Four years ago I wrote a post about hard to find, unpublished short stories by J.D. Salinger, including his short story “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.”
Since then I’ve taught a few English Lit courses that have had several of Salinger’s short stories and Catcher in the Rye on the syllabus. Also, more sadly, J.D. Salinger passed away, and because of this, there has been some news about his estate: some of his unpublished stuff is going to come out. (Whoa.)
And now, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” has leaked, and it’s online. (Double whoa.)
I find “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” interesting because it sheds a lot of light on Salinger’s more famous novel, Catcher. The story is about Holden’s brother, Allie (called “Kenneth” in the story). Allie’s death has totally traumatized Holden, and this colours his inability to grow up or let other children “fall” into experience.
Here’s one bit I think is interesting, from Holden’s letter to his older brother, Vincent (the narrator of “Bowling Balls”):
“This place stinks. I never saw so many rats. You have to make stuff out of lether [sic] and go for hikes. They got a contest between the reds and the whites. I am supposed to be a white. I am no lousy white.”
“I am no lousy white” is pretty great, especially compared to what Holden says in Catcher in the Rye.
In that novel, then Mr. Spencer insists that life is a game, Holden thinks to himself, “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right–I’ll admit that. but if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.”
In other words, Holden feels like shit for 1) actually being on the winning side (recall his guilt about having a “bourgeois” suitcase) and 2) because he’s not on the side of innocence (white) but experience (red).
It’s a whole other blog post, but what I like about Catcher is that you’re supposed to think Holden’s a total jerk, but you’re supposed to sympathize with him anyway.
Why? Because your problem sympathizing with Holden (a phony) is the same problem Holden has sympathizing with everyone else.
It’s like there are three levels of engagement with the novel.
First, you think Holden’s great. The world is full of phonies. Screw everything! I am a unique and beautiful snowflake!
But then you realize, hey wait a minute, Holden’s just a jerk. He calls everyone a phone but he’s the phone! What a hypocrity.
And, then, finally, you stop and realize, oh, wait. I’m supposed to sympathize with him anyway, just the way he should really grow up and sympathize with everyone he calls phony. Right.