Narwhal Party

02/11/2010, 9:37 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , ,

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s truly iconic novel, The Catcher In The Rye, it was on the insistence of a friend whose life had apparently been forever altered upon reading it. This friend was a bit older than the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, probably 17 or 18 at the time, and I was 20. This friend was so affected by Salinger’s work that he promptly drafted a novella that was embarrassingly similar in voice: the cadence of the narration, the flippant disregard for everyone around him who just didn’t get it. So after his prodding, I finally decided to have a run at the book. And I only made it about 25 pages in before quitting out of apathy. Salinger’s fearless adoption of Holden Caulfield’s voice stood like an implacable roadblock in front of me. Holden’s honesty was discomforting. The outdated slang felt awkward. I didn’t connect with the spoiled rich kid who hated everything. Holden seemed to be the biggest phony of them all. I called him a whiner and moved on.

As I read Catcher now, I’m able to distance myself from the narrative voice a bit and respect the book for what it does. Other authors have won me over by delving so deeply into the first person perspective—Faulkner in The Sound And The Fury is the best example—so I felt much more open to Catcher as an in-depth character study. Once I realized that I didn’t have to agree with Holden, or continually sympathize with him, the book took on a much more enjoyable tone. This isn’t to say I didn’t identify with Holden in many instances throughout the book—mostly the awkward and confused optimism that occasionally fights its way through the clouds before it’s quickly obstructed again. The book’s title comes from a fleeting stream-of-conscience moment of earnest mis-remembrance, but his sincerity in wanting to save the innocent youth from the phony world is endearing—as his love for his little sister and his dead brother. There are times in which Holden’s apathy shifts into painfully genuine love, and he often catches himself and pulls his ennui back down like his red hunting cap. And it’s at these moments that Salinger so accurately encompasses the adolescent voice, which is why this book has been able to deeply affect young people, despite the dramatic changes in teen life. [Couldn’t Holden just as easily posted a MySpace blog about his angst?] In the end, Holden Caulfield is no hero to me, as he was to my friend (and countless others), but he’s much easier to listen to now.

It’s clear now, too, that Holden is less bratty and more genuinely troubled. His attitude isn’t merely the hopelessness of a spoiled rich kid struggling through adolescence, fighting through his emotions. There are many hints at real trouble beneath the surface: he’d rather cut a boy’s head off with an axe than punch him in the face, he’s haunted by the image of a school mate’s suicide, he refers to his hunting cap as a “people-hunting” cap. He is clearly pained by the death of his little brother. He alludes to past run-ins with “perverts.” Still, he complains of the weight of his money, the burden of having better luggage than his roommate. And despite all the sympathetic qualities, at these moments, I want to pull the goddam red cap over his face and push him back out in the rain.

Now that Salinger has passed, and I’m a teacher planning on handing this book off to students, I thought it would be a good read, and I was right. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I would still recommend Nine Stories before it, any day.


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