Growing up, I knew that The Catcher in the Rye was considered a 20th-century classic. I knew the same thing of works by Jack London and John Steinbeck, and somehow I guess I lumped them all together in my mind. It didn’t help that the title of Salinger’s novel makes reference to grain. I never would have guessed that The Catcher in the Rye is such an urban and contemporary novel. For me, that was a pleasant surprise, one I hope to revisit in the near future.
The Catcher in the Rye unfolds by way of the first-person narrative of Holden Caulfield, a young man recounting his latest expulsion from boarding school and his subsequent journey home. I’m tempted to say the book takes place primarily in New York City, but that would be misleading. Holden’s own mind is the real locale, not because the events described are figments of Holden’s imagination—although, who knows, for Holden falls just shy of deeming himself a pathological liar—but because those events are of secondary importance to Holden’s interpretation thereof. The Catcher in the Rye reads like Holden’s personal journal, which it basically is. As such, the book has no explicit plot. Holden talks about school, about girls, about his family, about people in general. Everything you’d expect a 16-year-old to talk about in a journal. Even though Holden’s reflections are confined to those inspired by his voyage home and therefore maintain a strong sense of continuity and cohesion, the storyline from which they stem provides no more than a backdrop to understanding Holden’s psychology. The Catcher in the Rye’s brilliance is thus wholly dependent on the authenticity of its protagonist. Fortunately, this is precisely where the book excels.
I love Holden Caulfield. This doesn’t mean I view him as worthy of emulation, or as an ideal dinner guest. The love I feel for Holden is an utterly paternal one, but that speaks volumes about the efficacy of Salinger’s writing. Holden is cynical, diagnosing almost everyone he meets as pretentious, stupid, or phony—usually all of the above. Often, he is wise beyond his years. More often, he merely thinks he is. Holden doesn’t understand why people get so annoyed with him, though the reason stares readers in the face. Never does Holden seem quite as young as when he’s conversing with others. Just like a kid, Holden doesn’t get that he’s being somewhat of a pest at times. Yet despite it all, there is much we wish to preserve about Holden’s nature. He is not without conscience, and the fact that Holden seems perpetually crestfallen seems to have more than a little to do with his wish that the world were a more innocent and beautiful place. The young man who cusses in just about every sentence he utters is the same one who mourns at the thought that a little kid will read profane graffiti and forever lose her innocence. Holden is a pessimist, no doubt, but more than that, he is sad. If Holden doesn’t stir your compassion, you’re missing something.
The Catcher in the Rye could not be so emotionally profound if Salinger did not create a voice as genuine as any in literature. And sadness isn’t the only emotion Salinger stirs. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Especially during the first several chapters of the book, I found myself laughing out loud almost once per page. When Holden bemoans the inanity of his fellow classmates, finding himself so downright perturbed at every little thing they do, I was thoroughly amused. Granted, Holden’s emotional reactions can be a bit absurd, but they aren’t without warrant. Likewise, Holden’s incessant use of profanity is assuredly ridiculous, but he sounds exactly like a teenager who’s so accustomed to swearing that he now includes foul language as a matter of syntax. In short, everything about Holden Caulfield rings true, over-the-top swearing included. As the book progresses, we come to appreciate Holden’s softer side, and by the end of the novel, we see Holden as an intelligent but naïve kid worthy of affection and in need of nurturing. I would think anyone who has, at one time or another, been all-too-well acquainted with melancholy will find something in Holden to love and to empathize with. Even as a 30-something adult, I recognize some of Holden’s emotional frailties as my own. Funny enough, I think only a cynic could fail to appreciate the lovable cynic that is Holden Caulfield.