I hate Catcher in the Rye: a novel about a privileged Upper East Side kid who doesn’t like exclusive prep schools and has a fun day at various hotels and ice skating rinks while figuring his relatively easy life out.
If you are the son of a billionaire hedge fund manager, then perhaps Catcher in the Rye is the perfect coming of age novel for you.
In the meantime, there are many other diverse, beautiful books that capture the horror, tragedy, and transformation that so often accompanies the coming of age. Coming of age novels don’t just describe childhood; they help us figure out the adult lives we suddenly wake up and find ourselves in.
The stories of how the authors of these books get through these childhoods make for great, largely autobiographical novels that are so often ignored by the educators and other literary worshipers who idolize Salinger. This is not so much a criticism of Salinger as a question of “why?”
The ages 12-20 are frightening. Frightening for the parent who has to pray her child survives the torment. Scary for the child who doesn’t know what is going to come next and, in 99% of the cases, has no role model to follow.
The writers who “come of age” and live to tell the tale and do it better than anyone else are worth reading — not only for those who want to reminisce on how lonely their childhoods were, but also to deal with the fact that the loneliness doesn’t go away just because we become adults.
There’s no guidebook for life. But we feel relief when an artist touches our heart and whispers comfort directly inside of us. Here are a few coming-of-age books that might just speak to you more than Salinger’s.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
“I WAS ON FIRE. It’s my earliest memory.” You’d think that line would start the novel, but it’s the beginning of the second chapter. And rather than the fire being so unusual in Jeanette Walls’ life, it’s just the beginning of a string of nightmarish events that her parents continue to categorize as normal as they move from town to town in worse and worse conditions.
As I mentioned, that’s the second chapter. The first chapter begins decades later with Walls in New York City, finding her mother rummaging through dumpsters, to Walls’ shame. Those two chapters set two disparate tones, which must come together for Walls and the reader before the memoir ends.
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
I think Charles Bukowski was making fun of Catcher in the Rye when he wrote the title Ham on Rye.
Many authors try to imitate Bukowski’s rough, drunken style, but Ham on Rye is an authentic account of a childhood filled with beatings, horrible acne, loneliness, desperation, where he first found solace in the words of great authors and later tried to emulate them — to much success. Ham on Rye is one of the great coming-of-age novels to come out of the Depression and the beginnings of World War II.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
The book that launched Michael Chabon’s career is set during a period when the main character is slightly older than the protagonist of Catcher. But, just like we don’t all hit puberty at the same age, we don’t always have our pivotal child-to-adult moments at the exact same time, either.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about a boy alone in his starter-city, trying to find his way through friends, love, and betrayal, in a place that is probably a bit too harsh for him, in a world that is probably a bit harsher than he thought it would be.
I admit I’m biased on this one. I was moving to Pittsburgh when I read it. I wanted the experiences he had. I was lonely like the author. And I wanted to meet my Phlox, the girl he fell for.
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
Not only one of the best coming-of-age novels but probably in the top ten of all American novels. Written by James Baldwin, Go Tell It describes a boy turning into man in pre-civil rights Harlem as he struggles with his sexuality, his race, his religion — you know, all the fun things about being a young black, gay, teenager in an America that hates you.
Baldwin’s prose is so stunning that almost every line put me in a dream.
Fuckness by Andersen Prunty
Imagine a big, stupid, ugly eighth grader with parents who hate him, teachers who hate him, bullies who hate him, girls who tease him, and whose only friend is a homeless drifter named Ken.
Then imagine he’s beaten repeatedly. Then his parents beat him. Then he’s stuck with horns on his head. And that’s just the beginning of the story, as Wallace Black fights what he calls “the fuckness” all around him and simply tries to survive when nobody understands him.
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
Rapes, guns, oil, seven marriages, and lies.
Oh, and a 12-year-old girl stuck in the middle of it, trying to grow up.
Mary Karr grew up to write multiple memoirs, but the one that brings her from childhood to adulthood is like Catcher in the Rye meets everything that’s the exact opposite of Catcher in the Rye.
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
The young Toby Wolff, constantly on the run with his divorced mother. Running from what? Nothing. Just running. Just reinventing alongside a cast of neurotic characters that, each step of the way, try to bring Wolff down into the muck.
I can’t decide, as I write this, which of these books is my favorite coming of age novel. None of the books are like my childhood, and yet I can relate to all of them, particularly this one, as they capture that special isolation that every young boy and girl feels when they realize that everyone around them is a stark raving lunatic. This Boy’s Life makes explicit the lunacy and the sadness that afflicts a teenager with nowhere to turn.
I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
An indie graphic novel in the autobiographical style of Robert Crumb, although the drawing is much more spare. This novel/comic describes young Chester as he deals with his shyness, his bipolar mother, and the increased sexual feelings he harbors toward his local friends in provincial Canada.
Graphic novels don’t often make lists of “coming-of-age” books, but the sparseness with which Brown draws, his storytelling ability, and his perfect rendering of the depths of what it means to be a scared child with helpless parents make I Never Liked You essential.
Another Day in Paradise by Eddie Little
The story of Bobbie Prine as he evolves from ripping off vending machines in order to help his girlfriend escape prostitution to full-scale armed robbery and a life of crime. At the age of 14.
Not every coming-of-age novel has to have murder, crime, and sex. But sometimes it’s more fun when they do. Bobbie tries to act as adult as he can, but the toughness wears off and at heart he’s a little kid.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
There are enough great books written by authors who committed suicide to fill a library: Virginia Woolf, Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath, Jerzy Kosinski, and so on. Don Carpenter would certainly make the list, and Hard Rain Falling is his classic.
An orphaned teenager who gets by on his pool skills and his ability to hustle. He deals with young adulthood, his sexuality, and all the betrayals he never learned how to handle that rush up to confront him throughout the novel. Recently reissued as a New York Review Books Classics.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Diaz doesn’t hold back. By the time I finished reading it, my wife (who is Argentinian) asked me why I was speaking with a Puerto Rican accent. I was drawn into the world of a fat kid lost in a ghetto in New Jersey, trying to escape the curse that has been on his family since they emigrated from the Dominican Republic.
All of Junot Diaz’s stories are like coming-of-age stories, but this one hit home for me. Because I’m Hispanic and nerdy? Well, I’m half of that. But mostly because I get it: it’s nice when someone likes you, and it sucks when they don’t.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Teenage girls, depression, and suicide.
We’ve all been there.
Sylvia Plath killed herself one month after the book was published. The book, perhaps, was her suicide note.
It may seem like I am being overly critical of Salinger. I’m not. My guess is that a cult of curiosity grew up around him when he “disappeared.” Even though everybody knew where he was.
There are great authors out there who also have a story to tell of their coming of age. Are the above books more powerful than Salinger’s? Perhaps. You can decide.
I would welcome any other suggestions, so please add to this list in the comments.