Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger

   1951; 214 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : American Literature; Realistic Fiction; Banned Books.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It is not the best of times for Holden Caulfield.  He’s about to be expelled from an exclusive private academy.  Again.  For a total lack of effort.  Again.

    This time it’s prestigious Pencey Prep; it's the 4th school that Holden will be kicked out of; and he knows his parents are going to hit the roof.  There are still a couple days until the end of the semester, but he decides to leave school early, since his fate is already sealed and he’s surrounded by teachers and students who are (in Holden’s opinion) all phonies.

    He has some cash on him – he comes from an affluent family – and there’s no sense arriving home early to face the inevitable chewing out, so Holden opts to hang out in his hometown for a few days.  Which happens to be New York City.  Take in a play, go ice skating, look up old friends (especially girls), maybe hire a hooker.

    Except all his old friends are phonies.  And he’s still a virgin.

What’s To Like...
    The Catcher In The Rye is J.D. Salinger’s blockbuster 1951 novel, and grasps poignantly the alienation, angst, and crisis-of-identity that many teenagers go through, no matter what generation they belong to.  Some parts of the story can be described as autobiographical fiction, akin to Sylvia Plath and her novel, The Bell Jar (reviewed here).

   The story is told from a first-person POV (Holden’s), and in a stream-of-consciousness format.  Salinger makes extensive use of 1950’s teen-speak, some of which was still around in the 1960’s when I was growing up (eg. : “necking” and “corny”).  It was fun to read about an America that is long-gone, including long-forgotten things like phone booths, a La Salle convertible, and a popular song from that time, “Tin Roof Blues”.  Being the thoughts of an teenager with an attitude, it should not be a surprise that cuss words abound.

    The writing is very good; it has to be to keep the reader’s interest for 200+ pages while recounting Holden’s messed-up view of the world.  But our protagonist has some good aspects too.  He is honest about himself, knows when he’s screwed a situation up, and even evokes some sympathy as he tries to fathom the opposite sex.  One of Holden’s repeated lines is “It’s a funny thing about girls…”

    There are some great scenes in the book – such as the will-he-or-won’t-he encounter with the hooker and her pimp.  And while Holden may have some crumby (to use his vernacular) views on life, some of his mini-discourses are quite engaging, such as his reasons for liking Jesus but hating his disciples.

    The ending is either brilliant or unsatisfying, depending on your expectations.  While it is implied that Holden is finally getting some professional help, it is not clear that it’s altered his outlook on life in any appreciable way.

Kewlest New Word ...
Chiffonier (n.) : a tall chest of drawers, usually with a mirror on top.

    “Anyway, I keep picturing all those little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And 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.”  (pg. 173)

    “I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall.  But I don’t honestly know what kind … Are you listening to me?”
    You could tell he was trying to concentrate and all.
    “It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.  Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, “It’s a secret between he and I.”  Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer.  I just don’t know.  But do you know what I’m driving at, at all?”
    “Yes.  Sure,” I said.”  (pg. 186)

“If a body catch a body coming through the rye.”  (pg. 115 )
    I have to admit that the first 2/3 of the book got repetitive at times.  Holden hates this, Holden hates that, Holden hates yet another person, and on and on it goes.  Yet it’s all worth it once he sneaks home and talks with his kid sister, Phoebe, who’s the one person in the world who Holden actually cares about.  The feeling is mutual, and that is what gives the reader optimism that Holden might someday get his life together.

    I chose The Catcher In The Rye as my “highbrow literature” book for 2015.  I try to read one of those each year but am not always successful.  It could also have served as my read for “Banned Book Week 2015”, since it continues to be one of the most challenged books year after year.  I find this paradoxical since it is also one of the most recommended-reading books in high school English classes.

    Bottom line: this book thoroughly resonated with me, because so many of Holden’s thoughts and views were also mine back in my salad days.  If you were your high school’s homecoming queen or star quarterback, you may not be able to relate to Holden, and may find his story to be a real drag.  But for every perfectly adjusted kid, there are a hundred others that are confused, maladjusted, and/or socially or emotionally messed up to varying degrees.  And that’s why The Catcher In The Rye remains such a popular novel.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you prefer Leave It To Beaver to All In The Family.  I don’t know whether to pity you or envy you.

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