Monday, March 22, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

From favourer #1: "I have memories of reading The Catcher in the Rye in the boarding school library at age 14. I laughed so much that other students glared at me. This book was a big surprise and I felt complicit in its naughtiness. I had met a new friend."

From favourer #2: "I loved The Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield at 16, 21, 27 and 30 years of age. It is the only book I have read more than twice and each time I return to it, it reminds me that growing up is tough no matter what age you are."

J.D. Salinger's recent death brought this book to the forefront of my mind again, so it seemed a good time to read it. It's unusual in the list of favourites as it's one of only 3 books that got more than one vote from my friends and family (along with Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved and Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee).

I've been trying to remember when I first read The Catcher in the Rye. Like most people, I know I first read this it in high school. I've been trying to narrow it down.

I texted my friend Nil, as I remembered us reading it at about the same time, but that happened with lots of books during our teenage years, and didn't necessarily mean we read it for a school class. But she thinks we read it in class with Mr Swanson, which puts it anywhere between 1994 (Year 8) and 1998 (Year 12).

I think I can narrow it down a bit more - I've worked out I must have read it before Friends started, because I distinctly remember not knowing how to pronounce "Phoebe". Given that Friends premiered on Aussie tv in 1996, I guess I was between the ages of 14 and 16 when I first read the book.

Now that I've got it down to a 2-year timeframe, I've forgotten why I thought it was important to work that out.

Oh well.

I remember that at the time I first read it, Holden Caulfield both fascinated and annoyed me, and that my friends and I adopted some of his slang in our conversations for quite a long time. Goddam phonies.

Salinger's 1951 novel (first published as a serial in 1945-6) is narrated in first person by Holden Caulfield, a 17-year-old who has just been kicked out of (yet another) high school. Holden is the classic disenchanted youth - he finds fault with everything in the world as it is handed down to him. Family, friends, movies - almost everything makes Holden feel depressed, lonesome, sad, or is labelled "phony" (his worst insult). Instead of waiting a few days to slink home to his parents when the holidays start, Holden gathers up a fairly substantial wad of cash and escapes to New York for a few days. He pesters old flames and old friends into seeing him, drinks a bit, encounters his first prostitute, obsesses about his family, and generally spazzes around for a bit. He wants to run away from what he sees as the superficiality of everyone around him, but he can't leave town without seeing his beloved younger sister Phoebe again.

The novel is told in flashback by Holden in the present day, but I had actually completely forgotten his implied situation at the very beginning and end of the book. On re-reading, it came as a bit of a surprise, but I still found it quite unimportant, which may explain why I forgot about it so quickly in the first place (sorry to be vague but don't want to SPOILER and all).

Holden has some vernacular. His derisive comments about everyone and everything are often hilarious, and despite the very dated 1940s slang, the rhythm of his speech sounds like my friends and I when we were teenagers, and still sounds like the teenagers on my train:

"Where I lived at Pencey, I lived in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing of the new dorms. It was only for juniors and seniors. I was a junior. My roommate was a senior. It was named after this guy Ossenburger that went to Pencey. He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece. You should see old Ossenburger. He probably just shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river. Anyway, he gave Pencey a pile of dough, and they named our wing alter him. The first football game of the year, he came up to school in this big goddam Cadillac, and we all had to stand up in the grandstand and give him a locomotive - that's a cheer. Then, the next morning, in chapel, he made a speech that lasted about ten hours. He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to show us what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God - talk to Him and all - wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs."

While The Catcher in the Rye has long been held up as a kind of rite-of-passage read for every sarcastic teenager, I wondered how (if?) Holden resonates with teenagers today. I was reading the book on the train with a few high-school students seated around me, and they started to talk about the book.

Girl #1: "Did you do Catcher in the Rye last term? Holden's pretty mad hey."
Girl #2: "He's interesting and stuff, but you wouldn't want to be his friend or anything."
Boy: "He really hates phonies."

So I suspect nothing much changed since I read him in high school - you either think he's badass or you want to tell him to shut up and take your Prozac.

I didn't really embrace Holden as my teenage anti-hero. Mainly, I couldn't stand the fact that he felt justified in passing judgement on everything and everyone, but it never occurred to him that he could be less than perfect himself. I also found it pretty hard to feel sorry for a cashed-up kid having a fancy-free weekend in the big smoke. But it didn't make him, or the book, any less fascinating at the time.

On re-reading it, Holden still annoys the crap out of me. His complaints are so relentless that sometimes I found it really depressing (to use a Holden word) to know that each time I picked up the book, I was going to have to spend time in his company again. It took me until page 161 (out of 192) to feel something for him other than annoyance, but when someone has pissed you off for so long, a moment of emotional clarity actually has more impact. And in true Holden style, it is understated:
"Then all of a sudden, I started to cry. I couldn't help it. I did it so nobody could hear me, but I did it. It scared hell out of old Phoebe when I started doing it, and she came over and tried to make me stop, but once you get started, you can't just stop on a goddam dime I was still sitting on the edge of the bed when I did it, and she put her old arm around my neck, and I put my arm around her, too, but I still couldn't stop for a long time. I thought I was going to choke to death or something. Boy, I scared hell out of poor old Phoebe. The damn window was open and everything, and I could feel her shivering and all, because all she had on was her pajamas. I tried to make her get back in bed, but she wouldn't go. Finally I stopped. But it certainly took me a long, long time."

The Catcher in the Rye interests me in different ways now that I read the book as an adult. I'm interested in how Holden admires children for the qualities he finds in them that he doesn't find in adults. His ideal job (although typically, he mis-remembers the song) is to be the 'catcher in the rye': to 'catch' children before they fall off cliff of childhood into the abyss of adulthood.


I'm interested in the way Salinger has Holden completely oblivious to parts of his character, but allows him quite an insight into other parts: "...what scares me most in a fist fight is the guy's face. I can't stand looking at the other guy's face, is my trouble. It wouldn't be so bad if you could both be blindfolded or something. It's a funny kind of yellowness, when you come to think of it, but it's yellowness, all right. I'm not kidding myself."

I'm not entirely sure if I like The Catcher in the Rye. But I can't deny that for the second time in my life, it compelled me to finish it in only a couple of sittings, and that I'm still thinking about it, and still looking up articles about it.

And I especially can't deny that I've had the "Comin' Thro the Rye" on the brain for at least a week:

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a great idea for a blog! I admire all of the books you have read, that is something I wish I did more of.
Great review of The Catcher in the Rye. You've made me want to read it and I have officially added it to the top of my 'to read' list.
-Haylee

sarala said...

I could never get through this book, not as a teen and not now either. I guess I'm just not enough of a rebel or something.