If you want to know the truth, when I first started thinking about doing this post, I was totally prepared to write a searing critique of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). I really was. I mean, I thought I was going to point out how it was mannered and glib and outdated and phony and all.
For one thing, I’ve gotten pretty sick of all things Salinger-related. I really have. I’m always suspicious of supposedly publicity-shy celebrities and public figures whose passion for isolation somehow ends up becoming the most interesting thing about them. All those “I want to be alone” phonies who never seem to actually go away. If they really were all that intent on being left alone and forgotten, believe me, they could definitely find a way. They really could.
But this constant coy hovering at the edges of our attention and consciousness seems kind of creepily self-serving, gives me a royal pain, and I have better things to think about and all.
Since his death in 2010 Salinger has become, if anything, even more annoyingly ubiquitous than he was when he was alive. A constant drip, drip, drip of stories and revelations about him, and just recently a splashy new film documentary and related tie-in biography. The guy, even in death, continues to hang around. It annoys hell out of me. It really does.
[OK, I promise to stop mimicking Holden’s voice; if you want to know the truth it can get annoying as hell and all. It really can.]
Another reason I thought I would write a negative review had to do with the last time I had read The Catcher in the Rye.
About a decade ago–when my son, Kyle, was a senior in high school–I thought I would finally persuade him to read the novel. I had been trying for several years to get him to check it out. But, as with so many things back then, he was being willfully perverse in his determination to not do something I was sure he would enjoy. He had not read and did not plan to ever read Catcher, especially since I insisted it was a book all teenagers should read at some point. It would be a black mark on his permanent record if he didn’t. And, of course, he really dug his heels in when I guaranteed it was a book he would love, love, love.
I’ll go more in detail a bit later, but suffice it to say I finally got him to read Catcher and, no, the reading did not go well. The whole experience left me with decidedly sour feelings about the book.
And that’s where things stood . . . until . . . I read the novel yet again over the last couple of days, and, lo and behold, discovered that–for all the mannered writing and occasional lapses–Catcher still holds a strong magnetic attraction for me that I just can’t seem to shake.
And so, my initial plan to write a blisteringly contrarian attack on one of my generation’s revered texts has fizzled out. Tipping over sacred cows is a sure-fire way to stand apart from the crowd and generate some buzz. Except that–forty-five years after first reading it–I discover that I, like so many others of my generation, am still hooked on the book.
(Quick aside: when I had conversations and email correspondence with a number of Baby Boomers about the books that had mattered to them, The Catcher in the Rye was far and away the single most often mentioned book. It engendered almost universally fond memories. To date, over 65 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide.)
So, instead of a hatchet job, let’s just take a quick tour of the three times I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye over the years . . .
I’m fourteen. My older brother has a beat up copy of The Catcher in the Rye hidden in his desk that I’ve decided to sneak a look at.
(It’s funny to think about now, but back then Catcher was considered a very racy novel–it had among other things: lying, profanity, glimpses of homosexuality, underage drinking, an assignation with a prostitute–so there was something a bit illicit and thrilling about me even taking a peek. There are plenty of libraries and school districts around the country where the book has been and continues to be challenged.)
I’d been a bookworm ever since I can remember, but reading that book was a real eye-opener. Like most kids my age, I had nourished myself on a steady diet of sports books, sci-fi, history, westerns, adventure yarns, etc.–but this, this was the first time I felt that a book had truly spoken to me. Just me. It was how Keats must have felt upon first looking into Chapman’s Homer: like there were worlds and worlds and worlds to be discovered. I had just had my first literary close encounter.
Several Baby Boom-age readers have mentioned to me having similar feelings about Catcher and especially about Holden Caulfield: the feeling of discovering a kindred spirit, someone with whom they could identify–for the first time–within the pages of a book.
We were hooked from that first great opening sentence:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll 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, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
In my case, the book planted a seed that would grow and grow. A few years later, as a college sophomore, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time in an Intro to American Lit course and discovered where Holden’s voice–honest, direct, colloquial–had come from. I was amazed. I’d been drifting up until that point, not sure what I should do with my life, not even sure what I should major in. But I suddenly and irrevocably knew that I was meant to be an English major (and eventually enter a Ph.D program in English). I had found my calling–thanks to the groundwork that had been laid by J. D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield.
