WARNING: Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book.
I finished reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye today. Despite being such a short book (at just over 200 pages), I was surprised that I managed to finish it so quickly. I read every day but sparingly – perhaps on the train on the way to work if I’m lucky enough to snag a seat, or sometimes during my lunch hour. (Well, lunch half-hour but sometimes I cheat a little.)
I was also surprised at how easy it was to read. I have this childish preconception that books now dubbed ‘literary classics’ will, simply for that reason, be difficult to read, both in terms of content and language. Fortunately for me, and to my enduring delight, I often find that this is not the case. It was so with Catcher in the Rye: the language and tone of the narrative was very modern-retro, and hilariously pock-marked with the protagonist’s incessant swearing – a combination that had me hooked from the first paragraph.
People have seen me reading this book at work and said things like “Oh I loved that book”, and I’ve found this reaction quite difficult to reconcile with my own. At first I thought it must be because I hadn’t yet finished the book and had missed some vitally cheery ending, but now that I have, I am still unable to be so… effusive about it. It’s not at all that I didn’t like the book – on the contrary, it kept me both entertained and ponderous right through – but when you get right down it is, it’s not exactly a terribly ‘feel-good’ read, is it? In the colourful words of Holden himself, “It certainly didn’t make me feel too gorgeous”.
The entire book – or at least a sizeable chunk of it – is written as the continuous stream of consciousness of one Holden Caufield, the teenaged son of a wealthy family, who, despite his privileged environment, has managed to get kicked out of yet another in a long line of prestigious boarding schools. While every one else his age is attempting to battle through school, get their grades, date their girlfriends and think about going to college, Holden remains detached from this world, bored, disgusted, and unable – or just unwilling – to fit in. With this latest strike against his already blemished school record though, Holden finds himself at a crossroads, faced with a future he finds quite suddenly to be rather bleak. Suffice to say, he doesn’t like it one bit.
Then again, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of anything that Holden likes. His little sister Phoebe, all of ten years old and the center of his emotional axis, hits the nail on the head when she throws the truth in his face: “Name one thing you really like” she demands of him, and he is at a loss.
Rebellious and troubled, Holden blames all the wrong turns he’s taken in the past on the world around him. He is convinced that almost everyone he knows is ‘phony’ – putting on an act for the benefit of those around them. Every new person he meets during his 3-day aimless journey around New York has something about them that he finds utterly distasteful. Reading him, I found that at times, it was easy to forget he was just a young boy – his constant negativity somehow gave me the impression that he was older than his years. This was probably aided further by the fact that he spent much of his time pretending to be much older than he was in order to be served alcohol, prostitutes and other adult commodities.
Still for all, it is difficult to dislike Holden. I think the reason for this is precisely because of his youth. Whether or not he sounds older than his years, there are always reminders that he is in fact very young and because of this, I often found myself both feeling sorry for him and also laughing a little at his expense. There always remained the comfortingly familiar (albeit unsaid) adages “it’s just a phase” and “he’ll probably grow out of it”. The fact that he is just an adolescent with many more years ahead of him is always at the back of the reader’s mind and even as he wishes he were dead, we know that it is unlikely that he would ever succumb to that wish.
I also liked Holden for his rare, uncharacteristic, but still endearing enjoyment of seemingly random moments, things and people. He would find utter satisfaction in something as insignificant as a red hunting hat, or a child humming on the street, or a chance encounter with two nuns over breakfast. Every now and then his stream of largely negative thought would be pleasantly broken by random incidents like these. Coupled with his extreme affection for both his little sister Phoebe and deceased young brother Allie, these occurrences served to soften the harder, harsher edges of his personality. And although they were quite few and far between, those moments revealed a truer side to his personality – which was simply that of a confused, frightened and alienated young person.
And haven’t we all been there?
Frightened when we’ve taken a wrong turn in our lives, unsure of what lies ahead, unable to assimilate with our surroundings, wanting to escape a bad situation, defensive of our mistakes, convinced it’s everybody’s fault but our own, and – what I found the most haunting of all – “afraid of disappearing”: of vanishing without a trace, with no legacy left behind, and having been of no use to anybody. These will be anxieties familiar to any reader, regardless of their age. They are absolutely universal and will be the most compelling reason for our inability to hate Holden: we all have a little bit of Holden inside of ourselves.
A loss of direction can sometimes be the most frightening feeling in the world. So can loneliness. And it is both that Holden feels in equal measure during those three days in which he puts off telling his parents the bad news about his school and instead desperately tries to occupy his time, calling up everyone he can think of to keep him company and finding that most of them have better things to do. The few people who do agree to meet him are quickly put off by his social awkwardness and almost aggressive need for their company.
Although he constantly points out people around him as being phonies who do not act true to themselves, the entire narrative of Catcher in the Rye is a showcase of Holden’s own performance in the role of a young boy full of false bravado, trying to fit into an adult world, trying to make adult decisions for himself, and failing miserably at it all. Even Holden only half believes his own act, but tries to distract us and himself from this with a steady stream of judgment of others.
I was only ever worried for Holden during his conversation with his old teacher, Mr. Antolini who provides what feels like the novel’s only moment of clarity. It is the only part of the narrative that feels independent of Holden. During their largely one-sided conversation, Antolini neatly recaps Holden’s predicament, voicing many of the readers’ own fears for Holden, and also advises his former student against an impending “terrible fall”. Coming from an adult – even a drunk adult with a seemingly lecherous intent – it seemed almost like a warning both to Holden and the reader that something bad was about to happen.
Reaching the end of the book, I was relieved when the culmination of Holden’s dramatic few days turned out to be rather anticlimactic. The prodigal son returns home and is disinclined to talk any further about his escapades as he awaits his transfer to yet another new school and yet another new beginning.
…He had me worried there for a second, though.
In the end, it is another one of those seemingly random events that turns things around for Holden. He has a moment of absolute catharsis while he watches his sister on a merry-go-round in the rain and that seems to be that. I believe that in that very moment, he realizes for the first time that his actions may seriously hurt someone that he loves more than life itself: Phoebe. As it turns out, there is someone who would feel a terrible loss at his absence – the little girl with her blue coat on the carousel in the pouring rain. His life is worthwhile – indeed absolutely necessary – to the wellbeing of another’s. He is needed.
And thus, Holden leaves us quite secure in the knowledge that while he still has a fair amount of growing up to do, the worst is most probably over. A surprisingly happier ending than I predicted, but an apt one all the same.
Come to think of it, it has left me feeling quite gorgeous, after all.