I finished reading, for the first time, J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” this afternoon. I’m not really sure why I hadn’t read the book before. Perhaps it was because it was banned from the reading list during my high school days. I really don’t know if it was banned in my school, but it was banned in many other schools.
I’ve heard about the book for many years and, from time to time, found myself wondering what it could be about. Having read little about the book, apart from articles discussing the author and his eccentricity, I never became familiar with the plot or the characters. Based on the title, I thought it might have something to do with baseball. It does not.
The narrator of the story is Holden Caulfield, a young man who has just been kicked out of school for the third (or so) time, and whose life is in tatters. Holden encounters all sorts of events and individuals that cause him emotional distress. He smokes, drinks, thinks lewd thoughts, swears, blasphemes, and suffers with a chronic inability to have healthy social interactions with other humans. The book is depressing from time to time because of Holden’s difficulties but it is also occasionally funny and often downright hilarious.
Holden is smart but not as smart as he thinks he is. He is alienated, emotional, over-analyzing, self-conscious, and severely depressed. He thinks about sex very often and worries about his own sexuality. He has no idea how to successfully communicate with girls. He is, therefore, the quintessential teen-aged American boy. He also happens to have a relatively wealthy father who can afford to spend money on good schools and psychiatrists.
I found Holden to be a very sympathetic character, probably because I can still remember thinking the things that Holden thinks and having many of the same dysfunctions. In fact, I can remember many of them because I still experience them. Some things you just never outgrow.
I empathized with Holden for other reasons. He is picked on by some of his peers but also experiences deep empathy for those peers who are even more picked on than he. He lost a dearly loved younger brother to leukemia and spends much time thinking about him and reminiscing about experiences they shared. Holden loves and idolizes his younger sister, who seems to be the only human that he can truly communicate with. Their relationship is very touching to me, and helps to make Holden a more substantial character because he demonstrates first-hand his ability to have a relatively normal relationship with someone.
Although “Catcher” takes place in the 1940s in New York City, the novel is not distractingly dated. I can imagine nearly all of the action and dialog taking place today, in just about any town in America.
I picked the book up at Barnes & Noble several weeks ago, along with a copy of “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler. I read “The Big Sleep” first and reported on it here. I liked that book, but must say that “The Catcher In the Rye” will be in my thoughts much longer than Chandler’s detective story. That’s because Holden Caulfield contains a pretty big chunk of me, whereas Philip Marlowe and I have very little in common.