Author: J.D. Salinger
Initially published on 16 July 1951
There is a strange aura around The Catcher in the Rye.
It is commonly attributed as a book which changes lives. It is an American classic that has been read – and censored – in schools throughout history in the United States. J.D. Salinger led an incredibly private life and published infrequently beyond the initial success of The Catcher. Salinger was so reclusive, and work beyond his famous novel so rare, it is fair to say that it has influenced the status of the book itself.
Such a classic has obviously garnered attention from Hollywood over the years, but a successful adaptation never occurred. During his life Salinger expressed a belief that his novel was too novelistic for cinema, writing in a letter that ‘the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice’.
The unique circumstances of this novel: it’s wide spread appeal, acclaim, the reclusive nature of the author, the controversy, the lack of any kind of adaptation, has formed this strange aura that I speak of.
It carries a weight of expectation that most books do not have to wrestle with.
Yet, this novel has never really crossed my path. I have avoided the hype, so to speak. Perhaps it is partially because I was never made to read it at school, which it would seem would be the most appropriate age to read it.
The point of Classically Lacking is really a selfish one. I’m filling in the gaps in my repertoire of classic books and movies and, well, whatever really. So far what I have read, and watched, and played, has been universally loved. That’s why the point of these reviews is not to necessarily decide whether the text is good or bad (it wouldn’t be a classic if it wasn’t mostly good) but to say whether it is worth investing time into reading/watching in favour of other classics, and if it is worth taking time away from new content to spend time with the old.
This time I’m tacking a classic which some people absolutely despise.
I do not find this point of view surprising, although I certainly do not agree.
A glance at the Goodreads review page for The Catcher in the Rye offers up a lot of strong opinions. The breakdown shows that the novel still has 33% 5-star reviews, and only 5% 1-star reviews. That 5% though, equates to 121,817 individual ratings. Now, with every classic you must anticipate a level of contrary opinions, just for the sake of being contrary.
But I don’t think that’s the case here.
Let’s start with the story. Holden Caulfield, protagonist and narrator of this novel, is a rambling, confused, teenager who uses annoying contemporary colloquialisms with frustrating repetition. He expresses constant disgust with the world, with “phonies”, with Hollywood, with athletic bastards, with piano players, with his brother, with his friends – if you can call them that – basically, he is disgusted with everything. He attends an exclusive school, or at least, he did. As we begin the tale he has been binned. He has not been working hard enough, not applying himself, at all. He manages the fencing team, but on a trip into New York for a tournament leaves the foils on the subway. Holden has no intention of spending his last days at the school actually in the school, so he sells his typewriter, pools his cash, and heads into the city. From here, it’s pretty much a disaster. He gets a hotel room, fails to pick up older women in the hotel lounge, hires a prostitute he doesn’t want to sleep with, is beaten, annoys and alienates an old girlfriend, gets horribly drunk, and irritates the life out of New York City cab drivers.
Holden is a frustrated teenager who sees very few positives in adult life. In his younger sister Phoebe, and in children in general, he at least sees innocence and kindness, and as such maintains a self-realised immaturity, despite his desire to drink and smoke and – in his words not mine – be sexy.
He is, to be blunt, annoying. He is self-involved and self-important.
I can hardly say I’m surprised some people aren’t head over heels in love with a novel which is written in the voice of someone so irritating.
The way Holden thinks, the way he harshly judges the world, corresponds with the natural mindset of an adolescent. As we leave childhood behind, we begin to see the harsh reality of the world. It is not always a clean transition, not with raging hormones and the weight of onrushing adulthood pushing down on you. But Salinger presents Holden as a very extreme teenager, and perhaps it is here where those 1-star reviews come from. It is possible that those readers could not believe that someone could be so conceited and terrible, especially modern readers, who will see that Holden is extremely privileged and that he pisses this privilege away, not just with his slightly pathetic attitude but quite literally, with frivolous spending habits.
I can see that it is possible for these traits to stop a reader right there.
But for me, it made for a compelling read.
Holden is a tragic character, but that doesn’t mean that he is not also funny. Perhaps it is unintentional from Holden’s point of view, but not for Salinger. In Holden he has formed a complex, layered character. From the outside he is irritating, and yet sometimes hilarious:
‘I don’t even like old cars. I mean they don’t even interest me. I’d rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.’
A ridiculous thing to say, something that drew a great laugh from me. But actually, it tells us a lot about Holden’s character. When talking he falls into long tangents, and seemingly struggles to control the volume of his voice when he gets excited about a subject. There is no chance that he even begins to realise the ridiculous nature of what he just said, his mouth and mind just move too fast.
If we dive deeper, we can see that this comical way of speaking grows from a deep well of sadness.
‘All I did was, I got up and went over and looked out the window. I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead.’
Holden feels alone. Even when he is in company, he feels as if no one understands him. The exceptions are when he is with Phoebe, Allie, and D.B – his siblings. But Allie, we learn, is dead. Phoebe lives with his parents, who he wants to avoid, and D.B is in Hollywood ‘prostituting’ himself.
Yet, it is difficult to feel sympathy for lonely old Holden because his alienation from the world is self-inflicted. The paths he chooses to walk always wind up with him being alone, yet he always finds someone else to blame. Throughout the story Holden mentions Jane Gallagher, an old-friend and love interest that he means to call and reconnect with, but he never does. When he goes on a date with another old, familiar friend, Sally Hayes, he irritates her to tears. Another friend he bugs with intrusive personal questions. He walks out on an friendly teacher who takes him in when he has nowhere else to go, presuming him to be making homosexual advances on him. Time after time, Holden chooses to be alone, and refuses to see it.
He is an idiot.
He is a teenager.
I don’t think I ever made any decisions quite as poor as Holden. I don’t think I ever talked as much as him either. But I was frustrated. I did believe that the world and its dim-witted inhabitants were making my life worse, not realising that most, if not all, of my problems were self-inflicted.
I can’t promise that you won’t hate Holden Caulfield, in fact, I’d wager that you will. But why? Is it that he is so absolutely different from you? Or is it that he is so uncomfortably familiar?
My life never looked like that which Holden describes, yet reading about his misadventures reminds me of unwillingly recalling my own teenage bullshit. It is cringe inducing, disgusting, annoying.
And if you can learn to laugh at it all, it is pretty funny.
VERDICT: I had a wonderful time reading The Catcher in the Rye, it is funny and compelling, but there are a lot of funny, compelling books out there. What sets this novel apart is the risks that it takes in telling such an overblown version of what I see to be the truth of teenage life. I absolutely recommend reading it, although honestly you might hate it, as it is worth the risk to experience a book stacked atop of such unique circumstances.
If you’re one of those people who can’t stand this book feel free to let me know why in the comments below! And if you love it, go ahead and share the love some more.