Welcome to the accompanying blog post for my YouTube video on “The Catcher in the Rye”.
If you haven’t watched it yet, here is the link:
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I say in the video that I may be irresponsible for selecting a book that describes underage teenage drinking and that is because of the concern for any potential teenager viewers of the video who may be tempted to recreate the drinks… I guess there is not a huge amount I can do to prevent that but when it comes to discussing the book who is it actually aimed at and should I be worried about a teenage audience? Is it not the case that in fact it is an adult readership Salinger was aiming for and because of its success it has become a staple diet of all ages?
‘He said he had a date. Then he ordered a dry martini. He told the bartender to make it very dry, and no olive.’
‘I ordered a Scotch and soda, and told him not to mix it – I said it fast as hell, because if you hem and haw, they think you’re under twenty-one and won’t sell you any intoxicating liquor.’
I won’t be mentioning any of the more controversial aspects of the book’s history and connections or referencing Salinger himself. There is a very interesting documentary on him you can watch now, simply titled ‘Salinger’, if you want to learn more about the man. This post and the video series it belongs to is only concerned with the theme of alcohol.
Booze is mentioned a lot in this book and even though the main character Holden Caulfield is underage there are several references to his appearance and the fact he can get away with looking older, although that doesn’t always help him. That brings me back to my early forays into drinking alcohol, I looked older and was one of the lads that could convince some shops to sell me alcohol and I’m sure there are those amongst you that can remember the nerves as you swung the door open and gave it your best shot. Now of course I am not condoning that, but it is what happened though so I’m not going to lie. A lot of my friends are parents now and I bet they have their concerns about what their kids get up to. There was also the pain of being turned away from pubs and clubs… bad times.
‘...but I called him back. ‘Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?’ I asked him. I asked him very nicely and all. ‘I can’t sit in a corny place like this cold sober. Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?’
‘The one ugly one, Laverne, kept kidding me because I was only drinking Cokes. She had a sterling sense of humor. She and old Marty were drinking Tom Collinses – in the middle of December, for God’s sake. They didn’t know any better.’
If I cast my mind back to those times then there is definitely that sense of being totally out of my depth. I thought I knew what I was doing and most of the time I was a confident young lad who enjoyed new experiences and the pretend time I stole being in the adult world. There were also scary, frightening times. Moments when there was violence, lack of money and being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no idea which way to start walking (pre Google Maps app on the iPhone) and other situations that I simply did not know how to handle.
‘I let it drop. I was afraid he was going to crack the damn taxi up or something. Besides, he was such a touchy guy, it wasn’t any pleasure discussing anything with him. ‘Would you care to stop off and have a drink with me somewhere?’ I said.’
‘I ordered a Scotch and soda, which is my favorite drink, next to frozen Daiquiris. If you were only around six years old, you could get liquor at Ernie’s, the place was so dark and all, and besides, nobody cared how old you were. You could even be a dope fiend and nobody’d care.’
Perhaps that is why it is interesting to read a character like Holden. I can associate with some aspects of his drinking. I wonder what it would have been like to have been me in his situation, in New York, in private education, with his family and history. How would I have gone about the night? Would I have visited the same bars and met the same people? Would I have been more sensible or perhaps braver? Would I have risked more? Would I have run home?
What is more important is how much did I know about my environment and the associations and connotations related to drinking in general? Holden makes a lot of observations about people’s use of alcohol and makes assumptions about their character and their intelligence from their drinks and their drinking.
I’m not so sure I was that clever. I don’t think I knew a variety of cocktails at 16 or 17 although maybe that’s just because I can’t remember (all those years of boozing destroying the brain cells and all that…) and I’m not sure I would have made the connection between what a person chose to drink and what that says about them; I think I would have been more basic in my observations.
That is one of the criticisms of the way Holden speaks. Is he too aware of his surroundings and adult life? There are plenty of occasions (The duck question being one of the more obvious) in the book when the child Holden is shown, the naïve and immature Holden; but there are also plenty of times when he seems to be endowed with many more years worldy-wise experience then a teenager could have. Saying that, I do not have knowledge of the world he lived in and there is an argument to be made that his family position has thurst him very early into adult society.
‘But I’m crazy. I swear to God I am. About halfway to the bathroom I sort of started pretending I had a bullet in my guts. Old Maurice had plugged me. Now I was on the way to the bathroom to get a good shot of bourbon or something to steady my nerves and help me really go into action.’Page 135.
‘Boy I sat at that goddam bar till around one o’clock or so, getting drunk as a bastard. I could hardly see straight. The one thing I did, though, I was careful as hell not to get boisterous or anything. I didn’t want anybody to notice me or anything or ask how old I was. But boy, I could hardly see straight.’
Also, and for me the most important point, we as adults very easily forget how much we knew back then as children.
Actually one quick point: I am British and writing this from London, England. Our legal drinking age has an interesting history and it’s worth reading up on if you have the time but in terms of buying alcohol in licensed public houses (drinking only, there are differences if you are eating a meal) the minimum age has been 18 years old for a long time. When I looked up the licensing laws in New York at the time the story was set in I was surprised to see it was also 18. I was always under the assumption (and I travelled to the states once too) that the US minimum age was always 21. So in fact, Holden is not hugely underage, the difference is just one or two years and he more than likely would have got away with underage drinking should he have visited London as well.
