There’s a school of thought that The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s classic tale of teenage angst, has the shortest of windows. Read it between the ages of 13 and 19 and it hits home like an arrow. Get through it at any time after that, however, and its power lessens considerably. Worse, it becomes inauthentic and, yes, phony—Holden Caufield’s own word to describe the older people he meets on his travels. I read it at the age of 18 and thought it was, well, alright. No more no less. Fine. A good book, clearly, but not something to which I would return. After all, there wasn’t much relatable content between the America of the late 1940s and Croxteth, Liverpool four decades later. Good, but just not me.
The same can be said of On the Road. I was in my early 20s when I picked it up and, thought it was dross from start to finish. Seriously, I hated every page. Oh, I was still ripe for tales of torment and rebellion, but, as Truman Capote allegedly said of it, ‘that’s not writing, that’s typing.’ Jack Kerouac hammered it out in just two weeks, and it shows. Maybe that’s fair enough. Kerouac may have been writing for my age, but not my era. Each hackneyed phrase, daddio, made me snarl at the paper so I went back to my Brett Easton-Ellis and Iain Banks novels. I haven’t read a word of Kerouac since.
Incidentally, I’ve just asked my niece Hannah if she’s read The Catcher in the Rye. She’s a committed reader so I wasn’t surprised when she said she has – when she was 14. She loved it so maybe there’s something in that adage. It makes sense at a young age and deteriorates as you grow old. A bit like Haribo.
I’ve always been a reader. Right from a bout of chicken pox at the age of six when my mum brought home Danny, The Champion of the World from the library. There were always books in the house when I was growing up. My parents went back into full-time education when my sister and I were in our mid-teens so there was always an essay being done somewhere which meant there was always mini-towers of books pushed into corners. I read everything I could get my hands on, even Waiting Room tripe. I couldn’t get enough. If it wasn’t on my college syllabus, I would read it.
The progression was a natural one. I already knew then that I wanted to be a writer by then. My mates and I would write silly plays together at school and I was fond of what would now be called a blog every now and then when something unfair had happened and I wanted to vent. I mean, okay, I was a pretentious moron with no discernible talent, but I liked the label.
When I reached drinking age, I was convinced I could write poetry too. Oh, don’t sneer at me. We all did silly things at that age. Percy Shelley was my poet of choice as he had all the right chops – romantic, socialist but rich, famous wife, talented mates, foreign travel and, best of all, an early death. It was the perfect blueprint, so I memorised Ode to the West Wind and Lines on an Indian Air. In my defence though, I did genuinely like him. I still do. My Twitter handle is a Shelley reference though some have told me they thought @TheCenci is a reference to my Taekwondo grade – Sensei and all that.
I played the poet card one night in the Liverpool nightclub, Macs. I got talking to a girl and dropped the ‘p’ bomb when she asked what I did. I wouldn’t say she was impressed, but she didn’t call Security either and I managed to survive the evening intact. Of course, I couldn’t write anything to save my life. Poetry doesn’t get you anywhere at that age and the world was already too full of ‘no one understands me’ guff. I had no life experience to draw on, so I went back to ‘writer.’ Obviously, it took me years before I started doing any actual writing, but that was irrelevant.
One thing I was though was a letter writer. It was a rare week when myself and my mate Al didn’t swap letters. Of course, we could phone each other and meet up all the time so they weren’t written with actual communication in mind, but they helped us develop a style and a voice. They’re probably excruciatingly painful to read now. I hope so. It didn’t matter anyway. We could swap jokes and ideas no matter how infantile. Al is my copy editor and beta reader to this day as well as a writer.
The letters were one thing, but I needed to get something down on paper. No screens in those days. No, it was more than that. I needed a style. Literary? Comical? Dark? Cynical? I needed inspiration and I knew it couldn’t come from 18th century stanzas.
Then one day, while at my nan’s in Cantril Farm, I picked up a book called The Bachman Books.
She was a reader too so borrowing and lending books was a regular occurrence. I flicked through this one and found that it was collection of four books—Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork and The Running Man. That last one might give the game away if you don’t recognise the name of Bachman.
In the mid-1970s, Stephen King grew frustrated at his publisher’s reluctance to only release one or two of his books per year. He had dozens of novellas and short stories gathering dust and wanted them available. Carrie had already made him a success, so he had little interest in further fame or cash. He decided to publish those four books and Thinner under the pseudonym Richard Bachman with no marketing or publicity. He wanted to see if his fame was merely a stroke of luck or whether he could do it again with ‘Dickie’.
