J.D Salinger’s classic “The Catcher in the Rye” deals with many things but what made it a bestseller is the blunt way it describes the angst and loneliness that comes with looking for who you are and where you belong when you are growing up.
It’s amazing how this extremely dated, and culturally particular story remains timeless and universal. Our protagonist, an American teenager from New York called Holden Caufield, remembers what happened the previous Christmas of his life. He begins his story at Pencey Preparatory Academy, a boarding school for the rich in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, on the Saturday afternoon of the traditional football game with a rival school.
The tone of the piece and cultural references place the reader clearly in the early 1950’s.
Holden has been expelled from Pencey for lack of work and he will not be able to return after Christmas break, which begins the following Wednesday. He doesn´t want to be present when his parents receive notice of his expulsion.
What follows is an incredible weekend in New York city, where Holden will go to bars, meet girls, hire a prostitute, be beaten up by a pimp, meet nuns over breakfast, etc. all to avoid the overarching theme of the book–loneliness.
Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” has nothing on this book as far as alienation is concerned. And because the book is narrated in the first person it becomes even lonelier. Reading the book is itself a hard experience. I saw myself revisiting the hardest places of my teenage years, and even analyzing what it means to be a single oleh chadash at my age, in a big city like Tel Aviv. This is not an easy book. Once when I was about Holden's age, I decided to spend a Christmas morning in downtown Lisbon walking among the homeless, climbing hills, eating in an Indian restaurant–the only opened that day–and watching the sun go down at the end of it all. I haven't forgotten that day, and that loneliness has been haunting me since like an unwanted reflection, my hidden indian cemetery.
The third act is also not a walk in the park. After the weekend Holden heads home to see his sister Phoebe. One of the best parts of this book is Holden’s tender relationship with his younger sister, who works as his conscience. He sneaks into his parents' apartment while they are out, and wakes her up. Although Phoebe is happy to see Holden, she quickly deduces that he has been expelled from Pencey, and chastises him for his dilettantism. Holden shares a selfless fantasy where he is the sole guardian of thousands of children playing in a huge rye field on the edge of a cliff. If they come close to falling off the brink he catches them, and thus he becomes actually the "catcher in the rye” because Holden believes that to be the "catcher in the rye" means to save children from losing their innocence.
When his mother returns home, Holden slips out. Later he meets Phoebe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she arrives with a suitcase and asks to go with him. Holden refuses to let her join him, which upsets Phoebe, so he decides not to leave after all. They eventually reach the Central Park Zoo's carousel, where Phoebe reconciles with Holden after he buys her a ticket. Holden becomes happy when he sees his sister Phoebe riding in the rain.
The last pages of the novel are strange. Holden says he found his parents that night and that he got sick, mentioning that he will be attending another school in September. Then he says he is missing the same classmates he trashed in the first act. He warns that telling your own experiences will lead you to miss the people you shared them with.
This book has a documentary quality that most people couldn’t read in it when it came out–American swagger. This is a middle class tale, a bourgeois coming of age story of middle class America at its peak seen by the eyes of that same middle class America. Holden can only do what he does because he is a white male with money. Also, the Manhattan of this book is the Manhattan of the 1950’s that resembles Rome of year 50, vibrant, powerful, affluent, invincible, like we feel when we are young. A far cry from the tourist infested, gentrified island we find today.
Tell you where Salinger really gets it right, same place great authors do–character. After the first five pages I can hear Holden as if he is standing next to me. I can finish his sentences and his thoughts and he doesn’t even talk or think like I do. I have met enough Holden Caufields in my life to recognize them in this character. Salinger also gives the time of the piece really well, using terms from the 50’s like "phony", "flit", "crumby", or "snowing" for sweet-talking.
I don’t advise this book to teenagers. Certain things in life don’t require reinforcement, and the fact that growing up sucks is one of them.