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Jerry Dowlen on...

  The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar: Transatlantic Twins?


The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Billy Liar (1959) are famous novels of male adolescence that established their respective authors J.D. Salinger and Keith Waterhouse as prominent names in 1950s literature. J.D. Salinger (1919 – 2010) came from New York and became a recluse for the second half of his life. The Catcher in the Rye rapidly propelled him to the top of the literary ladder, but after that he chose to stall his career, with the result that he published very little else in his lifetime.


By contrast, Keith Waterhouse (1929 – 2009) was published prolifically throughout his life. Born near Leeds, he hit the jackpot in his early writing career when his second published novel Billy Liar became a big seller and was adapted for theatre and film. He continued afterwards to write a stream of novels: he wrote newspaper columns too, and several works for television.


Can I make an argument that J.D. Salinger and Keith Waterhouse were Transatlantic twins? Both men had huge early success as novelists, and with a very similar type of story.


Ah, but perhaps I should be arguing that the novels themselves – The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar – are the Transatlantic twins? Both the novels have as their central character a crazy mixed up kid: one is a teenager who has flunked out of college; the other is a little older and is just starting his first job, but he is still, recognisably, a young man with what would nowadays be described as “issues”.  In each novel, the entire narrative action takes place during a very short and compressed period of time.


Hang on: did I say “crazy mixed up kid”? Maybe that is a fair way to describe Holden Caulfield, pupil (soon to be ex-pupil) of Pencey Prep; and Billy Fisher, undertaker’s clerk at the firm of Shadrack & Duxbury. But the reason, of course, for the huge popularity and success of the novels Catcher in the Rye and Billy Fisher was that thousands of young male readers readily identified with the lead characters. Through their actions and their expressions, variously encompassing anger, frustration, rebellion and retreat into fantasy, Holden Caulfield and Billy Fisher were perceived by youthful male readers as being reassuringly normal. Bored with school and bored with work? Rowing with parents? Difficulties with girls? Here were two fictional characters that seemed to be engagingly real because of their adolescence being filled with conflict, confusion and embarrassing scrapes.


So maybe my argument is actually that Holden Caulfield and Billy Fisher are the Transatlantic twins? Naturally enough they differ in their use of respective American and English slang. Holden Caulfield finds numerous things to be “crumby” and numerous people to be “phony”. Billy uses adjectives like “fizzing”, “flaming” and “frigging”. But in many respects the two are like peas in a pod. They instinctively tell lies: often pointless lies, blurted out in the spur of the moment. They both mess up when entrusted with responsibility to look after important equipment: Holden absent-mindedly leaves all the school fencing team kit on the subway train; Billy fails to post the annual calendars to the company’s clients.


Some of the similarities are more positive and endearing. For example, both boys find solace in creative writing, for which they have a special gift. They both can be admirably self-assured in social situations with adults: cruising the New York club and hotel night-life. Holden secures a table at a crowded floor-show where he chats to some older girls and confidently dances with them; Billy does a regular stand-up solo comedy act in front of a demanding audience at a local pub.  


The respective workplaces (the college and the undertaking firm) engender feelings of cynicism: Holden silently scorns how the Pencey brochure makes the school sound much more posh than it really is; Billy silently takes the mickey out of the twee words and the trite pictures of pet dogs and cats on the company calendar.  


Girls are a key component of both stories. They give rise to some of the most amusing or touching scenes. There are issues of male insecurity such as bragging about past conquests (real or imaginary) and suffering the pangs of unrequited love. There is an especially close parallel between the incident when Holden suddenly accuses his cute and affectionate girl friend Sally of being a “royal pain in the ass” and when Billy boils over with frustration while trying to kiss the virginal Barbara on a park bench, and suddenly kicks her handbag across the churchyard.


Light comedy and satire – sometimes laugh-out-loud – is the prevailing tone of Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar. But a book rarely becomes an enduring classic if it is one-dimensional only. Sure enough both J.D. Salinger and Keith Waterhouse skilfully weave in moments of pathos and pain that suddenly make the reader feel sober and more inquisitive. Holden and Billy are too headstrong and impatient to imagine that parents, grandparents, headmasters, teachers and bosses have anything relevant (“sage and shrewd”) to tell them. But important nuggets of advice are heard from these elders. Holden, indeed, is listening to people younger than himself when some subtle pearls of wisdom are dropped.


A ride on a carousel and a ride on a railway train is the closing incident in the respective books Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar. Each is symbolic of a journey and a choice.  


Fondness of family and home town can sometimes tame a restless spirit.


Jerry Dowlen

October 2015


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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