My Top Five (Male) Novel Protagonists and Why They Matter

dogs-playing-poker-3Go Figure: Musings from the Mind of Rob Wilstein

When I’m drivin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination…

My imagination was fired in the fall of 1965 in Mrs. Silver’s ninth-grade English class when we were required to read a book called Catcher in the Rye by an author named J.D. Salinger. If memory serves, we were also required to read that year The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. I can recall almost nothing from the Hardy book (something about heaths, perhaps a native?) but I can recite whole passages from Catcher, a book that I have reread innumerable times since.

And Holden Caulfield remains one of my favorite male protagonists. Why male? Hold your indignant emails. Turns out our lifelong literary heroes are formed in our adolescence, or at least in early adulthood, when we are most impressionable, most susceptible to new ideas; eager receptacles for information about the world and how we move through it. I was a young male. Likewise our taste in music and musical heroes enters our consciousness and our souls in those early years and resides there throughout our lives. Although I have an appreciation for, say, Arcade Fire or Mumford & Sons, I couldn’t recite a single lyric, but I will never forget a word of the now nearly half century-old ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by the Stones.

So, in the spirit of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity protagonist Rob Fleming (Rob Gordon in the film) and his obsession with Top Five’s, herewith is my list of Top Five (Male) Novel Protagonists. That I discovered these characters between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two should not be surprising. I have lived with them, moved them from apartment to apartment, house to house, displayed their pages on bookshelves, checked in with them from time to time to see if our relationship had changed, referenced them, quoted them at dinner parties, even watched most of them on the big screen. If I could arrange a poker game for the six of us, my life would be complete.

These five anti-hero counter-culture rebels entered my life at a time when the country and a generation were in upheaval over the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, civil rights and the women’s movement. That they have endured is testament to their novelist creators and the redemptive quality of their invention.

Holden Caulfield Catcher in the Rye; J.D. Salinger. Published 1951; First read in 1966 at age 15.

Here was the first time I heard a voice like my own. Of course, it is also the voice of millions of other disaffected, disgruntled, alienated, isolated, directionless, and sarcastic teenagers. Despite the fact that it was published in the year of my birth, the book retained its relevance throughout the sixties and for generations beyond. Holden’s disdain for all that is ‘phony’ in the world, embodied by Hollywood and the movies his brother D.B. writes, struck a chord with a generation coming off the Ward and June Cleaver manicured lawn, bottle of milk drunk at the refrigerator years.

I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that’s all I told D.B about and he’s my brother and all. He’s in Hollywood…He used to be just a regular writer…He wrote this terrific book of short stories…It killed me. Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute.

John Yossarian Catch-22; Joseph Heller. Published 1961; Read in 1969 at age 18.

Although published in 1961, Joseph Heller’s now iconic anti-war novel, which introduced the term ‘Catch-22’ to the lexicon, held great resonance for Vietnam-era readers. This was my first exposure to a kind of ironic, Mobius strip logic, expressed with Heller’s poignant sense of humor.

Here is Yossarian’s assessment of the predicament his fellow soldier was in during World War II.

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

A classic Catch-22.

red mobius strip

Sal Paradise On The Road; Jack Kerouac. Published 1957; Read in 1971 at age 20.

I read this book while literally ‘on the road’, traveling cross-country, experiencing the great open road of America for the first time. It satisfied every craving for freedom, abandon, and recklessness for a young man of that age. Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, alongside the amphetamine-fueled Dean Moriarty, embodied the heady anti-establishment frenzy that Holden Caulfield only introduced.

Expressing his wild expectation, Sal says, “Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

Alexander Portnoy Portnoy’s Complaint; Philip Roth. Published 1969; Read in 1972 at age 21.

In what is possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read, here was an author actually writing about sex with a frankness and moral objectivity not seen before. Alexander Portnoy, living in the shadow of an overbearing father and an uber-protective mother, explores the limits of his depravity and then some. At the turning point of the sexual revolution, Philip Roth pushed the envelope over a cliff, incurring the wrath of critics and readers to a degree rarely seen.

Portnoy’s Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature…

Billy Pilgrim Slaughter-House Five; Kurt Vonnegut. Published 1969; Read in 1973 at age 22.

The most audacious and fantastic of this pentad, Vonnegut’s anti-war opus employs time-travel, aliens, and fire-bombings as poor Billy Pilgrim, a mild-mannered optometrist, relives his days in Dresden at the end of World War II.

Vonnegut expounds his position in chapter one, “that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book,” both being futile endeavors, since both phenomena are unstoppable.

Billy on free will: “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

So, those are my five. Who are yours?

3 comments

  1. Elizabeth Silver

    Rob, Eddie forwarded this to me (I’m actually visiting NY) just a few days after the first anniversary of my mom’s death, which , of course, I am still coming to terms with. Thank you for the shout-out; it’s the second time since she died that I really want to call her on the phone to tell her about something. It’s funny; I don’t remember her teaching Catcher, though I certainly remember her teaching the Hardy, which I love, many times. Come on: with a heroine named Eustacia Vye, how could it not appeal to the female version of your male adolescent

    To your list, I will add Nick Carraway, who lived to tell the tale, and to be embodied by Sam Wattserston and Toby McGuire, not to mention whoever was in the silent version and the earlier talkies. Enjoyed your post. Liz

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