Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
by Alan F. Zundel
I was a rebellious teenager in my own asinine way. Even though I loved to read, and read a lot of novels, I refused to read anything assigned in my English class. I guess I didn’t want that cherished part of my life contaminated by adult interference. For class discussions or book reports, I simply faked it.
Maybe that’s why I never read J.D. Salinger’s novel “The Catcher in the Rye” until last week. While staying with my son for a visit I pulled it off a bookshelf where his wife had stashed a few old books. I read it when I had some moments apart from the family.
A “classic” perennially assigned to middle and high school students, it was different from what I expected. I knew it was about a rebellious teen-aged boy who complained about all the “phonies” in the world, but thought that he would be more of a Jack Kerouac-type beat character. Instead I discovered a prep-school kid whose reason for rebellion was something I did not expect.
SPOILER ALERT: I am going to tell you explicitly what I think the novel is conveying in a deliberately subtle manner, as well as how the story ends. So if your haven’t read it and intend to some day, you may want to stop here.
Holden Caulfield, the narrator and principal character, is depressed. His beloved younger brother Allie died a few years earlier and Holden is struggling for a way to talk about it. Instead, he acts out. You must read between the lines to get the message, as it is artfully woven into the plot and narration rather than lit up on a billboard for you. But it is there nonetheless.
The clues start on the very first page. Holden doesn’t want to talk about his earlier life, and tells us his parents don’t like talking about “personal stuff,” giving an indication that he’s learned to keep his true feelings hidden. Instead, he wants to talk about “this madman stuff” that happened “before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”
The reader’s curiosity is piqued about the “madman stuff” and why Holden has to take it easy, but what grabs you at first is the unique voice of the narrator. Confidential, colloquial, irreverent, and funny, Holden is a kid who needs to talk and thus makes us want to listen.
Soon we learn he was kicked out of prep school. He paints a scene of himself standing on a hill, apart from the rest of his class who are at a football game, “trying to feel some kind of a good-bye… when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.” Good-byes are hard for him. He needs to remember little things about where (subtext: or who) he is leaving, so he can get a good-bye when he needs it.
After leading us through his life of lectures by adults and annoying his schoolmates, he eventually remembers a little thing while trying to write an essay for a fellow student. He recalls the poems on Allie’s catcher’s mitt, revealing for the first time that he had a younger brother who died of leukemia. “You’d have liked him,” he says.The night his brother died, Holden broke all the windows in his family’s garage and slept there. He doesn’t seem to understand why.
As the novel progresses two motivations drive the plot. Holden wants to contact Jane, a girl from his old neighborhood, and he wants to call his younger sister Phoebe. There are also increasing references to feeling “so damn depressed and lonesome.” At first I thought his interest in Jane was simply jealously and an unrequited crush, but eventually the truth slips out: Jane is the only one he ever showed his brother’s catcher’s mitt to. That is, she is the only one he trusted enough to confide some feelings about his brother.
Holden’s adventures over the course of about two days and nights after he leaves school and hangs around the bars and sleazy hotels of New York City keep things interesting, but he begins to gravitate toward his parents’ apartment after brooding about funerals and his brother’s grave. There he sneaks in and wakes Phoebe to talk.
Phoebe is at first delighted to see Holden, but then guesses that he’s been kicked out of school again and is dismayed. She challenges his negative attitude and asks him to name one thing he likes. The first thing he can think to say: “I like Allie,” and he likes being there with Phoebe talking and “thinking about stuff.” Exasperated, Phoebe reminds him that Allie is dead.
“I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can’t I? Just because someone’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake.”
This is the turning point of the novel, and shortly after Holden begins to cry. “I couldn’t help it,” he says, still puzzled by his own behaviors. The next day he meets with his sister again and they go to the zoo, where Phoebe rides the carousel. All of a sudden, watching her, “I was damn near bawling, I felt so happy, if you want to know the truth.”
Ah, but for an adolescent, the truth is not so easy to see. Holden ends the novel with some regret over talking about all that “madman stuff” that he was at first so eager to recount. “About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about… It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
It seems to be the way of life that we are inundated with lessons in adolescence and have to slowly unpack them over the rest of our lives, something I recently relearned while writing a memoir. I wish I had known what my defiance of authority was all about when I was young, as it kept me from reading some damn good novels.