It was a strange feeling that washed over me as I read J. D. Salinger’s American classic, The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time. It took me so long to even begin to understand what this elusive emotion could possibly be.
It was bitter regret. It was longing, tinged with something that looked a lot like shame.
But I loved Catcher in the Rye! How could a book I adored fill me with such an overwhelming sense of sadness?
The answer to this question took me a while to discover. And even now, it’s difficult to put into words. Nonetheless, let me try…
(But before I start, I should let you know: this review is a little on the spoilery side. I’m assuming I’m one of the last people in the world never to have read this novel. If you’re yet to enjoy Catcher in the Rye, I suggest you steer clear of this review until you’ve found a chance to read it…)
The Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger
Published in 1951
It’s like running onto the platform just in time to watch your train disappearing into the distance. Or that deep ache in your stomach when you remember your grandmother’s birthday – two weeks too late.
The Catcher in the Rye filled me with the nauseating feeling that I’d missed out on something. I was discovering for the first time in my thirties a book that most people had read in their teens. I had arrived too late.
As much as I loved The Catcher in the Rye, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, if only I’d read it when I was sixteen, this book could have been my whole world. It’s the kind of thing sixteen-year-old me would have loved. The ache of it flooded my heart.
Then I stopped moping and started thinking. Perhaps books and poems and songs and characters come into our lives at the moment they do for a reason? Maybe they come to us when we need them the most? So what if I was fated to meet Holden Caulfield for the first time in my thirties rather than my teens? Better now than not at all.
The Catcher in the Rye is an extraordinary book. It spoke to me in a voice so clear and compelling and familiar – how could I not listen? From his novel’s very first sentence, Salinger broadcasts the distinctive voice of his protagonist, Holden Caulfield, with absolute clarity:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (p. 1)
About to be expelled from his exclusive boarding school, Holden decides not to wait until the end of term to leave the school, and, after a fight with his jock roommate, he packs his bags and simply walks out.
Knowing his parents will be livid when they discover he’s flunked out of yet another expensive school, Holden steers clear of his family’s lavish apartment and holes up in a cheap New York hotel room. Disgusted by the “phony” people he sees all around him, Holden dons his red hunting cap and begins a sad, lonely search for something he believes in.
Don’t let the apparent simplicity of Catcher in the Rye fool you for even one moment. Catcher in the Rye is a seriously complicated novel. It’s the kind of novel that, I imagine, would mean something different to you every time you read it. Rather like the exhibits at the museum Holden remembers visiting with his classmates time and time again as a child:
“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south (…) and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.” (p. 121)
Holden has an undeniable gift for observation. He is, in many ways, your typical sarcastic teenager – angry, confused and intelligent. His cutting remarks made me smirk like I was sixteen again. He is rebellious and spirited and full of potential. I found myself inwardly cheering for him as I read.
But as the novel progressed, my cheers fell slowly silent, replaced with an awkward silence. Holden’s tone becomes more desperate, more frenetic. Even dangerous. It’s clear Holden is not your average teenager at all. Gradually, Salinger turns Holden into a parody of himself. His repetitive language becomes ridiculous; his insight turns into ignorance. Finally, on the novel’s second last page, we see Holden standing in his red hunting cap in the rain, a pathetic shadow of what he once was.
Salinger builds Holden up, only to tear him back down again. It’s brutal – but it’s brilliant.
I realise I’ve done little else in this review except ramble about Holden Caulfield – but it’s with good reason. Holden is one of the most iconic, most expertly-sculptured characters ever bought to life. Whether you like him, or you hate him, this whole book hinges on Holden.
Which brings me inevitably to that fascinating passage that forms the very centre of the novel. When Phoebe, Holden’s younger sister, asks Holden what he wants to do with the rest of his life, Holden responds:
“…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye. I know it’s crazy, but it’s the only thing I’d like to be.” (p. 173)
Holden’s only goal in life is to stop children from growing up, from falling over the cliff and tumbling, helpless, into adolescence and the awful phoniness he sees in adulthood. He’d much rather children remained blind, ignorant and free in that giant field of rye that acts as a metaphor for childhood. Holden wants to protect children from time itself, while himself longing for a lost childhood to which he can never return.
I see Holden’s misguided, impossible dream as an attempt to atone for the death of his younger brother, Allie. He died at the age of eleven from leukaemia. Holden’s most prized possession is Allie’s baseball glove, a catcher’s mitt – which adds another dimension to the novel’s title. In Holden’s memory, Allie will always be a child. An eternal child, in an eternal field of rye.
This unexpressed grief is something Holden never really discusses openly, but its presence underlines every word of Catcher in the Rye. Amidst all the phoniness he sees in the world, Holden’s grief is his only truth.
I’m so glad I met Holden when I did. I’m not too late. In fact, I’m beginning to think this book came along at just the right time. Holden has given me so much to think about. Already, I’m looking forward to the next time I pick up this novel – and our paths cross again.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Catcher in the Rye is touching and hilarious; haunting and strange. If you haven’t already read Catcher in the Rye, find a copy and read it now. Put it right on the top of that huge pile of books you’ve got in the corner and read it next.
Then, when you’re finished, pass it on to a bookish, quiet sixteen-year-old.
In a word:
Poignant. Which Holden would probably say was phony, but it’s the best word I can use to describe this novel.