An Appreciation of David Bowie’s “China Girl”

Before I begin this paean on the exquisite pop/rock masterpiece “China Girl,” I thought I’d mention that some consider Bowie’s 1983 hit racist because he portrays a diminutive Asian female in stereotypical ways, and, [throat clearing], the sexualization of Asian females has been a Western European/North American thing for centuries.[1]

Take Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, for example, in which the narrator Fowler and his antagonist Pyle clash over the possession of Phoung, a Vietnamese husband-hunter who doesn’t even rate a name in Good Reads’ summary. There she’s merely “Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress.”

Anyway, Bowie considered “China Girl” a “very simple, very direct statement against racism.”

For an opposing view, here’s a link to “An Asian’s Take on ‘China Girl'”: https://rethinkreviews.medium.com/an-asians-take-on-david-bowie-s-china-girl-232e2a6aaeb4

Anyway, whether it’s racist or antiracist[2], the song itself, its dynamic progression from the bubbly pop of the first verse through the escalation of the narrator’s increasing angst, is masterful as it gradually morphs from a Jackson-5-like pop tune into an echo chamber of Weimer Republic decadence. Throughout, Bowie’s phrasing is pliant as he adjusts his voice to the narrator’s successive moods as he transitions from the sunshine of verse one to “visions of Swastikas” in verse four.

The song begins with a riff that Jonathan Kim (the author of the linked article) describes as a “little plunky Asian-style riff” that “is the musical equivalent of someone saying “Ching chong ching.”

On the other hand, it’s catchy, cheerful sounding and segues into the first verse where the narrator’s calm baritone contemplates his Chinese lover.

I couldn’t escape this feeling with my China girl
I feel a wreck without my little China girl
I hear her heart beating, loud as thunder
Saw these stars crashing

In the second verse, the mood darkens slightly, but Bowie’s voice remains relatively upbeat.

I’m a mess without my little China girl
Wake up in the morning, where’s my little China girl?
I hear her heart is beating, loud as thunder
I saw these stars crashing down

After the chorus, in the third, stanza, a sense of anxiety shadows the vocal as the tempo increases. Also, Bowie renders a sort of rock-a-billy hiccup with the line “I could pretend that nothing really meant too much.”  A hiccuppy muffled semi-sob sort of.


I’m feeling tragic like I’m Marlon Brando
When I look at my China girl
And I could pretend that nothing really meant too much
When I look at my China girl

What follows is an instrumental interlude in which the thumping of bass and drums replaces the tinkle-tinkle lightness of the verse two verses, which then leads to what I called above “a Weimer decadence.”

I stumble into town
Just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It’s in the white of my eyes

My little China girl
You shouldn’t mess with me
I’ll ruin everything you are
You know
I’ll give you television
I’ll give you eyes of blue
I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world

The narrator sees himself as a negative influence, as a potential dictator perhaps, a man with some sort of dark mission, but when he gets into one of these moods, his Chinese lover soothes him, tells him to “shut his mouth.”

And when I get excited
My little China girl says
“Oh, baby, just you shut your mouth”
She says, “Ssh”
She says “Ssh”
She says
She says

A 25-second guitar solo replaces “ssh” as the direct object, and then the verse is repeated two more times before we come full circle and return from the realm of rock to bubbling pop as the playful Chinese riff returns, the bass stepping aside, out of the way.

Supposedly, Bowie adapted an earlier Iggy Pop version, and gives him co-writing a credit.

Obviously, I really admire the song, think it transcends the typical arc of a pop song yet remains, as they used to say on Bandstand, “danceable.”


[1] I struggled with what noun to use to describe the chronic Western sexualization of Asian females. I tried “predilection” and then “propensity” and finally “tradition” before opting for “thing,” the weakest of words that can describe anything from belly button lint to the resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes, though, you have to choose sound over sense.

[2] After all, as my bosom buddy Hamlet sez: “There’s nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

from Old Wes’s Almanack

Disencumbered with Old Nonsense, the Old Doggere[a]list Turns the Page

Let yesterday go,
Ralph Waldo says sagely.
Forget about the squandered dough
and your dead dog Saisy.

