The Catcher in the Rye is a book I was supposed to have read in high school, but the year designated for American Literature I took a lower-level course because the honors teacher was terrifying. So I skipped this book. There is also no back-cover text to give a summary, so I went in to reading this with absolutely zero preconceptions. The only thing I knew is that it’s about Holden Caulfield, who was mentioned in a Five Iron Frenzy song once upon a time.
The novel, narrated by Holden, is loosely autobiographical, being based on events early in Salinger’s life when he bounced around between various schools before ultimately being shipped off to military school. Holden’s voice is bitter and disillusioned, though he is only in high school. Apathetic about grades and going to class, he begins his story just after being kicked out of yet another school. It is just before the Christmas holiday, and he runs away from school three days before he’s meant to go home. The following three days he spends roaming New York City, afraid to return to his family home and inform his parents that he’s been booted yet again.
The novel’s content has been consider controversial and the novel has been banned in many places, though by today’s standards it’s practically tame. Holden is a young man struggling to be an adult, but is constantly frustrated by the constraints of his society. He is convinced that being “tall for [his] age” will allow him to sit down in a bar and order his favorite drink, but this plan only succeeds less than half the time. He attempts to pick up older women in a bar. He has one brief but failed encounter with a hooker, which ends dangerously for him. Despite his best efforts to put on tough airs, the reader, being privy to his innermost thoughts, becomes aware of just how frightened, and therefore flighty, he is. At one point he despises everyone and is ready to run away and live in a cabin in the remotest possible location. The next he remembers how much he loves and misses his sister, and changes his mind.
It took a little time for this reader to adjust to Holden’s voice. Some that I’ve spoken with say that they find him personable, real, or even adorable. But he is nasty. I found myself very resistant to him at first, and somewhat repulsed by his attitude towards humanity. Of course, at his age (late teens), who doesn’t hate humanity? Holden exists in a state of almost constant depression (with scattered manic episodes), and does nothing to lift himself out of it. He hates movies, has few friends, and those friends he does have he seems to put up with unwillingly. He resents his parents. He cares nothing for school. He is a difficult character to care for. And yet, at one point near the end, I found a tender spot in my heart for the boy who seems to share a lot of the sentiments I feel sometimes, constrained by the expectations of a society that likes to see things done in the same way by everybody. Surprisingly, his frustration and confusion were at points relatable. Salinger, by relating events similar to his own experiences, manages to create a character that is believable to the degree that I’m certain there are hundreds of Holdens walking around in the world, trying to find their place.
It’s a short novel, but I don’t recommend surface reading. Holden is a complicated boy, and deserves a lot of time and attention. His voice requires some adjustment on the part of the reader, as it is vernacular and immature in tone. Grammar buffs will be irritated. Those things aside (or perhaps because of those things), the novel is definitely worth reading. The world may have changed a great deal since The Catcher in the Rye was written, but the angst felt by American teenagers has not really changed at all, and Salinger’s novel is a good reminder that we young people don’t all have to be satisfied with the status quo. Though we should perhaps do more to change it than Holden does 🙂 If you haven’t read it, please do so. It’s still required reading, even if you’ve left high school far behind.