The second book I’ve read to completion is The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s titillating novel that made its way into teenage boys’ hearts in the 1950s and 60s. The novel sparked a world of controversy for its abuse of the English language and depiction of the despicable Holden Caulfield getting kicked out of school, barhopping, and soliciting a prostitute. Scandalous! Needless to say, it was a very popular read. It has since weaseled its way into the American education system as one of the nation’s top pieces of English literature.
I went into CITR with no expectations whatsoever. My first and only real exposure to the novel was in 9th grade English Lit class with Dr. Laing, the English guru at the private school I attended at the time. His classes were never overly difficult, and he always pushed us to try and express our feelings about the books we read. Unfortunately, I did my best to avoid reading books outside of class as much as possible, though I have fond memories of our in-class discussions.
Man, am I glad I skipped this book in high school. The first impression you get with Caulfield, the narrator of this harrowing tale, is not a good one. It’s not even an average one. You really just don’t like the guy. He is extremely negative, and his one-dimensional Cynical attitude towards the world is right up there with the “emo” movement in philosophical sophistication. Caulfield goes through the ritziest places a seventeen-year-old man can get into in the 50s, and Salinger doesn’t bother flowering up Caulfield’s perception of the world. All descriptions in the book (details of each location, weather, other characters) are written using the same language you could expect of an average 50s teenager with perhaps a slightly elevated vocabulary. I applaud Salinger’s ability to commit to using Caulfield’s language while writing the entire novel. I grew sick of reading it after only the first few pages.
Who is this guy?!
As the story progresses, there is some slight development of Caulfield’s character. We learn that his younger brother, a very kind and warm-spirited child, died of leukemia several years ago, setting Holden down his self-destructive path; we learn that he views young children as the ideal image of purity and all that is good in the world; we learn where the title of the book comes from and how it relates to his character; we learn that the people in his life (girlfriends, schoolmates, teachers, parents, older brother, and younger sister) care about him very much and have done their best to break his depressive slump. Even with all of this new-found knowledge, I really don’t like him. He is whiny and pessimistic to the point where I want to be able to break the 6th wall, reach into the novel, and slap some sense into this kid. What a sad, whiny bastard.
My friends like to point out that his biggest character flaw is blatant hypocrisy. He spends the entire novel criticizing the living hell out of how people interact with one another, and then he goes on to commit a number of the same actions. I remember being a seventeen-year-old overly-sensitive little punk, as well. Puberty is not an easy experience for most people, and given the choice I would rather cut off my little finger than go through high school again. I had more than my fair share of crap to deal with, but I couldn’t imagine ending up anywhere close to as much of a waste of space as Holden Caulfield.
This book clocks in at a meager 214 pages, but it took me almost three weeks to finish. Sifting through the muddled jargon of the 50s New York teenager was like watching someone steal your bicycle and ride off on it. No matter how frustrated you get, you’ll never get your bike back on foot. Not very pithy, but you get the idea. Though I’m glad I finished it, It soured my little experiment for a while. I’m back on the reading wagon and riding my way into improved literacy!