It could be that today I carry the full impact of these books because they were required reading at the time I was coming of age, learning to view the world outside my tidy little microcosm.
J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye was the subject of intense study in my honor’s American Literature class in 1962, my senior year of high school. William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies was expected to be read by every freshman before reporting to Ripon College’s campus in the fall of 1962.
Holden Caulfield, Ralph and Piggy, Jack and Simon and Samneric opened my eyes to many of the hazards of life in general, especially as it relates to the systems and institutions people build around themselves and others.
For the past several weeks I have immersed myself in the five riveting seasons of HBO’s 2003-2005 series The Wire. I kept hearing about that show during it’s run, but was never a subscriber of HBO. Then, when the George Lucas production The Red Tails opened in theaters earlier this year, readers of my review repeatedly mentioned that some of the actors in the movie were cast members of The Wire. My curiosity got the best of me and extorted nearly $100 dollars from my bank account to live stream hour after hour of the raw reality known as life in the city of Baltimore, Maryland.
Former Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon partnered with former Baltimore detective Ed Burns to create one of the most realistic portrayals of big city life I have ever encountered, especially as captured in five relatively short seasons of television. And throughout my viewing, as the intricately woven layers of the Baltimore Police Department, City Hall, the Baltimore public school system, the Avon Barksdale drug trafficking operation, and the Port of Baltimore stevedore’s union unfolded, scenes from those early books, so deeply etched in my memory, projected their images on the screen in the back of my mind.
Baltimore ostensibly runs on the same basic system of democracy that Ralph developed on that South Pacific island where a World War II evacuation plane full of British boys crashed with no adult survivors. Over time both “societies” fall prey to what many consider to be “human nature:” the triumph of individual welfare over the common good.
"'We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best at everything.'" Chapter 2, pg. 40 –Ralph, democratic leader The Lord of the Flies
I imagine there are many people living in suburban and rural environments who take a simplistic view of the inner city: The bad guys, most of whom seem to be African American, are bad to the bone modern-day savages who have no consciences, no souls and no scruples. They want what they want when they want it, and they will commit whatever mayhem is necessary to get what they want.
The rest of the institutions – police, government, schools, and business – are, in the eyes of those idealists on the outside looking in, all pulling together to try to save the lawless, soulless savages from themselves or, at the very least, to protect the rest of society from their violence.
[The boys] found themselves eager to take a place in this demented but partly secure society. They were glad to touch the brown backs of the fence that hemmed in the terror [of the makeshift beast] and made it governable. Chapter 9, pg. 138 – The Lord of the Flies
The truth as laid out in The Wire, and for what it’s worth, the way I see it, is there are bad guys and gals at every level of every American institution, all clamoring for what they want when they want it. Conversely, even in the deadly confines of the urban drug and gang cultures, there are those who try desperately to hear the siren song of a law-abiding drama-free life, but who are more often than not pulled down into the depths by the undertow of survival. Left to fend for themselves by stoned out mothers, incarcerated or unknown fathers, and a blind-by-choice society, they don’t have a chance in hell – literally.
In The Wire every youngster who made the decision to stay out of “The Game” – the business of moving illegally procured heroin and cocaine from the Drug Lord’s stash to the hands of the hopelessly addicted citizens of Baltimore – either winds up dead at the hands of their own gang or the victim of some competitive gang’s brutality. Those who don’t die must either leave town forever or they are gradually pulled into the game. Those are their choices: die, leave or play.
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right - I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game." Chapter 2, pg.—Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
Even those who try to approach the problems of the urban ecosystem with smart thinking are thwarted. The Wire character “ Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell” played brilliantly by Britain’s Idris Elba, believes The Game could be played without the violence and vendettas. He took college courses in economics, purchased real estate holdings with his ill-gotten drug wealth and set up a legitimate business through which to launder the Barksdale gang’s mountains of money. His incarcerated leader, Avon Barksdale, was a straight-up thug who had little interest in prettying up The Game. And when Barksdale was released, his way prevailed and Stringer Bell lay slain in a vacant building, a victim of the drug wars between rival gangs.
Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy." Chapter 12, pg. 184 – The Lord of the Flies
Frustrated by the political gamesmanship between the Mayor’s Office and the Baltimore City Council, the police department’s troubled rogue detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) devises a scheme to divert funding from a case being leveraged by the mayor to launch himself into the Governor’s mansion to the long-term effort by McNulty and his partners to bring down the newest drug lord, Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). But a similarly ambitious Baltimore Sun reporter creates a tightly woven web by writing false reports about McNulty’s scheme, which the reporter thinks is real.
The tangled webs are woven in the city’s school system, where seemingly uncontrollable ghetto youngsters wreak havoc on a daily basis while teachers beleaguered by No Child Left Behind and other government mandates attempt to teach them something. Anything. Creativity on the part of a teacher is rewarded with discipline and ultimatums. And the kids are lost in the ever-widening cracks of the system.
Me? I feel like poor Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I am overwhelmed by the hopelessness that seems to be the result of human folly, self-involvement and self-preservation. I see the phoniness poor Holden saw at every turn and I, too, feel alone in the world trying to catch the children playing in the rye to keep them from falling afield.
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." Chapter 22, pg. 173 – Holden Caulfield
It is maddening.