"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review #26: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Somehow, I escaped high school without ever having read The Catcher in the Rye. I'm not sure how, since it feels like we read every other book in the world. Maybe the nuns weren't crazy about old Holden Caulfield. And strangely, while I have always been aware of Holden, I never really knew his story.

So I embarked on what is arguably Salinger's best known, and most divisive, work without having any idea what to expect. The novel opens just before Christmas, with Holden at Pencey Prep, a boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania. Holden has just discovered that he's been kicked out of Pencey, which is his fourth school in the last couple of years. Unwilling to go straight home, he makes his goodbyes around the school and then boards the train to Manhattan, where he plans on bumming around for a few days before eventually returning to his parents.

Holden looks up old friends - as much as he can call these acquaintances friends - old girlfriends, and old teachers. Each scene is uncomfortable and strange - for various reasons - but I got the sense that Holden never thought that he was the strange one. And to some degree, I never really did either, although with Holden as the narrator, the veracity of each encounter is relatively unreliable. Eventually, Holden decides he can't go home and begins to plan to run away somewhere "out West", but he must see his younger sister Phoebe first. He devises a plan to meet her at the Museum of Art, where they argue about her coming with him - Holden is understandably opposed but Phoebe is a surprisingly mighty foe -  and they wind up at the zoo, with Phoebe riding the carousel and Holden watching as the rain pours down on top of him. The short epilogue finds Holden in a mental hospital and Salinger wraps up Holden's narrative in a few short, terse sentences. He suddenly sounds tired and bored with the story, ready to move on to something else, and so he's done. 

That's the short version, but the longer version involves lots of teenage boy bravado, more than one physical altercation, and several moments where Salinger painted  Manhattan - as much a character as any living person in the book - with such a vivid brush that I could picture myself standing in the rain in Manhattan, smelling the exhaust fumes from the traffic and the cigarette smoke from the bars Holden haunted. There is also a very uncomfortable scene with a former teacher that hints at the possibility of molestation, but in true Holden fashion, he tells it very matter-of-factly, and then moves on to the next part. Perhaps the sections I enjoyed most were his musings on the opposite sex, which made him seem so very boyish to me, this young man trying desperately not only to figure out people, but women, who I'm sure he, like many boys his age, regards as the world's greatest mystery.

I've read bits and pieces about Catcher over the years. Teenagers, in all their angsty glory, love it. Many adults find Holden insufferable. Everyone has an opinion: he's having a nervous breakdown, he's just selfish and self-absorbed, the writing is brilliant, the writing is bad. Google Holden Caulfield or Catcher in the Rye and one can spend days reading all kinds of theories on what it all means, where the ducks go in the winter, what the true meaning behind the mummies in the museum is. But, and I've said this before, I don't want to dissect every nuanced word. I did that enough in junior year English, with a teacher I will never forget, who marked my answer wrong on a Jane Eyre quiz because I answered true on this true or false question: Jane ripped the bridal veil to shreds in the attic. Turns out, she only ripped in half, and the ripping in half Meant Something Big, so I got it wrong. Not that I'm still bitter about something that happened more than twenty years ago. Ahem. Anyway, I digress.

I don't think Holden was having a nervous breakdown. Honestly, Holden reminded me a lot of Don Tillman (The Rosie Project) and Christopher (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). His difficulty reading people, his inability to recognize social cues, even the abruptness of the ending...it's hard to not draw comparisons to those characters. And I think when you couple those characteristics with the usual difficulties of being a teenager and magnify them for the purpose of a book, it makes sense that you wind up with someone like Holden Caulfield. Autism and Asperger's were certainly not words that were common in Salinger's day - cursory research tells me that those terms were still in their infancy when Catcher was published - but all throughout Holden's narrative, that was all I could think about. Holden's mind is busybusybusy, bouncing from one idea to the next, and at times it was exhausting. I can't imagine how it must have felt for Holden, and, by extension, Salinger.

Whether Holden was mentally ill, whether he had an undiagnosed disorder, and where the Central Park ducks go in the winter are questions for the English teachers. All I know is that Catcher is indeed a part of American literature, and while it may not be everyone's cup of tea, everyone should discover Holden's story. And if you read it years ago, maybe it's time to revisit it. The more I think about it, the more I think I loved this book, so thanks, JB.

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