It didn’t go according to plan, though Bachman sold well and had a following. Sales hit the roof when, many years later, he confessed all. It wasn’t long before The Running Man was made into a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the prime of his career. I still can’t watch it.
Despite being perceived as low rent in my house – My dad always maintained that he was paid by the page such are the breeze-block nature of his works – I loved Stephen King. Al lent me his copies of Christine, Firestarter, Danse Macabre and Night Shift and it wasn’t long before I’d read every one of his novels. I was never much interested in the films as I always felt they missed the joy of his language and were subsequently inferior. I feel the same way about PG Wodehouse adaptations. The plot and dialogue aren’t enough. You need the first-person narrative to make them work and, ideally, no beefcake Austrian actors.
Back to Bachman then.
Roadwork was a rambling tale of a man about to lose his house to a highway while The Long Walk still makes my top 25 books to this day. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s the only book I’ve read which gave me sore legs. You’ll know why when you read it. If I’d have wrote it, I’d have happily retired. It’s a wonderful and terrifying read.
I had no idea of the Bachman story though, so I tucked into the novels. I loved The Long Walk, thought the other two were passable at best, but Rage? That was something else. Rage made me want to write.
The plot of Rage focuses on Charlie Decker, a high school senior at Placerville High in Maine. Charlie has a troubled relationship with his tough father, Carl, and his mother, who is addicted to sleeping pills. He suffers with anxiety and often has nightmares and vomiting spells. One day, when called to the blackboard to solve a simple chemistry problem, he is taunted by his tutor Mr Carlson. He is surprised when an icy calm comes over him rather than the crippling stomach pains, and attacks him with a wrench.
He is suspended from school and apologises to all concerned. Carlson survives thanks to a four-hour operation. Charlie is then called out to the back yard by his father when his mother is asleep. He knows that yet another beating is coming, but something has crossed over in Charlie and he fights his old man instead, wounding him in the process. Charlie describes this as ‘getting it on’—a term which was the original title for the book.
He is allowed back into school and has a meeting with the Principal, Tom Denver. It doesn’t go well, and Charlie is expelled following a hysterical exchange. He then heads to his locker and sets fire to the contents inside. Then he goes onto his Algebra class.
… So, you understand that when we increase the number of variables, the axioms themselves never change. For example – ”
Mrs Underwood looked up alertly, pushing her harlequin glasses up her nose. “Do you have an office pass, Mr Decker?”
“Yes,” I said, and took the pistol out of my belt. I wasn’t even sure it was loaded until it went off.
There isn’t a riot. His classmates sit calmly, taking in the fact that they’ve just witnessed an unprovoked murder. Around the school though things are different. The fire alarm has been sounded thanks to the smoke coming from the locker room and the school is evacuated. Another teacher, Pete Vance, puts his head around the door to see if the class is safe. Charlie shoots him. A siege ensues.
Inside the classroom things are surprisingly calm. The majority of his classmates realise almost immediately that they are not in danger. If anything they are curious as to why he did it, particularly given to what happened to Mr Carlson. What follows is an off the cuff psychology session as they share stories and examples of their lives that they are unable to voice elsewhere. A scruffy kid called Pig Pen speaks about his mother while the unpopular Irma Bates gets into an argument and then a slapping match with a pretty, elvish girl called Grace Stanner. For his part, Charlie talks about the time he went on a hunting trip as a child where he heard his drunken father tell his friends what he would do if he found his wife cheating. Trust me on this. It wasn’t pleasant.
All of them seem better for the experience though there’s now a media circus outside. The school psychologist comes onto the intercom system and subtly tries to get Charlie to surrender in a method Charlie calls ‘slipping it to psychos’. It doesn’t work and Charlie humiliates him utterly. The local police captain tries the same with added aggression, but Charlie holds the cards. He knows his captives are on his side. Except one.
Ted Jones is a handsome, all-American boy. He is popular, captain of the school football team and against anything weird or alternative. He wants to play the hero and Charlie is wary of him from the start. Slowly but surely though, his layers of respectability are torn away. It’s revealed that his mother is a stay-at-home alcoholic and he hates her for it. Then, a sweet innocent girl called Sandra tells of a poor sexual encounter with him. This ‘getting it on’ delights Charlie. Between them the class decide that they must save Ted. I won’t tell you how it ends. You’ll have to read it for yourself.
