I am always saying “Glad to’ve met you” to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.
Note: This review will have more spoilers than I normally tend to have in my reviews. I just have a lot of feelings…
The Catcher in the Rye
By J.D. Salinger
Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with “cynical adolescent.” Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
I went into this novel knowing how polarizing it was- people seem to either love it or hate it. They identify with Holden Caulfield or they don’t. They see it within its 1950s context as something revelatory, or they see it as pointless, boring, and unworthy of the “classic” moniker. While there are some exceptions, most reviews tend to land as either stellar, or as a one-star-could-barely-even-finish.
For the first third or so, I was running right down the middle of those two ideologies. Three stars, that sounds about right.
I put on my teenage-self-hat. I saw Holden as someone that person would relate to in a few ways. But I also, through those teenage-me lenses, saw him as someone troubled, entitled, and full of a cringe-worthy angst. I neither loved nor hated the book. I recognized the importance of what it said about an emerging culture of individuality. I recognized the literary value to the incredibly candid first person style. But I still wasn’t pulled to one team on the good vs. bad debate.
And then the scene with Phoebe came in, the late night conversation. For some reason, with that simple chapter, everything clicked. She asks Holden to name one thing, just one thing that he likes… and everything just pauses.
Here is a boy, clearly confused and probably still depressed and feeling the loss of his younger brother Allie a few years earlier. Here is a boy who has lashed out, failed out of schools left and right. His parents are distant, his older brother has moved thousands of miles away, his younger brother, one of the few things he can name to like, is dead.
Here is a boy who has been prattling on for pages about everything under the sun, but can not answer the simple question of what he likes, what makes him happy. Only the children, Allie and Phoebe, can admittedly bring him joy, but he cannot make a life centered around a dead brother and a young sister who idolizes him despite his faults.
Holden masks his hopelessness with angst, his confusion over growing up with sarcasm and outbursts against the status quo, he wants to live in the world on his own terms but he doesn’t quite know how. He has a fear of aging, the desire to be his own person in a culture steeped in conformity, the oppressive feeling that he is surrounded by insincerity and “phonies.” And he is feeling this all at a time where uniformity is king, when you followed a set path and did what you were told. He has trouble reconciling his feelings with what the affluent society he comes from expects of him.
Our culture is far more permissive of creativity now, and of individuality. Societal pressures in 2016 are different than those in 1951. Looking from that perspective you can get an additional idea of why the protagonist ends up being so outspoken an abrasive- if he can’t make himself conform, then he swings so far in the other direction that it alienates him from school, friends, and family. He does not feel he can take small steps to be different, for that is not an option. He thinks he must either live his life as a “phony,” or he must cut all ties, run away, and hide behind his mask of abrasive behavior. It isn’t until the very end, after three days of debauchery and soul-searching, that he realizes he has taken things too far, and that maybe he can be a happy person without being fake, or running away, or abandoning everything he knows.
At any rate, those expressions he feels until that point-the absence of joy, the uncertainty of the future, the stifling feeling that you are not allowed to be who you wish to be- they are not just relatable to the long-ago, high-school aged me. Adults can feel that too- you can understand Holden without liking him. You can sympathize with his confusion, even if you consider his way of handling it to be immature and juvenile. You can wrap it all within the context of the era and get a grasp on how startlingly different and revolutionary this book was. And that’s not even getting into the unique style of prose, or the colloquialisms or profanity, or anything else that makes it notable from a writing standpoint.
Should You Read This?
Wow, I rambled quite a bit there didn’t I?
Should you read this- yes. Even if you’re a strange person who somehow managed to avoid it in high school or college, it isn’t too late. I’m probably twice the age of the average American first time reader on this one, and I still found things that resonated, that moved me and made me think about my own experiences in my own time growing up.
I understand this book won’t be for everyone. You may finish it and think Holden was just too much of an entitled brat to merit any sympathy or consideration. I get that, I think having some sort of connection goes a long way towards your feeling on this one. But even if you hate it at least it’s short, and you can then appreciate the cultural references that have popped up in the 65 years since it’s publication. You can’t deny its influence!
Summary from Goodreads