Classic novel for all teenage angst-ridden, idealist visionary, fucked-up school drop outs (and try saying that after half a bottle of vodka)
The Catcher in the Rye. J D Salinger
You either get Holden Caulfield or you don’t. If you don’t then it’s possible you’ve never been a teenage angst-ridden, fucked-up, idealist-visionary, school drop-out with a view of the world that doesn’t fit with the one you are presented with.
The novel can be criticised for its rambling construction, it’s strange and enigmatic ending and for feeling dated. But that happens to any novel eventually.
J D Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye still hits the spot. It remains popular with English teachers keen to engage young people with literature as well as teenagers who like reading anyway – just as it did when it was published in 1951. A killer book with killer lines, true to the spirit and personality of Holden Caulfield, who is the original teenage dirtbag baby – with apologies to Wheatus.
The opening line spells out his character: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap…”
Catcher in the Rye is not Great Expectations.
Instead he’s going to tell us about his three day breakdown with various flashbacks and reminiscences and how he came to be unwell. What he doesn’t tell you is how traumatised he is by his brother’s death and his inability to bond with his parents when only his sister is his true soul mate. His brother’s baseball glove remains a motif, representing loss, catching, brotherly love, and a reminder of childhood.
It’s funny, it’s dead pan, it’s sad. It’s about how families don’t communicate, about 1940s American white middle class society and about an author looking to move literature into a new era where feelings, disconnected emotions and teenage angst are relevant. The novel is written in the first person through the eyes and thoughts of Holden.
He’s intelligent: “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.”
Holden’s funny: “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.”
He wants to be loved: “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.”
And he’s learning to cope with the adult world: “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.”
Plus he’s a romantic: “That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.”
He’s enigmatic: “I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.”
Self-deprecating: “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”
And there’s this quote which has us all guessing as to its meaning: “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
This dream-like image is about his late brother. He’s convinced he can somehow stop others from dying by stopping them stepping off a cliff. Holden is in mourning for Hallie, but he also feels guilt. He cannot define his feelings but instead relates his experiences and his ideas through the events of the long weekend. He doesn’t want change, he can’t concentrate on his school work, and he can’t help screwing up life in general.
He finds the world of adults filled with phonies, liars and hypocrits and spends much of his time trying to define who is a victim of which trait. Holden is inconsistent and lives in a fantasy world in which he perpetuates ideas which are unrealistic. He’s a teenager trying to come to terms with life and loss, relationships and women, the adult world and his own feelings towards it. The one thing he craves is love and understanding, something he fails to get from his parents and various adults.
If you have been a teenage angst-ridden, fucked-up, idealist-visionary, school drop-out then Holden Caulfield makes sense. I should know as I was one.