It was an odd coincidence that I happened to read this book right before the huge storm of publicity about J.D. Salinger's comeback; the movie, the book, the new writing. But I'm glad I did, because having tasted his work I can look forward to the big reveal in 2015 even more. Previously all I had read of his was was A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which was an incredible read that really stuck with me, and the The Catcher In The Rye was the same.
The story is narrated by one Holden Caulfield, telling us, the anonymous audience, of the events of a few winter days a year ago. Considering that all the new advertisement of Salinger will draw many people to the book, I probably should try not to spoil it for the newcomers, so I'll be vague, but the story begins at Pencey Prep, the fourth high-end prep school Holden has attended. The previous three he had been expelled from. The problem with Holden is that he doesn't try, it's not that he's not smart. He's apathetic to the whole education system, and he's kind of a class clown as well. He likes to mess with people.
You find out that Holden's been kicked out of Pencey, too, and he decides to skip out early and take a train up to his hometown of New York City. He can't go home until his parents get the expulsion letter, though, so he has to kick around for a couple days.
The book wasn't action-packed by any means- it's hard to give a clear plot-line because there aren't many points on it. The focus of the book was really to understand Holden's character, how he saw things. Holden is sort of the epitome of the angsty teen-- nothing is really wrong with his life, and yet he sees everything as bothersome and fake, and you realize once you get to know him that behind the facade of carefree goofiness, he's actually depressed. I'm sure that if he told people in his life how he really felt, they would respond with the age-old expression "others have it worse". Maybe he has told people, and maybe they have said that, and maybe that's why he seems to lie to himself as well. I really admire Salinger for portraying Holden like this, because it's something a lot of teenagers can connect to, but that adults seem to write off a lot of the time. There are a lot of teenagers that are having a really difficult time, that are sad for maybe no tangible reason, but sad nevertheless because of things inside them, and yet no one tries to help. No one tries to help because they're a teenager, it's a passing thing, it's just hormones or angst, and really they're being dumb, or selfish, or immature, because look around, there's people that have it worse. And when people tell you what you feel is irrelevant, you tell yourself that, too...so you keep all of this sadness bottled inside, where it multiplies and drags you down even farther.
I admired Holden for his honesty. He was very clear about what he thought of people, and he saw right through social conventions, people's actions and personalities. His character is known for calling everyone "goddamn phonies", because everyone acts differently depending on the context, and he saw how everyone presented a different version of themselves to be palatable to the audience. But he didn't hate people. He saw them for what they were, so while he may hate an aspect of their personality, he could also like an aspect as well, and he was fine with that. I think this point of view extended to himself as well. He knew what he was, and he would call himself out very plainly on it-- he'd say he was "yellow", too yellow for war, he would just go to the front lines and get shot up right away if he went, because he wouldn't be able to stand the fear. This is really amazing for a teenage guy to say, because most would probably dream themselves war heroes. He's so perceptive, but he doesn't really have anyone to talk to about what he sees. I guess I connected to this because I find, as a teenager, this amazing moment in time where, really, I'm on the mental level of an adult, I can understand things like an adult, but I haven't yet succumbed to the social constrictions of being an adult. I'm not ruled by the sensibilities and responsibilities, and my thinking hasn't yet been shaped into the mold of adulthood. It's like when you're little, and you ask those silly questions, or make those silly remarks, and everyone laughs because you don't yet have the common knowledge that would answer those questions for you. But then you look back on something you said, or on something a child has said, and realize how penetrating it is. Maybe you don't get what I'm saying, I'm sort of on a tangent, but... children see things more clearly than adults because those things aren't wrapped up in complications or biases yet. So teenagers are at a point in time where they see things that way, but can actually consider them with the mind of an adult, and so for me, I think that it's such a precious time, and you should be aware of how you think because it's too easy for society to put blinders on you.
This sort of leads into another theme of the book, which was childhood/innocence vs. adulthood and the loss of innocence. Holden sees things as a child would see them, but considers them as an adult would consider them, which is why I think he's so pained. He sees truths that most adults have taught their brains not to see, because it would be too painful otherwise, but Holden takes in these truths and really empathizes. He gets into a cab and feels bad because he thinks all about the cab driver's life, and then all about his, and sees such a huge difference there. He feels the embarrassment of a kid that has cheaper suitcases than him, so he hides his. For this reason I think he wants to protect the innocence in others, although there is another explanation I won't spoil for people who haven't read the book. He wants to be The Catcher in The Rye, catching kids before they fall over the cliff...catching them before they fall into adulthood. This is what he says when his little sister Pheobe asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. I can relate to this train of thought, because I myself have been on it recently. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, profession-wise, I don't think I could give you a straight answer, but I know that I want to write, to travel, to experience, to make art, to be content and happy, and enrich people's lives in some way. Yet society pressures us into a career path, deciding how we'll earn our keep, and I really don't think this is how teenagers should think about their futures. Each person should make their own path, not follow one that's already been tamped down by thousands.
Phoebe, Holden's little sister, was the one character I truly connected with in the book. I guess it's strange that I didn't resonate with Holden the most, although I do agree with everything he says and thinks. But throughout the book Holden fell on Phoebe as a source of stability and happiness in his heart, even though she only really showed up in the last few chapters. He wanted to protect her so bad, he wanted to be there for her, because she was the embodiment of the innocence he had lost. She was still young, and there was hope for her, and he wanted to shield her against the pain and sadness of growing up but simultaneously being a child. She was the one that really led him off the path he was on, one of self-destruction, and made him confront his life. She was the goodness in him, and whatever he did, he wanted to hang onto her. It was truly touching, and it was my favorite aspect of the book.
I can see why this book is lauded as one of the American greats, and J. D. Salinger as one of the best American authors. I don't want to be stereotypical and say that he truly portrayed teenage alienation, because literally everyone who had ever read this book has declared that, but he got inside the head of a teenager so perfectly. The way Salinger writes is not overwrought with emotion- he leaves that to you. He says things so simply, makes observations and presents ideas, and he counts on you understanding them enough to fill into the story your own feelings and interpretations. Maybe that is why teenagers think Holden Caulfield is so much like them; Salinger created Holden as a strong character who could stand on his own, but that was malleable enough for every person reading this book to make him their own, and supply their own feelings and connections to bring his story to life. In that way, Salinger is a very humble author. He's not so pompous as to make a story completely his own- to say, I created this, you can appreciate, but it's mine and not for you to personalize. He simply presents his story, but leaves the job of making it whole to the reader. I'm not really sure if it was good or bad for my appreciation of the book that I felt distance from it: I could understand better what Salinger was trying to portray, but I couldn't experience it as well. Overall though, it was an amazing book, and it lived up to it's acclaim. 5/5 stars.
"That's just the trouble with all you morons. You never want to discuss anything. That's the way you can always tell a moron. They never want to discuss anything intell--"
"One of my troubles is, I never care too much when i lose something- it used to drive my mother crazy when i was a kid. Some guys spend days looking for something they lost. I never seem to have anything that if I lost it I'd care too much."
"When in hell are you going to grow up?"
Sorry that my post went on for so long, I guess I got a little carried away. Here's a sketch of Holden I did to make up for it ;)