Ray Charles was right,
“They ain’t nothing you can do,”
so enjoy today’s ephemeral light
and whip up a pot of oyster stew.

Saisy

Rambling, Riffling, Reminiscing

Coole Park, County Galway, Ireland

This is the first day of autumn weather wise, the turning of yet another page in the annals of my accumulated seasons, dating all the way back to 1952 when I was born just two weeks shy of the winter solecist.

Autumn was my mother’s favorite season, my late wife Judy’s favorite season, and my beloved Caroline’s favorite season. However, I always associated autumn with the beginning of school, which for me was always a sad occasion.[1] Despite the scorching heat, the subcontinental humidity, I always hated for to summer end.

Back when I attended elementary school, male teachers were as rare as white non-segregationists.[2] Rummaging through the cob-webbed bric-a-brac filled attic of my ever-dimming memory, I’m trying to come up with my first male teacher’s name.

A line of white-haired ghosts files past – Miss Marion, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Jordon, Mrs. Montz, Mrs. Stall, Miss McCue, Mrs. Altman. Nope, no males in elementary school; even the principal Mrs. Muckenfuss was female.

In junior high, we had male PE teachers and a male principal whom I once saw knock two students’ heads together Three Stooges style, an act that today would no doubt land him before a judge.

Ah, those were the days. It was from him I received my first paddling, three sharp thwacks upon the tiny target my thirteen-year-old butt. I had Coach Blanton for PE, one of my mother’s good friends from high school, but I can’t think of a junior high academic male teacher.

As it turns out, I can’t remember all my teachers’ names, in fact, only a handful. There was Miss Shirley, a seventh grade Spanish teacher. I think I remember Mrs. Euler taught science, Mrs. Morgan English, Mrs. Meyers Algebra, and Mrs. Waltrip seventh grade math. I can’t for the life of me remember who taught me history, my favorite subject back then. And, oh yeah, Reid Charpia was another male PE teacher I had.

Okay, let’s try high school. One of my homeroom teachers was male, but I didn’t have him in class.

Eureka! It’s finally come to me finally. Captain House was my first male teacher, a WWII navy veteran, a colorful character who led this cheer at pep rallies:

Give ’em the ax,

Give ’em the ax,

Give ’em the ax.

Which side?

Which side?

Which side?

The cutting side!

The cutting side!

The cutting side.

Indeed, Captain House was the inspiration for a cheer I tried to install in Porter-Gaud’s collection of cheers, one I adapted from Alston High School, the African American high school in the “separate-but-equal” days.

Whup ’em, Cyclones, whup ’em.

Whup ’em, Cyclones, whup ’em.

Whup ’em, Cyclones, whup ’em, Cyclones, whup ’em, Cyclones,

Whup ’em!

I reckoned the primitive guttural chant would be a more effective motivator than the sing-songy cheers Porter-Gaud employed.

Victory, Victory, is our cry:

V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.

Will we win it?

You doggone right.

Porter-Gaud, Porter-Gaud, fight, fight, fight!

The irony is that I-and-I, a hater of school, ended up a teacher, did 34 years, as the ex-cons say. But now that’s over, I can fully embrace the pleasures of autumn, the crisp air, the turning of the leaves, college football, the MLB playoffs, etc. as I shuffle off towards my eventual exit.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

*

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

*

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

*

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

*

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

WB Yeats


[1] I did enjoy buying back-to-school supplies, book bags and spiral notebooks. I can almost still smell the army surplus backpacks that Mama bought. However, all too soon those notebooks would be filled with my chicken scratch scrawl and the backpack with cheese cracker crumbs.

[2] How’s that for a jarring transition?

Cliffs of Fall Frightful, Sheer, No Man Fathomed

Alexandre Coll

Cliffs of Fall Frightful, Sheer, No Man Fathomed

Who needs actual supernatural ghosts when we all have harrowing memories haunting us?

Take combat veterans for example. Like poor Wilfred Owen who lived just long enough to write this before getting killed in WWI.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Even if you were lucky enough to escape the trenches of that war, the beach heads of the second, the jungles of Viet Nam, and the deserts of the Middle East, you still have no doubt a host of melancholy memories that can arise in the wee hours like ectoplasmic phantoms.

