaps I shouldn’t be a writer, and that I wasn’t good enough. Like I didn’t have the stuff to push into that space where words and literary wonders sing like the heavenly bodies. But I went home and tried again, and when I presented my short story It’s World War I and Nobody’s Singing he couldn’t stop talking. His eyes, and those that have known the man know what I speak of, Luke Goebel’s eyes are powers unto themselves and can break you down unless you hold that stare and face them, centered on me and I had one thought: “I finally beat the son of a bitch.” Like the Kid facing the Apache though, without a doubt one of the most powerful chapters of the novel, this victory seemed to come at a price. And if the novel attempts any theme, it is that our victories leave bits of us behind that we are always trying to recapture but never will.
A paragraph into Fourteen Stories and None of Them Are Yours there is one sentence that instantly hits me: “I have always felt like I am getting away with something being alive.” So begins the journey of H. Roc the central narrator/figure/bard yawper that frames the new novel by Luke Goebel. The book, and I say this not only because I know the man and am honored to have studied under him, is totally unlike anything I have ever read. H. Roc constantly re-assess his place within reality, within culture, within “America, America, America,” within the sphere of romance, within the family, within virtually every component of human existence, and sometimes surpassing even that. He will break the fourth wall, however unlike some works that attempt to use this as a clumsily disguised plot device; H. Roc only means to bring the reader deeper into the experience that is his world. That is everybody’s world and is ours for the taking but we don’t because we are too stuck in other, more stifling narratives.
We come to understand a few things about the man. He has had a great romance with a woman named Catherine, his brother Carl has died, in his past he has been (a junkie is perhaps the wrong word so I will instead employ the term experienced with world expanding substances) in and out of rehab, he has experimented with peyote, he has bounced from New York to San Francisco (those palm trees man those palm trees) and landed somewhere in East Texas. I describe the experiences of H. Roc because there appears in the novel no real sense of plot because plot is not important. What is important is the narrative structure of the experience for that is the location of what we might consider the “plot” of the novel.
Any who take the time to read the novel, and you should because I promise you there will never be a book like this again, will see the influence of at least two great writers: Walt Whitman and J.D. Salinger. Both of these voices can become apparent for while there is the Whitman yawp, the call and invitation to enter into the song of immortality, there is the harsh bite of Salinger reminding us that the world will always get a little sick pleasure joy high off of beating us down. H. Roc’s voice is constantly calling upon the reader’s soul and almost raising it to the same level of drug induced literary splendor. Not literary splendor for that seems too limiting in some regards. The “yawp” of the book, invites you to step outside what is possible in this drearily limiting reality and allow you to see the power of the potential of your own self.
There is a moment in the book, there are several moments in the book, that will leave you speechless, but will also exhaust and simultaneously lift you as a reader, and I have cited it here for you:
The kids are all staring at me. Sometimes it’s unbreakable how the beauty of art comes after you, making you feel everything and bawl in front of the very people you’re supposed to be hectoring.
It is unlikely that Fourteen Stories will become a movie (for who could direct it?) or an international bestseller (for who could read it who hasn’t a soul?). I have shared a very brief and very poor review of this book because in my life there has never been such an influence and intellectual parent to me as Luke Goebel. I have cried more times while reading this book, read in two days but only because my nose is a dick, than I have ever in any other text.
I began with a brief story and so I shall end on another. I took creative writing II with a group of individuals who constitute one of the greatest bodies of talented writers I have ever known. Luke gave us his time, his talent, and his advice. By the
end of the semester I became terribly sad because I knew I would never have another class like this. A class where the people sitting next to me were not just friends of acquaintances, they were a familial unit of intellectual and creative companions that inspired one of the greatest stories I have ever written. Another Challenge Put Forth to the American god, was written in ten minutes and when Luke looked at me with those Wildman eyes and said, “You nailed it Jammer” I knew I had.
There is chapter of the novel called Apache and so I will end my review with it:
In their time, two by two, the boy would only change one thing and that he would never change. Then there was the time with Apache. They had had some rides.
Take the ride. I have. It has forever changed me and I would never look back. Take the ride, and be prepared to travel to land in your soul you’ve always traveled, but never before have you had a voice that said it so like this book has.
Fourteen Stories and None of Them Are Yours is available for purchase at Amazon and Powell’s books on-line. Read the book, because as I said, there will never be another book like this. And Luke, if you’re reading this please forgive me if I have failed in this review. Thanks for everything man.
Huggs and Kisses