Creating the Rogue Hero: Literary Devices in the Picaresque Novels of Martin Amis, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Steve Tesich

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What is it about The Catcher in the Rye that makes me wish I had written it? Perhaps I should start with the fact that Holden Caulfield is as charming as anyone I've ever met--on or off the page. Why is it that whenever I reread Catcher, I never want it to end? I find myself slowing down and savoring the lines. I find myself laughing in all the same places, and, yes, crying in all the same places too. I find myself saying "goddam" this, "goddam" that. Suddenly everything's "lousy." Lousy--like that woman on the train whose hand was "lousy with rocks." I just want to hole up with Holden in that creepy hotel and gang up on Maurice, the bellhop-pimp. I want to head down to the Village with him and get drunk at a jazz bar. I want to go home with him to his parents' apartment on Park Avenue and watch his little sister Phoebe sleep. I want to know exactly what that red hunting hat looks like anyway. Maybe even try it on. I almost find myself worrying about the ducks--where they're going to go in the winter when the ponds freeze over. It is novels like Catcher that make me want to be a writer--that make me want to try to create a little world that no one will ever want to leave. There are other novels that I never want to leave either--The Great Gatsby for one--but the ones I find myself gravitating toward more than any others are the picaresques such as Catcher in the Rye--particularly the ones that do a good job of balancing the humor and pathos of the rogue.

It's not just because picaresque heroes are more fun than other characters that I love them. It's not just the dissolute behavior that I find so appealing. And it's not just the dubious company they keep or the adventures they embark upon that I find so satisfying. All of these things make for a pretty good story. But what makes them really worthwhile is the romantic sense of sadness and futility that haunts them all--their honest recognition of their own shortcomings that gives them emotional weight and makes them resonate. Disappointingly, like young Hal in Henry IV, Part L who eventually deserts Falstaff, all rogue heroes must grow up and assume a certain amount of responsibility. Often they settle down, give up their aimless wandering, and find a home. Unfortunately, settling down can mean letting go of "the impossible dream." We wish their peregrinations would never end, and so by nature the picaresque novel, whose trappings are ribald excess, is also fraught with a deep sense of loss and sorrow. We must not forget, however, that what makes the picaresque so much fun are the comic possibilities of an errant hero in pursuit of something impossible. He is at once noble and pathetic, a delight to spend time with and to laugh at, and heroic in his blindness to the humbling reality that confronts him wherever he goes.

The picaresque novel predates the English novel by more than a hundred years. Of course, the best-known picaresque novel, Spanish or otherwise, is Cervantes' Don Quixote. While the rise of the Bildungsroman and realistic novel may have led to its decline, the picaresque is still very much alive. In my opinion, there is only so much stark realism readers care to consume. Part of the reason Dickens's Romantic novels outsell those of his contemporaries and always will is that they are populated by so many unforgettable picaresque characters. Another reason is quite simply that people want to laugh. We prefer things as they should be to the way things really are. Dickens, of course, blends both the picaresque with the narrative romance, while Eliot and Thackeray give them strong doses of reality. Because satire comprises a major part of the picaresque writer's landscape, he must balance the humor with sadness; otherwise, his work will either prove too frivolous or too hard-nosed--either way lacking the power to move us. While the picaresque is best known for its episodic nature and the corrupt society that makes the rogue more appealing than those he opposes, what really interests me are the ways in which writers are able to convey both the humor and pathos of the rogue--that is, the literary devices writers employ to maintain that sense of poignancy and humor. …


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