Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

When I was in school, The Catcher in the Rye was still a banned book, or was at least controversial enough to be excised from academic reading lists.  Now, with a new biopic of J.D. Salinger about to be released, it seemed  high time to read his best-known novel.

That voice! In a 1962 article for Harper's Magazine, Mary McCarthy credited Salinger with "a ventriloquist’s knack of disguising his voice."  As the ventriloquist's dummy, Holden Caulfield is unforgettable -- jaded yet naive, aggravating but pitiful. I can only imagine the kerfuffle this book kicked off when it came out in 1952, not only because of Holden's chronic cursing, underaged drinking and dalliance with a prostitute but also because the literary world had never met a narrator quite like him.  And for those who voiced their disapproval, you just know how Holden himself would respond:  "Goddam hypocrites."

Shane Salerno is the writer of the new documentary, "Salinger".  In a recent interview (my apologies, but I don't remember where I read it), he commented that Salinger's life was indelibly touched by his combat experience in World War II, and all of his novels, including The Catcher in the Rye, show tell-tale signs of that psychological trauma. That bit of background makes Holden an even more sympathetic character -- unable to express the grief when his brother dies, Holden lets his pain drive him from one private school to the next, each peopled with ever more "phony" teachers and students. In fact, almost no one meets with Holden's trust or approval -- Thomas Hardy and his younger sister, Phoebe are among the few.  

I do empathise with Holden's parents and teachers who see his tremendous intelligence but worry that unless he settles down and develops some self-discipline, he will crash and burn, or worse, just land in the gutter and stay there.  Holden is driven by what he likes and admires, though, and he doesn't see the point of investing any time reading books by phonies. One of his former English teachers gently suggests that there might still be some value in reading assigned books that he doesn't exactly like, but Holden is having none of it. He has his own ideas about what constitutes a good book.
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though. I wouldn't want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don't know, He just isn't the kind of guy I'd want to call up, that's all. I'd rather call old Thomas Hardy up. I like that Eustacia Vye.
Nor does Holden have any use for his schoolmates, and it's a wonder he took only one beating from them in the course of the book. Just before he leaves his school at the end of the fall term -- he's been expelled and is not looking forward to sharing this news with his parents -- he wakes up the young man in the next room in the middle of the night.
"Listen. What's the routine on joining a monastery?" I asked him. I was sort of toying with the idea of joining one. "Do you have to be a Catholic and all?" "Certainly you have to be a Catholic. You bastard, did you wake me just to ask me a dumb ques--" "Aah, go back to sleep. I'm not gonna join one anyway. The kind of luck I have, I'd probably join one with all the wrong kind of monks in it. All stupid bastards. Or just bastards." When I said that, old Ackley sat way the hell up in bed. "Listen," he said, "I don't care what you say about me or anything, but if you start making cracks about my goddam religion, for Chrissake--" "Relax," I said. "Nobody's making any cracks about your goddam religion."
Even when well-intentioned people show Holden some kindness, they rarely get it right (by his standards), and the fact that he can't abide their failed efforts drives him into an even deeper funk.
Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.
On the train back home to New York, Holden finds himself sitting opposite the mother of one of his schoolmates who, to no one's surprise, Holden loathes. He proceeds to "confide" in the mother that her son is the greatest student to grace the school's dooryard. She seems a tad surprised to hear that he is so popular.
"Well. He's a very sensitive boy. He's really never been a terribly good mixer with other boys. Perhaps he takes things a little more seriously than he should at his age." Sensitive. That killed me. That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat. I gave her a good look. She didn't look like any dope to me. She looked like she might have a pretty damn good idea what a bastard she was the mother of. But you can't always tell--with somebody's mother, I mean. Mothers are all slightly insane.
As he imagines his father's reaction to yet one more school expulsion, Holden decides that his only hope is to head out west and find work on a ranch, but he first wants to say good-bye to his little sister, Phoebe. He arranges to meet her at the Natural History Museum.  (To his horror, she arrives with her suitcase, having guessed his plan and determined to join him.)  While he's waiting for her, though, Holden muses about the passage of time, and about change.
I kept thinking about old Phoebe going to that museum on Saturdays the way I used to. I thought how she'd see the same stuff I used to see, and how she'd be different every time she saw it. It didn't exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn't make me feel gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway.
Poor old Holden. You want to hug him, and then you want to deck him.  And he just doesn't give a good goddam either way.


  1. I think you'd have to be 16 or younger to enjoy "Catcher In The Rye". I found the protagonist a bloody nuisance and a pest, and the writing style self-conscious and forced. I was 17 when I read it.

    1. Well, yes -- I didn't mention it, but I couldn't stand Holden, either. He is a bloody nuisance, and I often felt like just hauling off and smacking him. Reading it in my 50s though, I feel more like someone's grandmother -- I can acknowledge that the character is acting out of repressed pain, but he's not my problem, so I can simply read him and send him home to his parents (in this case the finished book collection).


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