A teenager walks into a New York City bar. He looks as bad as bad can be. Hasn’t slept or eaten in days and, when he takes off this outlandish red hunting hat, you can tell he’s already going gray in places. And he’s not even 18 yet.
He smokes like a stack, lighting up new cigarettes before the old ones burn out. He hassles every waitress in the joint to sell him a drink. He’s a wreck, but in an immensely likable and sympathetic way.
You recognize him?
Of course you do.
It’s Holden Caulfield.
The antihero of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” the deeply compassionate and deeply troubled Caulfield has come to represent the teenage journey for millions of American readers.
And they usually meet him in the same place.
Not a bar.
In a high school English class.
This week marks the start of another school year in Hamilton County. Lying in wait within English classes are books and characters that have the power to crawl under our skin, lodge in our hearts and trouble our minds like good literature can.
The goal of life is to learn how to live, and few places hold as many guides for the journey as high school literature.
Don’t you agree? Is there one book out there that you encountered in high school English class that made you a different person?
Here are my top five, the ones that have stayed with me through thick and thin. Feel free to add yours at the end.
And no, Huck Finn ain’t on the list.
The kid cusses like a sailor and tries to act tough like one, too. But just beyond his superficial act beats a troubled heart and a mind about to collapse. Caulfield is lonely and broken in all the worst places, yet he still tries again and again to hold a crumbling world together, hoping to catch people before they fall off the cliff.
Holden’s asking the same question so many teenagers are asking about today’s society: Where are all the adults?
And why the hell does everyone have to be so phony?
2. “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Love conquers all, St. Paul said. Dickens believed it, too. A revolutionary epic set in the best and worst of times, the “Tale” contains everything needed for a drama: blood in the streets, the saving grace of love and some wicked wineshop owners, seeking justice against the original 1 percent.
3. “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Too many parts to name: busting up chifforobes, rabid dogs in the streets, the Radley tree and the small-town landscape. But the best of this book resides in the characters: the plumb-line straightness of Atticus, the innocence of Tom, the saintly Boo and the emerging Scout.
4. “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
Zora Neale Hurston writes sentences as delicious as any I’ve ever read. They drape like Spanish moss — fragrant like flower gardens — over the rich plot. Janie Crawford, the hero, learns about self-love, independence and community.
Couldn’t we all.
5. Cormac McCarthy (with regrets to “Lord of the Flies,” Hemingway, Morrison, O’Connor and Faulkner).
It’s like he speaks a second language, where words and sentences combine to form some of the most haunting, ferocious and beautiful stories I’ve ever known. “All the Pretty Horses” — a cowboy tale about boys becoming men — is one I read each year or so.
I wish Holden would, too.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...