If Holden Caulfield, the seventeen-year-old focus of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, were to pen this review, he would probably say, “It’s a lousy book. That Salinger guy is the biggest phony in the whole world, and his stupid book has like a million pages in it. It took me year to read it and all, and I nearly threw up like twenty-six times. I’m not kidding, I almost did. I mean, I flunked all of my classes, but not English. I like English books, really I do. But not ones written by phonies, and the teachers always make us read books by phonies.”
That’s just a taste of what you can expect from the text. In developing a character going through the world’s worst bout of teenage angst, Salinger did a great job at putting you into the mind of a sarcastic, morose, ungrateful kid who seems to hate everything around him. You know, just like your own teenagers.
As the story begins, Holden Caulfield is being kicked out of yet another East Coast prep school. It’s not that his grades are bad, though they are. It’s not that his family back in New York City is struggling, although the death of his younger brother a few years back is always on his mind. It’s not even his attitude, which is atrocious. Yet, it is all of these things, a pile of burdens Holden refuses to admit to, even as he talks about them constantly.
Holden is a study in opposites. He’s a pacifist who is always looking for a fight; an atheist who wishes he could join a monastery; a loner who phones people he’s never met at 2:00am, looking for companionship; a teenager who thinks he knows everything, yet doesn’t know how he’s going to spend the next five minutes of his life. Above all, he’s a phony who hates phonies.
I hated Holden Caulfield, and yet I couldn’t get away from caring about him. In a way, I am Holden Caulfield. Externally, our lives are very different. Holden is a spoiled upper-class East Coast type, ungrateful for constant care and attention thrown at him. I’m a middle-class, middle-tier, mid-life family man, originally from the Midwest. And yet, Holden and I share so much. My life lacks the incessant drama of teenage puppy love and New York taxi cab drivers and teachers who might be a little creepy. But if I let my mind wander—as Holden does nonstop—I can meander down those same confusing paths, tossed between the things I know I want and the thinks I know are unknowable.
It’s a little sad that this WWII-era book is read primarily by high school students. The strong PG-13 language is theirs, but the raw emotions belong to someone who has trudged through decades of life, perhaps even someone who ends up as a recluse, as Salinger did. The first-person style, through well written and consistent, is aggravating in its peevishness. But if you can get past the whiny teenage voice and overlook the fact that nothing is ever resolved, you will find in Holden Caulfield that phony part of you that hates to read books like The Catcher in the Rye, and the part that needs to.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.