Book Review: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

I bought this book at an Aladdin for my birthday because it felt like one of those books I grew up with that everyone just had to read and yet some how I managed to not read it.

In college in all my writing class we were told to cut unnecessary words. So when there are phrases like “in a way”, “Or something”, “sort of”, or even just additional words that undercut what your saying like “pretty” or “practically” or “probably” we were told to get rid of those. It’s difficult to do, I struggle to not include these types of words or phrases all the time. But it become so much more obvious in a book like this one where every other line detracts from the previous in a wishy-washy way, almost as if the main character doesn’t actually want to tell you anything but begrudgingly is.

I thought, I don’t know why, and maybe I got it mixed up with something else that The Catcher in the Rye was one of those “Great American Novels” that helped build the desire to travel and explore the country on a road trip. But there’s no road trip in this book. I clearly got it mixed up with some other novel that was suggested for every teenager/college kid.

It reminded me, and I shudder at this, of American Psycho. The voice is strong, the main character thinks highly of himself, are rich, hate practically everyone and thinks that everyone around them are idiots or unworthy of their time or in Holden’s own words “a phony”, really dislikes almost any female around him that’s unattractive or “stupid”, a homophobic streak, prostitutes, has violent outbursts (to different degrees of course), both take place in New York City, and you can’t always trust what he’s saying because what’s happening may or may not be true. (And I don’t like either book.)

The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden Caulfield, a teenager whose been kicked out of school, again. Every school he’s kicked out of seems to be a private boarding school of some kind and he fails out of everything but English, because of course the narrator has to be good at English. (I wonder if this wasn’t a cliche yet back then.) He is supposed to move out on Wednesday which will start the Christmas break but everything is getting on his nerves. He lost the foils for the fencing team in New York city, there’s a football game going on, his neighbor keeps coming into his room while he’s trying to read and his roommate went out on a date with a girl he knows from childhood. Eventually after getting into a fight with his roommate he packs up all his stuff and decides, in the dead of night, to go back down to New York city to stay at a hotel. But rather than sleep he keeps trying to get into bars, keeps trying to drink and have conversations with people around him, or dance with women he doesn’t actually like and finds annoying, but no one is interesting enough to talk to. The reader essentially follows Holden Caulfield around New York city while he wanders around chasing one desire after the next all in avoidance of just going home and dealing with the fall out of having gotten kicked out of his fancy private school. The amount of time he actually spends wandering around New York city is unknown due to the constant barrage of hyperboles.

“It took him about five hours to get ready.”

Clearly it didn’t, but because of the exaggeration of time based on how Holden was feeling, it makes it really hard to figure out how long the book actually takes place. Clearly not until Wednesday, but what I thought was more than one day ended up being one. I feel like the entire book takes place in maybe the span of two about two nights and three days. The book appears to be about a boy struggling to grow up, deal with trauma and change.

He has questions and opinions that ripple through the book that seem to deal with change or his hatred of phonies. Like his love of museums:

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. . . . Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

Which seem to reflect a love for things staying the same. And this thought about change that he asks several people for the answer to:

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

The common sense answer is that most birds fly south for the winter. But if I was in high school English I’d say it reflects other parts of the story. He wonders if the ducks get taken away, like his brother who died when he was young or the boy at one of his schools who committed suicide, or if they get a chance to fly away, which seems to be what he wants. He wants to go somewhere, to run away, before reality catches up to him and he gets taken away some where else, to a new school which to me doesn’t sound that bad, but to him is a nightmare.

He’s also incredibly indecisive. He wants to call people and see what they’re up to, but then talks himself out of it. He’s highly interested in sex yet when given the opportunity lies as much as he can to get out of it. He also jumps back and forth in his options of people which he notes when his favorite teacher calls him out on his hatred of almost everything.

But you’re wrong about that hating business. I mean about hating football players and all. You really are. I don’t hate too many guys. What I may do, I may hate them for a little while, like this guy Stradlater I knew at Pencey, and this other boy, Robert Ackley. I hated them once in a while —I admit it— but it doesn’t last too long, is what I mean. After a while, if I didn’t see them, if they didn’t come in the room, or if I didn’t see them in the dining room for a couple of meals, I sort of missed them. I mean I sort of missed them.

I can see why people liked it so much. Among the majority of the classical books I’ve read it has a strong teenage voice. The use of profanity in literature that most high school kids get to read is probably shocking but also refreshing, and he seems very real, even if you can’t believe much of what he says or even like him.

There’s an idea that either you identify very strongly with Holden Caulfield and find his take on things refreshing or you can’t stand him. I think I missed the boat for the former. I didn’t read this book at a time in my life where I was filled with teenage angst but instead after I already have done one of the things he dreamed of doing, going so far west that no one knew who I was and I couldn’t have a conversation with the people around me so I could get by in my life without having “dull conversations”. Heads up Holden Caulfield, moving somewhere where people can’t easily communicate with you is not easy and it’s very lonely and isolating. I also can’t stand books where nothing happens. If you’re going to give me a slice of life style book I want change to happen, lessons to be learned. And while there is arguably some realizations starting to click not enough of it happens to make it a satisfying read to me.

Have you read The Catcher in the Rye? Did you love it or hate it? Did you read it as a student or an adult?

 

 

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