A High School Classic and a Modern Debut: Catcher in the Rye and Boys of Alabama

12 Jan

Hi all! I’m Emily Sierra, and I am a new library assistant at Hoboken Public Library! With a degree in English with a focus on creative writing, being surrounded by literature and talking about literature is almost second nature for me at this point. But what I’ve enjoyed most since graduating (and since I’ve been able to wander the stacks again) is being able to finally catch up with contemporary fiction and not just be bogged down by all the literary “Greats.”

During the summer of 2020, I picked up a book on a whim: Genevieve Hudson’s debut novel, Boys of Alabama. The first thing that instantly caught my attention was that this would be a queer coming of age story based in a state I was unfamiliar with. The second thing that made me take it home was Hudson’s use of magical realism; weaving and blending the whimsical with the mundane until they are indiscernible. Being a fan of Gabriel García Márquez, I simply had to explore this contemporary addition of the genre.

Hudson’s debut novel is gripping and haunting while at the same time stingingly relatable with characters that effortlessly crack some of the best one-liners, all of which is painted in front of the backdrop that is the sticky Alabama heat. The story centers on shy teenager Max as his family makes the move from Germany to Alabama. His sense of otherness instantly suffocates the pages; he is not just a foreigner in a new land, there is also something just off about him than from the other boys. And yet due to his physical strengths, he is taken in–or perhaps better put dissolved into–his high school’s football team. Surrounded by good old fashioned American machismo, beer, and the Bible, Max adjusts and readjusts himself to mold into this new idea of manhood. However, upon meeting the school’s “witch” and openly gay student Pan, Max must see and confront aspects of himself he would rather have melt away in the Alabama humidity.  

Staring at my bookshelf, I could see a strange parallel to make with the ever classic and timeless syllabus-stuffer J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

I had re-read Catcher during a rather bleak summer break my junior year of college (I even read the two books during the same season, look at that!). No longer a sneaky AP kid in high school relying on Sparknotes, I read the book for myself and just myself. And what difference it had made! I am sure Catcher needs no proper introduction. However, Holden Caulfield, the book’s contested and often (rightfully) ridiculed protagonist, no longer was an annoying, incomprehensible character for me to force a 5-paragraph essay on. He was a developed character filled with nuance, one that raised a magnifying glass to the many absurdities of forced masculinity, of what growing up too quickly and too soon can do to a kid. Holden tosses himself into problem after problem, loudly proclaiming the world to be full of phonies and yet bitterly aware that he may be the biggest phony of them all–a timeless conflict, really, and one even more compelling for a teenage boy to face. 

Both Max and Holden embark on their own personal odysseys, both literal and internal. Forced to face teens their own age who can be cruel while surrounded by adults who are even crueler, both young men reflect and re-reflect, contradict themselves and contradict themselves again as they struggle to catch a glimpse of who they truly want to be. Reading the two together, it is clear that even since its publication in 1951, the ripples of Catcher in the Rye and its haunting image of boyhood is still felt in the novels of today. Whimsical imagery coupled by the red hot anger of adolescent boys, both writers paint stark and gripping images of teens on the brink of adulthood. 

Thankfully, both Catcher in the Rye and Boys of Alabama are available in print through the BCCLS Libraries (and you can even score a Catcher in the Rye study guide if you have an upcoming assignment)!

Written by:
Emily Sierra
Library Assistant

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