Karl Luntta worked as the director of media relations at the University at Albany, and is the author of the novel Know it By Heart (Northwestern University Press/Curbstone, 2003) and short story collection Swimming (SUNY Press, 2015). He has published fiction in journals including International Quarterly, North Atlantic Review, Talking River Review, Baltimore Review, Northeast Corridor, and Toronto Review.
"I have always been and will be a fan of the short story, a form that waned in popular culture in the last couple of decades. Short fiction was once a main feature in popular magazines of the day like McCall's, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Esquire, and of course The New Yorker. Just a few mainstream, popular print magazines carry stories today, and some of these vehicles are no longer with us. But there is hope-- today, short fiction seems to be resurgent, finding a home online and in small journals.
What I like about short fiction is the compact urgency of the story-telling, the characters who live in the present with seemingly no past or future, the isolated fulcrum on which the story revolves, and the crispness of the writing. For short stories I still turn to some classics: J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, Ellen Gilchrist, Thom Jones, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and Elmore Leonard."
The Catcher in the Rye: One true character
By Karl Luntta
It nearly falls short to say that The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most significant novels of the past hundred years. It has spawned more critique, praise, drama, controversy, conjecture, and, let's face it, imitation of style, than could fill libraries.
And the book sparked my writing life.
Much of the attention, and affection, directed toward Catcher is centered around author J.D. Salinger's portrayal of the angsty, rebellious, temporary vagabond Holden Caulfield, a New York teenager whose life is slowly unspooling, driven by his disdain for phonies and superficiality and the world of adults, particularly the antics of his teachers and family. Against his adventurous wanderings in New York City, where he lingers before going home to inform his parents that he's been expelled from prep school, is the backdrop of the overwhelming death of his younger brother Allie, some years before the novel's setting.
First edition cover of The Catcher in the Rye inscribed and dated by J.D. Salinger: “New York, N.Y. March 15, 1952. With best wishes, J.D. Salinger.”
And of course much of the discussion around the novel was and is spawned by its equally angsty, reclusive author Salinger, who refused to talk about it, or much of anything that had to do with his writing, up until his death in 2010. His silence, in some part, sustained the star turn of the novel. Of note is Salinger's constant refusal to allow Hollywood, an industry notoriously phonied-up and so described by Caulfield in the novel, to make a movie from his book, a film that would likely have produced, as Salinger foresaw, a disappointing portrayal of his work.
Holden Caulfield makes several appearances in Salinger's published and unpublished short fiction from 1941 to 1950. Scenes from those short stories are incorporated into Catcher, which was published in 1951. The nation was then beginning to embark on our post-war economic buildup and existential relief from the nightmare of the worldwide conflict, and the U.S. became a sparkling place. The 1950s to the early 1960s was, for many in America, a golden age of prosperity, industry, Levittowns, doo-wop, and a car in every garage. While the Cold War, Korean conflict, and reliably consistent racism blighted the times, the foundations of our post-war sanguinity persisted. We were a nation of happy conformists. The typical American teenager then acted much like everyone the adult world, pretty much a carbon copy of his parents, except with less money and more acne.
Likewise, the typical 1950s teenage character as portrayed in popular culture, including literature, music, movies, and television, was little more than a vessel for the hopefulness and buoyancy of the times. The conventional young fictional character did not reveal obvious problems deeper than wondering how deal with a broken curfew or falling in love with the leader of the pack.
The standard fictional teenager in prewar literature was often intrepid, and not frequently given to introspection or bouts of self-doubt. Characters in both dramatic and comedic literature like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, the Little Women, Oliver Twist, James Baldwin's John Grimes, the Andy Hardys of the world, even Romeo and Juliet were problem solvers, yes, and even heroic in doing so, but their issues were mostly brought on by adults around them and adult circumstances beyond their control. They may have sprung from difficult situations, but were not constantly battling roiling internal tension; they were not always blaming themselves, and were not, in some cases, even consciously confused by it all.
On the other hand, Holden Caulfield, overtly naïve and arguably wrestling with some level of depression, is in a constant state of self-analysis and self-recrimination throughout The Catcher in the Rye. This is what rings bells for most readers. While he is not wholly an inspirational character, he is a young person who thinks the thoughts you've thunk. And is just as tormented by his impulses and himself as you were.
The Catcher in the Rye changed my writing life -- and here's the cliché of it all. I was an equally naïve young person who read the novel and felt, as did many others, that Holden Caulfield was the first genuine character I'd found in a work of fiction. The same held for many adults who read the novel. For me he was the ultimate answer to another cliché often given to writers to "write what you know." Which doesn't always work, by the way. A more precise description here could be "write who you know."
The point is readers felt that they knew Holden Caulfield intimately, they "got" him. He wasn't a teenage stalwart, he was a teenage train wreck, but a train wreck who somehow exuded hope. And he has this great vocabulary. He was the first fictional character I'd encountered that seemed absolutely true, and it resonated.
The Catcher in the Rye kicked open the door for rebellion and American youth ran with it. Cinema embraced it, from "Rebel Without a Cause" and James Dean's "You're tearing me apart!" to Marlon's Brando's response in "The Wild One" to someone asking him what he was rebelling against: "What've you got?" Literature did not lag behind, and there is not enough space here to list the glut of novels that feature young people struggling with their multiple dimensions and definitions of themselves.
But Catcher was one of the first, and most celebrated. By most accounts, J.D. Salinger's own experience as a soldier in WWII was horrifying to him, and damaging. The war experience likely informed much of his fiction (he'd carried pages of the unfinished novel with him during his stint in Europe), and his most famous character Holden Caulfield, it could be argued, was one of the products of his teetering psyche during the writing of the novel.
But was Holden simply a young Salinger? That would be too easy. Salinger was above all a skilled writer, and his fiction complex. There's no simple way to peel back the layers of fictional character to sync their emotional makeup with that of their creator. What Salinger did in Holden Caulfield was to reach inward to write a true character, one of the first of a generation of genuine characters.
Cartoonish characterization, exaggeration, and caricature have a solid place in good fiction, obviously in certain genres. And they're fun to write. But what The Catcher in the Rye showed me is that one true character, one that resonates with readers simply because of its truth, can lift the story, can lift the writing, can make the novel.