This reading, about ten years ago, I’ve already mentioned. So how did I get Kyle to finally read Catcher? My brilliant plan was for us to read the book aloud together. Oopsie. Not a great idea in the event. There had always been something a little off-putting about Holden’s voice in the novel. Not enough to ruin the book for me, but enough that I had loved the book despite some of Holden’s annoying verbal tics and mannerisms.
But reading the book aloud with someone from the enemy camp? All those verbal formulations started sounding resoundingly phony in my ears. Especially when Kyle and I read them aloud. (“This is soooo corny,” was Kyle’s non-stop mantra as we plowed through the book together.) To an unsympathetic ear, Holden can often sound like an adult’s tin-ear impersonation of a sixteen year old. Enough that by the end of the book, I thought Catcher had been permanently soured for me.
Thankfully, however, I gave it one more reading in order to write this post and . . . well you know what happened.
[Sidebar: if you really have fond memories of a particular book or movie, do not under any circumstances try to share it with your kids, especially if they are resistant to begin with. Humor, in particular, will whither and squirm and die under the unpitying gaze of your “I will not be amused” offspring. Don’t believe me? Try seeing some early Woody Allen (Take the Money and Run or Bananas) or virtually any of Monty Python with your children. I guarantee you will be cringing with embarrassment, wondering to yourself, “Now why exactly did I find this stuff so funny back in the day?”]
Finished rereading the book just yesterday. Forty-five years have passed since my first encounter with Holden and Stradlater and Ackley and Mr. Antolini and Phoebe and Maurice (the pimp elevator operator) and the rest of the gang.
Surprise, I suddenly find myself caring about Holden again. Feeling bad about Allie, his kid brother who dies before the novel begins. Rooting for Phoebe, his gritty little sister. Caring about all of them again. And hoping that alienated, lonely, depressed Holden ends up OK. Hoping they all end up OK.
The things I liked the best this time? Yes, there are the well-known set pieces, such as Holden’s description of the catcher in the rye struggling to keep the playing children from plunging off the cliff. Or his recurring fascination with what happens to the Central Park ducks in the winter when the lagoon freezes over.
But my favorite moments this time around were the quieter, idiosyncratic memories Holden shares, such as watching the kettle drummer of the Radio City Christmas Show orchestra:
I’ve watched that guy since I was about eight years old. My brother Allie and I, if we were with our parents and all, we used to move our seats and go way down so we could watch him. He’s the best drummer I ever saw. He only gets a chance to bang them a couple of times during the whole piece, but he never looks bored when he isn’t doing it. Then when he does bang them, he does it so nice and sweet . . . One time when we went to Washington with my father, Allie sent him a postcard, but I’ll bet he never got it. We weren’t too sure how to address it.
I love the way Holden observes the world around him: trying to uncover people’s motives, trying to discern the authentic ones from the phonies, and, underneath it all, struggling to figure out what life holds in store. It is as if, within the pages of Catcher, Salinger has distilled the essence of what it is to be a teenager.
Here is Holden sitting in the lobby of a mid-town NYC hotel, watching groups of college girls who are coming home for the holidays, musing about their futures:
. . . because you kept wondering what the hell would happen to all of them. When they got out of school and college, I mean. You figured most of them would probably marry dopey guys. Guys that always talk about how many miles they get to a gallon in their goddam cars. Guys that get sore and childish as hell if you beat them at golf, or even just some stupid game like ping-pong. Guys that are very mean. Guys that never read books . . .
So, if you have fond memories of The Catcher in the Rye and haven’t read it in awhile, fear not. Despite some trepidations, you may find as I did, that the novel that once spoke so intimately to you is still capable of working its magic. Somehow after all these years, the novel still manages to connect to that awkward, confused, lonely teenager who resides somewhere inside us all.
I think I’ll try to get my son to give the book another try.