Sunday, August 14, 2011

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

My latest read is one that appears on almost everyone’s ‘to-read’ list.  And I’m stumped as to why.  The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is an American classic that I’ve heard about for years, but only recently read.  To me, it fits into a particular genre of books - one that is easily identifiable as being written in the first half of the preceding century by Americans, just like The Great Gatsby, or The Graduate.  I think the real problem lays in the fact that there is no real plot to these books, merely a collection of observations about human emotions, strung together by characters who aren’t the least bit likeable, but who have attained entrance into the zeitgeist due to generations of readers.  These books strike me as trying far too hard to be meaningful, and perhaps Salinger’s work is the leader of the pack. 

The story focuses on Holden Caulfield, an entitled rich boy from New York.  Holden’s biggest problem with the world is that it is full of ‘phonies’ – people who are too polite, people who are less intelligent than he is, people who don’t meet his expectations.  Holden begins telling his story at the point where he has been kicked out of yet another boarding school.  Afraid to tell his parents, but unwilling to stay at the institution for another 3 days, Holden bolts for New York and sets up in a sleazy hotel.  While in New York, Holden meets up with an old girl friend, an old teacher, and his kid sister. 

Throughout Holden’s time in the city, we learn more about his personal history.  Holden’s father is a corporate lawyer; he has an older brother who is in Hollywood writing screen plays, and a younger brother who died of leukemia; he’s been expelled or dropped out of various boarding schools; and he’s a virgin, for which he blames himself for being too much of a gentleman to force girls.  Most importantly though, we learn that Holden is a coward.  He calls himself such multiple times, but he’s a far bigger coward than he’s willing to admit to himself.

And there’s the rub of the story – Holden won’t admit anything to himself, beyond surface niceties.  Fine, he will say that the fact that he’s bounced from school to school is his fault, but he doesn’t mean it.  We repetitively see him parroting back the opinion and advice that responsible adults give him during his narration, and it strikes me that his willingness to accept blame is something that came from being lectured countless times about his unwillingness to buckle down.  Finally, while discussing his situation with an old teacher that he respected, I felt that Holden was going to finally learn why he was a habitual failure – this teacher tells him that life is a game and, whether you like it or not, it’s a game that has to be played or else you risk a crash and burn that you can’t bounce back from.  Holden finally seemed to listen and (maybe) get it.  Then the teacher made a pass at him, and he ran, forgetting everything he seemed so willing to absorb.  

The only other moments of emotional or intellectual honesty are those that Holden seems experiences while with his sister, Phoebe.  She asks him at one point what he’s going to do with his life, to which he describes his ideal job as a fantasy of his, based on a poem by Robby Burns.  The poem runs, “If a body meet a body coming through the rye,” but Holden thought the ‘meet’ was ‘catch,’ and so his fantasy is to keep the children he envisions running through a field of rye from running of a near-by cliff by catching them before they fell.  Ah, the delusions of one who has never had to apply himself.  In the end, Holden is placed in a mental health institution (I think – Salinger never overtly states it), and the story ends.

The Catcher in the Rye seems like a work that would pop with people in their late teens/early 20s, before they wake up to the reality of the world in which rent it due on the first of the month, you have to buy your own toilet paper, and you hate your job but feel you can’t quit.  I can see Holden’s tale of woe appealing to those who find themselves is a similar boat as the main characters, in which there are no real responsibilities in their lives, and the veneer of cynicism that applies itself after half a decade of self-reliance has yet to solidify.  For me, however, Holden’s tale is one of self-deluded grandeur, in which he has yet to be forced to grow up.  His concerns are ones that normal, hard-working, self-aware people never have to struggle with, and are the stronger for.  There was nothing in Holden’s life that was particularly difficult to deal with, and his teen-angst was an invention of his own creation.  In the end, Holden was the biggest phony in his own tale.

Salinger’s work didn’t resonate with me.  Because I couldn’t sympathize (or even empathize) with Holden, it felt like 214 pages of teenage emotions that have no place in the real world.  I wonder though, had I read this work 10 (even 5) years ago, would my outlook be different?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that The Catcher in the Rye has no place on my personal ‘to-read’ list.

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