So Long, Holden
High schoolers need a new Catcher in the Rye. Luckily David Mitchell wrote one.
Both Holden and Jason are sharp observers of the cruel hierarchies and divisions in their worlds. “You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime,” Holden tells his shallow girlfriend Sally. “Everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques. The guys that are on the basketball team stick together, the Catholics stick together, the goddam intellectuals stick together, the guys that play bridge stick together. Even the guys that belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club stick together.” The critique here is certainly a timeless one, but the references make it seem antiquated. Kids played bridge?
Photo by Miriam Berkley
Jason spends most of Black Swan Green observing and untangling the same kinds of adolescent caste systems that Holden pillories. But Jason’s voice feels timeless, specific, and poetic at once:
Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days, ’cept when we’re writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror, or just before sleep. But he comes out in the woods. Ankley branches, knuckly roots, paths that only might be, earthworks by badgers or Romans, a pond that’ll ice over come January, a wooden cigar box nailed behind the ear of a secret sycamore where we once planned a treehouse, birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can’t find if you’re not alone.
Jason has breathtaking little turns of phrase throughout the novel, and he considers larger questions of art, justice, love, and death in profound ways. Mitchell stays true to the youth of his protagonist, though, and always grounds us when the narrative seems to be floating toward Cloud Atlas territory. Jason may be an extremely smart, thoughtful boy, but he is also a boy, and Mitchell’s humor and pitch-perfect evocation of school dynamics keep the story from feeling false.
While both narrators are sensitive, Holden seeks to break with the constraints of his family, school, and small, phony world; Jason, on the other hand, spends most of BSG trying desperately to make his world fit together. He is full of unguarded, unabashed love for those around him, and Mitchell lets him show the vulnerability that Salinger buries under Holden’s posturing. And as an added bonus, girls—long turned off by the complete lack of female characters with dimension, motivation, or depth in Catcher—get to be the most heroic characters of the book: a brilliant older sister, a mother awakening to her strength, an eccentric émigré countess (a character from Cloud Atlas), and girls powerful and terrifying in equal measure.
In the end, Catcher in the Rye is still a classic, and its enduring power should not be diminished because it’s been over-assigned and co-opted by the culture. But while Catcher in the Rye is, in many ways, the story of a breakdown, Black Swan Green is truly a coming-of-age novel, the story of a young writer’s ascendance. Jason discovers the power and the comfort of words, and is saved through his ability to make sense of his world through writing.
When I taught Black Swan Green, I got everything I’d missed with Catcher in the Rye and more: The students found it funny, painfully true, deeply entertaining, and strangely beautiful, and they discovered in Jason a kindred literary soul to love. And when the year was over, and the staff cleaned out old, abandoned texts from students’ lockers, it was the one book no one had left behind.