Must Every New Coming-of-Age Novel Be 'the Next Catcher in the Rye?'

For decades, reviewers and readers have eagerly compared works of fiction about young people to J.D. Salinger's 1951 classic—which is more apt in some cases than in others.
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In April, Publishers Weekly endorsed Ben Lytal's latest novel, A Map of Tulsa, by calling it an "updated version" of J.D. Salinger's famous 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. "If The Catcher in the Rye has lost its raw clout for recent generations of Internet-suckled American youth," the PW reviewer wrote, "here is a coming-of-age novel to replace it." Rolling Stone also alluded to the classic portrait of teen angst earlier this year when it declared that the fictional 11-year-old pop star at the heart of the novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine was a "Holden Caulfield Jr. adrift in Access Hollywood hell."

Year after year, generation after generation, every time a good coming-of-age novel is written, someone somewhere compares it to Salinger's tour de force. Why exactly is it that reviewers so often name-check the book about the aimless, ambling adventures of a kid who's just been kicked out of Pencey Prep when discussing stories about growing up?

Often, the analogy is reasonable. Though Jonny Valentine's eponymous main character is a music-industry confection who appears to be about as phony as it gets, he yearns for authenticity and connection in a Caulfieldian key. The Wall Street Journal called 28-year-old Dwight Wilmerding, the hapless hero of Benjamin Kunkel's 2005 novel Indecision a "21st-century literary descendant of Holden"--and both narrators are hilarious arm-chair philosophers with unusually fervid feelings for their sisters, even if Dwight more actively tries to assuage his angst by flying to Ecuador to seek out an old crush, while Holden merely fantasizes about his beloved Jane Gallagher.

Other times, though, the Catcher comparison seems less appropriate. "For everyone who wished that Holden Caulfield was a girl, your time has come with Prep," U.S. News & World Report gushed in 2005--but Curtis Sittenfeld, the book's author, disagreed. "Both The Catcher in the Rye and Prep featured disaffected teenage protagonists, but that's about it," Sittenfeld opined for NPR. "Even the boarding school setting isn't much of a commonality because very little of The Catcher in the Rye actually takes place [there]." Writing about the 50th anniversary of Catcher in The New Yorker, Louis Menand called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) the MTV edition of Catcher--but Dave Eggers's memoir describes how he becomes the caretaker for his much younger brother after their parents die, whereas those roles come closer to being reversed in Catcher, with Holden's much-younger sister, Phoebe, urging him to advance towards adulthood. USA Today made a comment similar to Menand's when remarking that Less Than Zero (1987) was a "Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation"--though MTV, period, seems to have been more of an influence on Bret Easton Ellis.

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A Map of Tulsa author Lytal says the Publishers Weekly review comparing his novel to Catcher was a happy surprise, but a surprise nonetheless. "I was delighted," he told me in an interview, to be put in the same league with "such a big iconic book. That doesn't mean I would make the Catcher in the Rye comparison myself." Understandably so. Lytal's narrator, Jim, seems an orange to Holden's apple; Lytal, more a James Salter than a Salinger. Jim's metaphors are often startling in their visual beauty, his observations so precise that he can evoke a complex mise en scene in a sentence. (Consider: "[T]he pervasive self-consciousness of the smart-kid atmosphere encouraged a freak-out manic dancing, pursued between males, shouting the lyrics in each other's faces.") And measured, insightful Jim is much closer to a third-person narrator than old Holden, who's about as first-person as it gets--talking in that helluva slangy way, if you know what I mean, that's so chatty it would be almost corny if the book weren't so poignantly funny.

As it turns out, however, any evocation of Salinger's classic by a reviewer may not be a suggestion that a new novel will be Catcher-like in voice or plot, but more a prediction that it will "touch this generation the way that The Catcher in the Rye touched its generation." That's how Louisa Ermelino, Publishers Weekly's Reviews Director, explained her publication's take on A Map of Tulsa to me.

Unseating Catcher will be tough, however, given the way that Salinger's book--which took the crown for most memorable colloquial American narrator away from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--has powerfully affected, and still affects, so many generations of readers. "Contemporary readers from all kinds of backgrounds recognize Holden's world-view as comparable to their own--my own students do, every year," Sarah Graham, a lecturer in American literature at the University of Leicester and author of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, told me. And Jay McInerney, the author of Bright Lights, Big City--itself "The Catcher in the Rye for the M.B.A. set," according to Playboy--described the impact Salinger's book has had on writers: "In its modern form the American bildungsroman (the novel of formation) descends from The Catcher in the Rye," he wrote when reviewing Kunkel's debut for The New York Times.

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Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, a hybrid of advice column and literary criticism. Her op-eds, essays, and other writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily, Slate, and Salon.

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