My rating: 5/5!
The first time I read this book was in the mid-80’s, in high school. I went to a French-speaking high school about a hundred kilometers west of Montréal. At the time, everyone was listening to U2 and Tears for Fears and The Cure and only the anglophone minority of which I was a part actually understood the words to those songs. That used to kill me. You’d have a high school dance and everyone would be kind of surf-dancing to “Boys don’t cry” and most of them had no idea what the song was about, but it didn’t keep them from adopting that pouting stance with their front hair hanging over the left side of their downcast faces.
Claudia had that look too. She had this shock of really blond hair that hung down about to her cheek. She didn’t pout, though. She ruined the goddamn look by smiling all the time. God, she had a beautiful smile. She was part of the anglophone minority too on account of her parents being German, so we’d trade cassettes and joke about song lyrics and that tv show Moonlighting. I’d seek her out in the recreation hall at lunchtime, I could recognize her from way back at the end of the hall just from the set of her shoulders, even though in the mid-80’s in private schools everyone wore these jackets with huge shoulder pads, boys included, and some even went as far as to roll up the sleeves of their jackets even when they were wearing a shirt and tie, like they were in Miami Vice or something. That fad died pretty quick, but you can be sure that the French speakers were among the last ones to maintain it. So I’d seek out Claudia, she had a really straight back and she always stood with one leg straight and the other kind of bent at the knee and slightly in front of her, and this being a private school she’d be in a skirt, which was just torture, and I’d sidle up and act real cool and bored with both hands in my pockets wrinkling my blazer at the hips like I hardly cared about anything and was just passing by to talk to her because why not.
At the time I was a huge cynic, the way teenagers can be when they want to appear older, and all my jokes were cynical, and Claudia would laugh at them anyway and she’d add “oh, Renaaaay, Renaaay, Renaaaay” like that, pronouncing it like “heyyyy” and I’d drop the cynical act for a moment before returning to it later.
Anyways, my English teacher recommended we read the Catcher in the Rye and told us we’d find it very funny. I don’t think anyone else in my class read it, just me, and I didn’t find it funny much, but I really identified to Holden Caulfield. I think you have to be an adult to find it funny. I mostly read it and pictured myself as Holden getting kicked out of school and wandering around New York and being simultaneously charmed and repulsed by humanity. Just the opening page was enough to grasp my attention, and though the school I went to didn’t advertise with horse-riding ads, the following paragraph about Holden’s school Pencey spoke to me directly:
‘They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place. And underneath the guy on the horse's picture, it always says: "Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men." Strictly for the birds. They don't do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I didn't know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably came to Pencey that way.’
And, of course, I pictured my best friend Claudia as the character of Jane. Only it didn’t really fit, because Jane had a lousy childhood and Claudia was a happy girl who ruined her goddamn pouty look by smiling all the time. Anyways, there is this scene in the book where Holden describes how he came close to necking with Jane, and Jane’s stepfather comes around and asks her where his cigarettes are, and Jane doesn’t answer him:
‘Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn't even answer me, then. She made out like she was concentrating on her next move in the game and all. Then all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. On one of the red squares--boy, I can still see it. She just rubbed it into the board with her finger. I don't know why, but it bothered hell out of me. So what I did was, I went over and made her move over on the glider so that I could sit down next to her--I practically sat down in her lap, as a matter of fact. Then she really started to cry, and the next thing I knew, I was kissing her all over--anywhere--her eyes, her nose, her forehead, her eyebrows and all, her ears--her whole face except her mouth and all. She sort of wouldn't let me get to her mouth. Anyway, it was the closest we ever got to necking. After a while, she got up and went in and put on this red and white sweater she had, that knocked me out, and we went to a goddam movie.’
You can bet your boots I read that and pictured myself kissing Claudia. I must have read that single paragraph a dozen times over until it was etched in my mind. There was no way I was going to be around if and when Claudia cried, she was a happy girl, but I goddamn well read it over and over and pictured Claudia putting on that red and white sweater and us going to a movie anyway.
Claudia actually made an atheist out of me. She sat at a desk just behind me and in religious studies, she’d lean forward and whisper in my ear, just to goad me, asking me if I believed in what it was we were being taught, and of course I defended the existence of God as well I could by using Voltaire’s argument about there being no clock without a clock-maker, and we’d have a whispered argument right there in class. Teenagers in religious schools entertain a kind of familiarity toward faith. As in the following passage that describes the guy after whom was named a wing of the school Holden attends:
‘ It was named after this guy Ossenburger that went to Pencey. He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece. You should see old Ossenburger. He probably just shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river. Anyway, he gave Pencey a pile of dough, and they named our wing alter him.
He told us we should always pray to God--talk to Him and all-wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs. The only good part of his speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot-shot and all, then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart.’
Claudia worked at me for two weeks, we’d have these whispered arguments in class, and she actually convinced me that I was mostly praying for no good reason, and I was really impressed by the way she did it and I got even more infatuated with her than I already was.
Good ol’ Claudia. She didn’t play checkers that I knew of. She liked ping-pong, and she could laugh at losing a game.