The hero-narrator of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, second-hand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices—but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvellously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
It’s kind of weird that I haven’t read this book until now. It was never assigned in school, and I never really found the time to read it, especially once I started university. But CATCHER IN THE RYE is one of those novels that you know a lot about without ever reading it. Or at least I thought it was, but Holden proved me wrong.
Maybe all the build-up to reading it hurt it a little. I’ve heard so much about it—that Holden’s the angry epitome of teenage rebellion, that the book has supposedly inspired a lot of violence, that the book is crude and formative, etc.
The truth is, CATCHER IN THE RYE was a whole lot more benign than I expected it to be.
For one, I actually really liked Holden. Maybe he’s a little quick to judge and a pathological liar, but overall, he’s a pretty good kid. Most of what he hates—having better suitcases than others, for instance—is based on the premise that he wants to be normal, that he wants to be like others, and that he doesn’t want their opinions of him to change. He helps out the nuns and loves his siblings, especially Phoebe, so, so much. He’s sarcastic and witty, maybe sometimes a little mean, but never evil-spirited.
I understood what he said about phoniness, too. Though I probably would’ve connected to the book a lot more in high school, when I was in the thick of that phoniness, I still got it. I understand his hatred for fake people and fake conversation, because I went to school with the same people for eight years and now some of them won’t even acknowledge me on the street. I understand hating pleasantries and meaningless talk about someone’s party, and I understand liking kids better than adults because they’re more honest and more innocent.
I understand Holden, because I remember wasting away in high school, and I remember going to university and finally finding more people I wanted to talk to, people who didn’t talk about the things that didn’t matter and wanted to know the things that did. I get it.
To me, CATCHER IN THE RYE isn’t angry at all. It’s just sad. Holden is both too old for his age and too young. He’s too old for his peers and he desperately wants to stay a little kid so he doesn’t get phony, either.
I liked CATCHER IN THE RYE a lot. The only problem is I let myself think it was more than a book. It’s not. It’s a story of a boy who desperately wants to find some realness in this world, who feels stuck in place when all he wants to do is move.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that all of us?
What did you read this month?