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden

Lady Macbeth says, “What’s done is done,” but that’s not true as long as the subcranial electric impulses that are our memories decide to break out of their tombs and rattle their chains.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

Woe, world-sorrow; an an age old anvil wince and sing –

Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-

ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.'”

O, the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here creep,

Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all

Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Pernell McDaniel at Chico Feo

photo credit George Fox

One of the premier artists at Chico-Feo’s Singer/Songwriter open mic Mondays, Pernell McDaniel performs a wide range of originals. Whether he is singing about his beloved grandfather, star-crossed interracial couples, or the abundant goods available at Bert’s Market, his melodies and lyrics seamlessly meld into well-crafted crowd pleasers.

Here he is performing “The Ballad of Chris and Willy” on 19 September 2022.

The lyrics appear beneath the video.

Enjoy!

THE BALLAD OF CHRIS AND WILLY

On the other side of the tracks
On the shady side of town
Two young bucks worked a corner spot
Sharing their love around
Pimpin’ riffs and rhymes
And layin’ down beats and tracks

Chris and Willy made their way
Climbin’ each others backs
Scrapin’ and scratchin’ A
nd tryin’ to get ahead
Where street cred and the dollar bill
Was all the pride they had

And then the big time struck
Like a lightning bolt
And they got swept away in the fray
Not knowin’ that their crooked paths
Would cross again one day

Chorus

Yeah, Chris and Willy had a lifelong feud
Kinda like they never had Nothin’ much better to do.
But, Chris and Willy Never had a real fight
Until a bald headed woman Came between ’em At the Oscar’s one night

Willy married a time or two
And wound up with a chick named Jada.
She was a swinger with alopecia.
She was low hanging fruit for a hater.

Chris got rich on SNL
And later on the silver screen.
His money was green.
But, he was an A-list star
‘Cause his jokes were all so mean.
Then one night at the Oscar’s Willy had a nomination.
And Chris was MC-ing center stage
And tryin’ to be an aggravation.
In a single lapse of judgement
Chris joked about Jada’s scalp.
And Willy stormed the stage
And slapped the taste Out of Chris’s mouth!
Tears filled Willy’s eyes
As he reached his front row seat
While Chris was tryin’ to keep his cool
And checkin’ for loose teeth.
Jada scanned the crowd
Then beamed at Willy in adoration.
But Willy couldn’t let it go
Without one last indignation.
In a voice that thundered Like the cannon fire
When Sherman raped the South He said
“Don’t let my wife’s name Come outa your fuckin’ mouth!”

Yeah, Chris and Willy had a lifelong feud
Kinda like they never had Nothin’ much better to do.
But, Chris and Willy Never had a real fight
Until a bald headed woman Came between ’em At the Oscar’s one night

That Way, Down Highway 61

Bug-Splattered Windshield

When I was a child, before the completion of I-26, there were two routes that led from Summerville to Charleston, and the two couldn’t have been more different in character. The more pleasant passage my parents called “the River Road,” Highway 61, a tree tunnel of moss-draped oaks running parallel to the Ashley River and past the antebellum plantations of Middleton, Magnolia, and Drayton Hall, which had become tourist attractions.

The River Road

My parents referred to the other route, Highway 52, as the “Dual Lane” because it featured four lanes divided by a wide grassy median. It took you past the Navy Base through what we called the Charleston Neck, a narrow passage between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, a forlorn industrial wasteland where fertilizer plants spewed thick orange smog and produced insufferable acrid odors that could make a six-year-old sick to his stomach.

If you were in a hurry, it made more sense to take Highway 52, which was faster and much safer, especially at night. I would hate to hazard a guess as to how many people lost their lives veering off 61 into one the majestic oaks that stood ever so close to the shoulder. Also, if you took the route at night, insects bombarded the windshield in non-stop splattering, making a mess, obscuring visibility. Of course, in those days, you couldn’t press a button to spray liquid and engage wipers.  