‘He had on his bathrobe and slippers, and he had a highball in one hand. He was a pretty sophisticated guy, and he was a pretty heavy drinker.’
‘All old Mr Antonlini had was another highball, though. He makes them very strong, too, you could tell. He may get to be an alcoholic if he doesn’t watch his step.’
Anyway, back to the point about forgetting how much children know. They hear and see everything and it is silly to think that you can hide everything from them. They pick up on emotions and situations and learn from them and one of my hero’s Roald Dahl talked about this a lot. He felt he could still remember what it was to think like a child and he considered it a great asset in his writing. I’m not saying that critics are right or wrong when saying that Salinger wrote a thirty year olds mind into a teenage body but it is worth considering that teenagers can be wise old souls on occasion.
For all of the mentioning of booze and his desire to have a drink he is wary of alcoholics and it makes you wonder to what extent he is deliberately hurting himself or unwittingly doing so. He is so concerned with authenticity and ‘phonies’ that I could understand the desire to look real and act the part. If you are in an adults world then you drink, that’s just the way of things isn’t it? But we see in the significant Chapter 24 when he visits Mr Antonlini that he doesn’t automatically connect excessive drinking with being bad, as he initially talks admiringly of Mr Antonlini, he sees him as intelligent and someone to be looked up to and is in fact worried that he may be drinking too much. So, to an extent, maybe Holden sees himself in him a little bit… too intelligent to have a drinking problem.
‘The waiter came up, and I ordered a coke for her – she didn’t drink – and a Scotch and soda for myself, but the sonuvabitch wouldn’t bring me one, so I had a coke, too.’
‘I sat down at the bar – it was pretty crowded – and had a couple of Scotch and sodas before old Luce even showed up. I stood up when I ordered them so they could see how tall I was and all and not think I was a goddam minor. Then I watched the phonies for a while.’
An aspect of Holden’s experience we can all associate with is the desire to see the world differently when drinking. Now you could argue I suppose that that is phony in itself, I mean, deliberately altering our state of perception. For most people it is an entirely pleasurable experience, we chose to drink alcohol because it calms us down, makes us feel better, breaks down our inhibitions, brings us to a point where we can laugh and joke and relax freely and without care. Of course, it can go too far and I am sure we all have our moments of drunkenness that we wish to forget. The main thing here is authenticity. Drink makes us change the way we see the world but also the way the world sees us. I’m not talking about the stupid acts of bravado we may be easily encouraged to attempt, our loose tongues and other problematic inducements of alcohol but rather our projected normal appearance. Holden manages to make easy assumptions based on people’s drinks and we can do that too sometimes, we judge a person if they drink too much and attach negative connotations to it, we can worry about a person’s ability to get on in the adult world, drive, go to work, etc. So for me, I can see a direct relationship between Holden’s drinking, or rather, his desire to drink in the adult world, and his attempt to be in control of mental illness, and by that I tend in this case to focus on depression. It’s the easiest thing in the world to drink away problems and it’s the easiest thing in the world to hide depression in a hangover. So in a strange way, drinking alcohol is both an attempt to be in control of your life, and a way to disguise how out of control you are. That may be something that Holden has the uncanny ability to see through, adults who are not as in control of their lives as they think they are. It’s a horrible process growing up and realizing that adults are not the clever, intelligent, sophisticated and responsible beings you always think they are. There isn’t a magic line you cross over when you turn 18 or 21 or any age whereby all the virtues you assume people who control your life growing up suddenly embed themselves into you and you are now a responsible adult. Perhaps Holden can see that and he is annoyed by the veil of authenticity we place over ourselves by money, jobs, marriage, having children and of course, alcohol.
‘The more I thought about my gloves and my yellowness, the more depressed I got, and I decided, while I was walking and all, to stop off and have a drink somewhere. I’d only had three drinks at Ernie’s, and I didn’t even finish the last one. One thing I have, it’s a terrific capacity. I can drink all night and not even show it, if I’m in the mood.’
Anyway, I’m no expert as I’ve already said. I’m simply throwing a few thoughts your way and seeing if any make sense. You may consider me wrong on many points or there could be several key issues I’m missing. Feel free to comment or write to me with your responses. The point of these blogs is to expand just a little on the background as to why I picked the book for the video.
- Simple Syrup: 35ml or 1.2 fl oz
- Freshly Squeezed Lemon: 25ml or 0.85 fl oz
- Rum: 50ml or 1.7 fl oz
- Ice & Blend!
Rum Swizzle (Highball)
- Simple Syrup: 20ml or 0.68 fl oz
- Freshly Squeezed Lime: 25ml or 0.85 fl oz
- Velvet Falernum: 10ml or 0.34 fl oz
- Angostura Bitters: Two dashes of
- Rum (Aged): 50ml or 1.7 fl oz
- Ice & Swizzle!
The Catcher in the Rye
The edition I own and used for this video was published by Penguin Books in 1994. ISBN: 9780140237504
Here are some links for you to further research the book:
Thanks for watching and don’t forget to let me know if you have any recommendations on what we should recreate next.
Thanks to Ruairi of The Bonneville
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