The Catcher in the Rye is a book
that was on my to-read list for a very long time. Alternately banned in some schools
because of its profanity and assigned in English classes at others because of
its literary status, it’s a classic 20th century novel that I somehow never had
to read in any of my American literature courses.
read it, I can see its influence on loads of books and movies. For instance,
the 1992 film Scent of a Woman (which
my husband was watching just this weekend) has the fragrance of The Catcher in the Rye all over it,
partly in its private prep school and Manhattan settings but also in its themes
of trauma, alienation, and rebellion. I’d probably see the book’s influence on The Dead Poets’ Society, were I to watch
it again after so many years, and I can certainly see more than a little Holden
Caulfield in Jack, the protagonist of Fight
the book has been massively influential since it was published in 1951.
just wished the book were a little better.
Caulfield is rich, disaffected white boy with PTSD who has just flunked out of
prep school for the third time. Too cowardly to face his parents, he blows his
money in a long weekend in New York City, tries to pick up girls, and fumes
about phonies while he behaves in an utterly phony fashion to practically
everyone he meets. Finally, he’s broke and has no place else to go, so he
sneaks into his parents’ luxurious apartment and talks to his kid sister Phoebe,
who is the only person alive in the world he genuinely loves and cares about. When
his parents come home, he hides in her closet and then seeks refuge at the
house of a former teacher, but leaves when the older man makes a pass at him.
Holden plans to run away into the wilderness, but when his little sister tries
to follow him, he becomes worried about her future, and tells her he’ll stay.
At that point, the reader realizes that Holden has grown up just a smidge, and
we can hope that his paternal concern may lead to him getting a clue and
becoming something other than an embittered, alcoholic slacker.
is certainly a plot. The problem is, it’s not really enough actual story to
carry a novel of this size. Catcher
would have been a great novella at half the length; as it is now, I can see the
seams where Salinger stitched together his short stories to make the book. The
parts that began as magazine stories are tight and shine; the narrative he used
to fill out the book frequently meanders and seems dull.
we’re talking about literature, and most literary novels don’t need an
overabundance of plot, do they? If a book doesn’t offer a decent story, it can
ride along fine on stylish writing and compelling characters. Given that the book is written in the
voice of a narcissistic teenaged boy, we’re pretty short on lovely writing
here, and so almost by default Catcher
works best as a character study of Holden.
I was sick of Holden ten pages into the book (probably, I grew sick of him
before I even got the book, because I have seen and read a hundred different
reincarnations of his character over the years). He becomes somewhat more
sympathetic as the narrative moves along and we discover that he’s acting out
because he’s been traumatized by the death of his brother, the violent
death of a classmate, and by his own molestation. But having PTSD
doesn’t give you a pass on trying to be a decent person, and for most of the
book Holden is a hypocrite and liar whose greatest claim to heroism is that
he’s never raped anyone. His big-city adventures seem tame and a bit weak
to the modern reader. Although they surely must have seemed racy in 1951, in 2014,
he’s more likely to come off as a young version of Fight Club’s Jack without a Tyler Durden alter ego to make him
interesting. Toward the end of the book when he finally has his scenes with his
kid sister, he finally starts to behave like a decent human being, and those
were my favorite scenes in the book ... but if I’d started Catcher purely for my own purposes, I’d have abandoned it well
didn’t help that Holden’s voice kept throwing me out of the narrative. The
repetitiveness of his speech patterns went beyond establishing character and almost
made him seem like a caricature in early chapters, and I found myself wondering
if teenagers of that era would really talk that way. But apparently they did, all of them running around sounding like adolescent Harlan Ellisons. I’m
sure teenagers now would find him hard to relate to because of his corny
diction, and in fact my schoolteacher acquaintances report that Catcher is not as frequently assigned in
school as it used to be for that very reason.
But in the past, generations of upper- and middle-class white boys read Catcher and found a kindred spirit in
Holden. It’s the core demographic that most working writers
and filmmakers emerge from. So it’s no surprise that we can see shadows of Catcher in so many other works that also
feature white male protagonists and their oh-so-worthy personal struggles
against a world that handed them unasked-for responsibilities along with unearned
affluence and status.
I wondered, briefly, if I failed to fully appreciate Catcher because I’m too goddamn old. Holden’s mom was probably
younger than I am now, for chrissakes. So I thought back to my teenage self.
Hey, I was walking around with PTSD, too! And I was the whitest kid you ever
met. So surely I’d see a fictional soul mate in Holden, right?
I communed with Teen Lucy. Remembered how she would have killed to be able to go to a good
private school instead of a small-town public school and dreamed of being able
to afford just one trip to Manhattan with a cheap, beat-up suitcase.
pretty sure I’d have wanted to sock Holden right in his lousy whining little