Highway 52 featured a large, old, dilapidated house that my parents mistakenly thought was the Six Mile House, a notorious inn run by John and Lavinia Fisher.[1] Lavinia, who along with her husband John, was hanged 18 February 1820, became known as “the first female serial killer in the United States,” an epithet that doesn’t really trip off the tongue the way epithets should.[2] There was also a rumor that the skeleton at the Old Charleston Museum belonged to Lavinia, who had responded to her husband’s pleas that she make peace with the Lord with these memorable last words: “Cease! I will have none of it. Save your words for others that want them. But if you have a message you want sent to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it.”

Also, the Dual Lane had drive-in movies whose screens were visible at night.  Later, when I myself was driving, a triple X movie playing at the Port or North 52 could itself cause a traffic mishap.

Nevertheless, I preferred the River Road because my parents would sometimes sing duets when we took that route, and never did when we travelled the Dual Lane. Here’s one of their favorites:

I know a ditty nutty as a fruitcake
Goofy as a goon and silly as a loon
Some call it pretty, others call it crazy
But they all sing this tune:

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?
Yes! Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?

If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey
Sing “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.”

Oh! Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you-oo?

Maybe the smog or the faster traffic of the Dual Lane dissuaded them from singing. It would have been nice to own a car with a radio – or air-conditioning for that matter – but we didn’t until my friend, the late Gordon Wilson, totaled my parents’ Ford Falcon in the spring of 1971.

How did he total the car? We hit a mule that had escaped from Middleton Plantation right there on Highway 61 about ten miles north of Summerville. The mule didn’t make it, but we did, which is surprising given the Falcon didn’t have seatbelts.

Because my butt was sore from a penicillin shot, I let Gordon drive, a decision that didn’t delight my sometime-singing parents.


[1]The Six Mile House was burned to the ground in 1820.

[2] C.f., “the Butcher of Baghdad,” “the Teflon Don,” etc.

Screen-Faced Nation

Megan Posey

George Fox’s Monday Night extravaganza known as the Singer/Songwriter Soapbox provides local musicians and poets a venue to showcase their original works, and many of them are damned good, like Jason Chambers, Chuck Sullivan, among a host of others.

Last night Megan Posey recited – not read – recited “Screen-Faced Nation,” a performance you can check out in the video below. This twenty-something has some serious chops. Check her out.

Note: the incompetent videographer [embarrassed throat clearing] didn’t start shooting until the fifth line, but you can read the entire poem below the video.

Screen-Faced Nation

by Megan Posey

I’m reporting to you live from Addictionville, USA

Found in the collective mind of humankind

Where substances and behaviors disguised as property investors

Develop land on top of your bulldozed dopamine receptors

Uppers, downers, booze, gambling, sex, shopping and food

Are just some of the towns long established moguls of real estate

The city was historically inhabited by massive huddles of the tired and poor

And though many transients were lured in by the pleasure and escapism that dangled as bait

It was an exit on the interstate that you would probably just ignore

But that is clearly that is no longer the case

We’ve become a needle-armed, powder-nosed, screen-faced nation.

Pundits are puzzled over what led to the gentrification

But I’d like to shift your attention back to 2010

When we had just demolished OxyContin

And nicotine was undergoing renovation

The cigarette was outdated but we hadn’t yet created

A plan to market vaping to the younger generation.

So there was some land available in town

And a growing family looking to settle down

That’s when Social media began to break ground

And construct their now all-encompassing compound

But look beyond the flimsy facade of connection

And you’ll see an opium den filled to the brim with junkies

Fiending for their next self-esteem injection

This just in

Property crime in the area has now reached an all-time high

Your focus, motivation, and creativity are being jacked in broad daylight

But the truth is you hand them over without so much as a fight

See, you were so scared of getting left behind

That you closed your eyes and got in line with the blind

Until one day you woke up with your head pounding on a cold, hard floor

You tried to escape, but what did you find?

