The bar was closing up for the night, so I got them all two drinks apiece quick before it closed, and I ordered two more Cokes for myself. The goddam table was lousy with glasses...
In J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the young hero Holden Caulfield heads for Manhattan in the middle of the night, having been expelled from boarding school. In avoidance of his parents, he steers clear of home and scrambles through the city over the course of a few days, making failed attempts to connect with strangers, old acquaintances, and friends, while shifting impatiently from one locale to the next.
On two consecutive nights, he ends up closing down bars. The first night (referenced in the quote above), he insinuates himself into the company of three young female tourists, who basically let him linger because he's willing to buy them drinks. As they interact, Holden is at turns charming and condescending, eager and dismissive. But what is painfully clear is that he's buying them drinks because he can't bear to be alone. So closely is he pursued by his ghosts, he would have bought a thousand drinks to fend off the end of the night a few hours more.
If the first night ends with failed connections with strangers, the second night entails failed connections with friends, and ends worse. Having convinced an old friend to join him briefly at the Wicker Bar in the Seton Hotel, Holden ends up alone.
Boy, I sat at that goddam bar till around one o'clock or so, getting drunk as a bastard. I could hardly see straight... Finally what I felt like, I felt like giving old Jane a buzz... But when I got inside this phone booth, I wasn't much in the mood any more to give old Jane a buzz. I was too drunk, I guess. So what I did, I gave old Sally Hayes a buzz.
I had to dial about twenty numbers before I got the right one. Boy, was I blind.
As most of us know through experience, dialing ex-girlfriends when the bars are closing is no antidote to your troubles.
In many respects, the Closing Time scenes in Catcher are reminiscent of the other Closing Times that I've described this week. On display are the recognizable demons of isolation, failed romance, old traumas, and the brief comfort of chance company. But what I find particularly interesting about Closing Time in Catcher is that Salinger has revisited this American motif through the eyes of a teenager. In so doing, Salinger was letting a tiger out of a cage.
Where fiction and essays for hundreds of years had dealt with themes of alienation among adults, few had focused on those feelings in the lives of the young. Without a doubt, one reason the book remains so popular with American youth is that it gives voice to challenging aspects of the teenage experience that were universal, monumental (in the eyes of the teen), and yet largely ignored by adults.
This imbalance is one thing that fueled the success of rock and roll. Presumably, for centuries teenagers had felt some form of alienation; old enough to consider their situation, on the verge of responsibilities, but lacking independence and authority, teenagers naturally feel misunderstood, trapped, awkward, and aspirational. But there was no real conduit for teenagers to share their feelings of alienation with each other. Then suddenly, through radio, young musicians could articulate these feelings and communicate them to their peers without the inter-mediation of adults.
If rock and roll became a wildfire in the 1960s, spurring a youth movement, Catcher in the Rye may have lit the match.