Actually, I might as well. You won’t be reading it anytime soon.
Rage is, as King himself put it:
Now out of print, and a good thing.
In 1988, a California student held his class hostage with a semi-automatic rifle. His own version of ‘Ted Jones’ managed to wrestle the weapon from him. Seventeen months later in Kentucky, another student took a shotgun and two handguns to school and kept his history class captive for nine hours. Both were obsessed with the book. Someone else shot his English teacher in the head when she gave his essay on Rage a low grade. Such was one reader’s devotion to Charlie Decker that he too killed his algebra teacher and, finally, in 1997, eight students were shot at a prayer meeting at Heath High School, Kentucky. Five of them were killed. Enough was enough and King instructed his publishers to allow the book to go out of print. The new editions of The Bachman Books now only contain three novels.
It’s with certain amount of guilt then that I’ve chosen Rage as a book of influence. It looks particularly bloodthirsty when I state that the novel had a huge effect on me and my writing, but I didn’t know of the shootings for many years and I’d read it hundreds of times by the time I did. In any case, it wasn’t the story of Rage as such that intrigued me, it was the style and language.
Rage is written from the first-person perspective of the main protagonist. Indeed, there is only one page which doesn’t come from his mind and that is a letter which Charlie comments on. It’s that device which changes Charlie from an ordinary psychopath to a believable character, maybe even a sympathetic one. During his battles with authority you learn which of his exchanges are fuelled by fury and which are light-hearted – that would be difficult to relate from a third-person book. In one scene he threatens the Principal over the intercom by saying he will shoot someone if he insists on calling him ‘Decker’ rather than ‘Charlie’. He crosses his fingers to show that he wasn’t ‘playing for keeps this time’. The reader knows that and, with the tension removed, it becomes almost comical.
Of course, I was still a teenager back in 1985 when I read Rage so the theme of angst, confusion and wilting under authority was uppermost in my mind, just as it was with Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye. It’s just that this one seemed closer to home.
The best scenes are the flashbacks and the classroom discussions, the ‘getting it on’ moments. The hostages are so agreeable to being held that at one stage Charlie wonders if it’s them who are the prisoners or him. As I said, I won’t spoil the ending, but, come the end, there are more criminals than just Charlie Everett Decker.
How much did the book influence me? Well, my first novel And What Do You Do? Was written in the first person and there are elements of Charlie Decker in my own creation, Mike Chubb. There would be no Mike without Charlie, though, in his defence, Chubb is less murderous. I even ended the book in a similar fashion to King/Bachman’s.
That’s the end. I have to turn off the light now. Good night.
Anyway, I’m tired now. Let me sleep.
– And What Do You Do?
Shameless, I know, but I think I’m safe from prosecution for plagiary. It’s more of a nod than a straight copy and, as no one would have read Rage anyway, it was there just to please me.
I wrote my second book as a third-person reading, though that has an Act written as a journal, so maybe I’ll never truly escape that first-person preference.
There are problems with either style. For a start, if you like a description it’s very tricky to get it down from someone’s mind. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but it’s difficult to launch into a long scene-setting chapter if you’re concentrating on dialogue alone. King/Bachman manages it with brevity. Here’s my favourite example in Rage:
I sat in the row farthest from the door, which is next to the windows, and I spotted the squirrel on the lawn. The lawn of Placerville High School is a very good one. It does not fuck around. It comes right up to the building and says howdy. No one, at least in my four years at PHS, has tried to push it away from the buildings with a bunch of flowerbeds or baby pine trees or any of that happy horseshit. It comes right up to the concrete foundation, and there it grows, like it or not.
That’s only the second paragraph of the novel and would be missed entirely if it was made into a film or TV series. It’s just a kid looking at a squirrel, but it tells us so much already. He likes the lawn because it is free and untethered. It is not controlled and part of a system as he imagines he is. The same can be said of the squirrel.
I adored that attention to detail. It doesn’t derail the story or slow the tempo. If anything, it hints at the calm before the storm. It also makes him somehow sensitive and likeable. I wasn’t really into noticing lawns at that age.
The book can be purchased online but, such is its infamy, it can cost around £40.
Incidentally, I never returned my nan’s copy in 1985. It sits at my side now – dog-eared and tired like its new owner. I read it about twice a year, and I think I always will.
Author photo by Pinguino Kolb via Wikimedia Commons