The foyer had turned to a labyrinth of corridors

And there was just no easy way out anymore

Even if you could manage to free your mind

These days you still gotta have at least one foot in the door

It’s sad to watch people waste their whole lives in this podunk town

They’re like stillborns in the underbelly who never started to crown

A real individual could have been born and that’s a hefty cost

But so long as you search outside of yourself for the way

It does not matter what turn you take, you will always end up lost

In the unnavigable wasteland of Addictionville, USA

The Hoodoo Honky Tonk

The Hoodoo Honkey Tonk

for Stev Jam*

Taking the backroads from Allendale
to Statesboro, I spotted
a hand painted road sign that read

“Hoodoo Honky Tonk two miles ahead.”

Beneath it, nailed to the same post,
a smaller sign, with two words:

Cold Beer.

It was just now getting dark.
I was about halfway there.
Hey, why not? A couple of beers
might do me good, so I
slowed down so not to hurtle
past and have to turn back around.

There it was, just ahead,
on the right, a tar paper
shack with a rolling sign up front,
a couple of letters missing:
Ho Doo Honk Tonk.

The door was propped open
with a brick and a window
with a lit-up Bud Lite sign.

Dark inside, a roughhewn bar
in the back. Against a wall sat
a conked-out jukebox you could tell
quit working a good whiles back.

One customer on a stool.
A fat boy behind the bar.
The customer a woman
facing out. Couldn’t
of weighed more than eighty pounds.
Something bad wrong
with her, late-stage cancer
I would guess.

“Hello, stranger,” she said.

Her voice – how to describe
her voice? – imagine two sheets
of sandpaper soaked in ‘shine
scarping against one another
rasping raspier than a rasp.

She wore an Atlanta Braves cap,
her stringy grey hair pulled back
into a ponytail, a fashion faux pas
cause you could see her jug ears
sticking out like a satellite dish.

“Good evening, Ma’am,” I said.

“All we gots is beer.
Pabst, Bud Lite, Miller, Miller Lite,
and Schlitz Malt Liquor in a can.”

“A Bud,” I said, “that sounds alright.”

“Lonnie” she rasped, “get this gentleman a Bud.”

“I ain’t deaf.” he snarled.

“You own the place?’ I asked.

“Yep, but not for long. Doc says I got days left,
a week or two at the longest.”

Damn, what do you say to that?

“Damn, sorry to hear,” I said.

“Look, Mister. I need a favor, a huge one.
I wouldn’t ask if
I wasn’t desperate.”

“Oh shit,” I thought, “stopping here was a mistake.”
I could see now she was all drugged out
or drunk or both.

“I need you to make love to me,
a man to make love to me
one last time, to remember
what it feels like. Ain’t no one
come in here no more. I ain’t got
to kin, no friends, just Lonnie
over there who is as sick and tired of me
as I am of him.”

Damn, what do you say to that?

“Um, I wish I could, could accommodate you,
but I have this fiancée. (A better lie
would have been that I was gay,
but I’ve never been too good
at thinking on my feet).

She sort of snarled a smile.
“It would be a saintly act,
but I understand.”

In the long silence,
a couple of trucks swooshed past.

“How much do I owe you,” I asked.

“On the house, baby doll. Money don’t
mean nothing to me no more.
Nothing means nothing
to me no more. No friends,
no kin. In a year my memory
will disappear, nobody will
remember that once I was a pretty
good looking redheaded gal.
No trace of me left.
Nobody will remember me.”

“Wait, a minute,” I said.
“I’m a writer who sometimes
gets shit published. I could write
this story, and in the story
make love to you, pick you up
and carry you like a child
to that trailer across the road.
People would read the story
for years maybe. You’d be
remembered.”

She looked at me long and hard.

“Fuck you,” she said.
“It’s time for you to run along.”

So, I left but halfway wished
I’d given it a try.

“A saintly act” she had said.


