Sometimes mending a broken thing is not a good idea. Sometimes it further breaks things. Sometimes one has to let go of trying to place things where one wants and let it simply be in the state it was, maybe it was a good thing all along. David Park’s The Rye Man is a simple reminder of this very fact.
A sleepy town’s newly recruited headmaster and his unresolved guilt is the central character of the novel. John Cameron’s faltering marriage and memories good and bad that was attached to his hometown <g data-gr-id="57">drives</g> him to take up the job as a primary school headmaster, the same school where he studied years ago. His wife and he are trying to recuperate from a trauma and he believes that his new job in his old school will wave a magic wand on all his problems.
The first day of his term as the headmaster, Cameron is filled with excitement and positivity that doesn’t take long to wane. Just as newly bought furniture loses its freshness soon after the glossy cellophane sheet is removed from it, Cameron’s first day at school is perhaps the only day he gets to enjoy the shiny cellophane. He soon realises that there are people betting against him inside his own staff, tiny problems that seem easy at first become chronic and that the ghost of the old headmaster still lingers in the decisions that he makes. Back home, his wife too loses the enthusiasm of the transition and Emma plunges back to the now familiar depression once again.
Cameron is haunted by dreams of his lost child, and of a terrible crime against another child that he had once uncovered as a little boy. He keeps these clawing thoughts and nightmares to himself as he tries to be the perfect teacher and an even perfect partner in marriage, failing at both. As things go out of hand, Cameron discovers Jacqueline, a child who is not academically bright enough to be in school. Cameron realises that she needs a special school and is distraught that Jacqueline’s parents are not ready to do the needful. He tries to include her in activities, tries to make her comfortable with himself and even tries to reason with her parents to send her somewhere more appropriate to study. When all else fails, a desperate Cameron sends for an educational therapist for Jacqueline without the permission of her parents, an attempt eventually leading him to lose whatever little he had achieved.
The Rye Man, the title comes from J D Salinger’s book, The Catcher in the Rye. In some part of his subconscious, Cameron thinks of himself as Salinger’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield. He wants to save children just the way Holden wanted to catch all the children before they fell over a cliff. Emma asks in the book, “And that’s how John Cameron sees himself – as the catcher in the rye?” and the answer is a big yes as one discovers by the end of the book.
As he attempts to be a children’s man, one discovers that Cameron uses his works, his care for his students, particularly Jacqueline as an escape from the reality. His wife too is like a child for him, one who he cares for but doesn’t think capable of opening up his mind to, unable to divulge about a suitcase full of memories he holds of their unborn child. Cameron’s memory of unknowingly discovering a mute child, held captive by his mother for years in a farm has made him somewhat a saviour of the children and that is the role he wants to play throughout his life. When Jacqueline goes missing Cameron’s reaction though guided by affection and concern are more about being the one to discover the child.
The idea that he alone can find the child since he alone loves her most is what drives the search more that the wellbeing of the child. The book ends at Cameron meeting the child (now man) he once had rescued, in an institute.
At 200 pages, The Rye Man should have been an easy read but for the initial part of the book, it drags. The theme of terrorism and community politics come and go without much consequence. The pace of the book catches up only at the end and it is then that one realises that there were a lot many things that Park should have included instead. The writing is lyrical and reminds you of a beautiful poem that has somehow been stretched for too long and has lost its charm. But if one can rise above that it is a true representation of how the human mind works. It deals with a certain aspect of human psychology and emotion that we sometimes forget exists in all of us, especially in those we consider as heroes.