  • I.e., the blues guitarist Steve James

A Teacher’s Recommendation for Holden Caulfield

image courtesy of Early Bird Books

Just for the hell of it, since I’m soon to become a YA author, I decided to reread A Catcher in the Rye.[1] Although Salinger wrote the novel for adults, it was until recently a mainstay in high school English curriculums. However, because sixteen-year-old first-person narrator Holden Caulfield frequently spews vulgarities, occasionally references sexual encounters, smokes like a fiend, and uses alcohol to excess, the novel has also been a favorite target of priggish parents demanding it be banned, not only from classrooms, but from libraries as well.[2]

As a teacher, I never explored Catcher in class but did include it on ninth grade independent reading lists. Unfortunately, most of my freshmen didn’t like the book – some even hated it – because they considered Holden too negative, too judgmental.[3] I will add that my former school lacked (and still does) a vibrant counterculture to counterbalance the preppies, jocks, and Jesus followers who dominate social life. Perhaps if we had had a more diverse student body, more hipsters and out-of-the-closet gays, old Holden would have had more admirers.

Hey, I’ll admit Holden can be off-putting. He’s self-centered, whiny, and way too judgmental, but he’s not self-righteous. A frequent target of his own disapprobation, he acknowledges his own immaturity, admitting that although “seventeen,” he “sometimes acts as if [he’s] about thirteen.”  Nevertheless, he’s not, as  Kaitlyn Greenridge, claims, an asshole:

I think it’s a detriment to how that book is taught that so many people feel like [Holden’s assholedom is] somehow a new revelation that nobody has talked about before, when, hopefully, a teacher teaches that book as like, this guy is an a-hole. We’re going to read about him. He’s going to piss you off. And we’re going to talk about how the author made that happen on the page and what are the things that are making you mad about this character. And then, hopefully, the next level is, you’re all the same age as this character, so what are the things that this character is doing that’s similar to what you are doing right now . . .

My go-to guy when it comes to asshole designation is Aaron James, whose book Assholes, a Theory defines an asshole as someone who “systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages […] out of an entrenched sense of entitlement” and who “is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”[4] This definition certainly doesn’t describe Holden, who is rather generous. For example, he lends his coat to his roommate Stradlater and his turtleneck to an unpopular student, a mere acquaintance.[5]  Later, unprompted, he donates ten dollars, a considerable amount of money in those days, to nuns he encounters at a diner.  Also, he’s not at all vindictive. He may be many things, but according to Aaron James (and I-and-I), he’s no asshole.

I950s teenagers hanging out

Okay, what is he then?

He’s a depressed, alienated adolescent grieving for his beloved dead brother; he’s a fallen idealist who treasures childhood innocence but has been pushed beyond the brink of coping – in other words, he’s a crazy, mixed-up kid, literally a crazy mixed-up kid.

When I read the novel as an adolescent, I identified with Holden because I, too, was a lapsed idealist, a developing cynic angry that the “real world” didn’t adhere to the platitudinous blandishments of teachers and coaches who told us the good guys always come out on top. Of course, it was stupid of me to be so naive. After all, I had floated down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim, hung out on an island with Ralph and Piggy, and come to think of it, had sat in a segregated waiting room for my doctor’s appointments.

We don’t know what will become of Holden. Although I don’t find the ending optimistic, I do wish him the very best.

I’ll give him the last paragraph:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”


[1] Reckless confession. I’m not a fan of YA. One reason I didn’t enjoy teaching seventh grade was having to spend hours in a house on Mango Street and other adolescent haunts.

[2] Ezra Pound’s phrase, “vice crusaders farting through silk” comes to mind.

[3] Most of my students, like Holden, were wealthy, so at least they didn’t complain that he should be thankful for his cushy life.

[4] See Donald Trump.

[5] The acquaintance, James Castle, throws himself out of a dorm window while being mercilessly bated by a gang of dorm-mates, who do qualify as assholes. Although Holden doesn’t try to intervene, he’s sympathetic. He’s no hero and more than once describes himself as “yellow.”

A Certain Girl

Pleasure Chest in action

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that until last night I didn’t know that “A Certain Girl” was an Ernie K-Doe tune. I only knew the song from the Warren Zevon cover. Thanks to the killer Asheville band Pleasure Chest for educating my ass.

Here’s a snippet of Pleasure Chest’s cover and the original below that.

Your turn, Ernie.

PS. I just got reeducated by my friend Jake. Allen Toussaint wrote the song, not Ernie K-Doe.

BTW, here’s a photo of Jake and Allen himself.

Allen Toussaint and Jake Williams