J.D. Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye
There are a number of novels out there that people are expected to have read at some point in their youth. Not to have done so is, in a word, shameful. This is the position that I’ve found myself in with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (1951), a copy of which I bought many years ago, perhaps even twelve, when I was the same age as its infamous narrator, Holden Caulfield. That copy has sat unread on my shelves all that time, its pages yellowing.
Part of the reason I’ve not read it is that I thought I knew it already. What with its famous opening, the defiant nature of Holden Caulfiend, and a slim understanding that the novel concerned, to some degree, Caulfield’s younger sister, what more was there to know? Loads, apparently, especially on realising the book wasn’t about baseball. What forced me to finally take the book off the shelves is that it’s a universal reference point for so much fiction employing a youthful narrator shaking his fist at the world.
Having mentioned the opening to the novel, it seems only fair to show it, acknowledging the immediate strength and attitude to Caulfield’s voice:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Although novels had long moved from the verbiage of the serial novel, Salinger is quick to show that this is no payment-by-the-word affair, but that of a person with their own ideas of what the story should be. Salinger maintains the consistency of the voice through almost two hundred pages, but what’s most interesting is who Caulfield is addressing. At first it appears he is speaking to us, the reader, but as the opening paragraph rolls on there are references that suggest this isn’t just any old tête à tête between book and reader. References to his brother visiting him once a week in “this crumby place” and going home, but not for a while yet, hint at what’s going on, but as the novel progresses the truth becomes clear.
The Catcher In The Rye sees Caulfield reflecting on an event that happened to him the year before. He begins at Pencey, his preparatory school, in the lead up to Christmas. He won’t be coming back after the holiday, having flunked all his subjects save English, and a letter has been dispatched to his parents back home in New York. After a few altercations with fellow students, a plan forms in his head:
I’d decided what I’d really do, I’d get the hell out of Pencey – right that same night and all. I mean not wait till Wednesday or anything. I just didn’t want to hang around any more. It made me sad and lonesome. So what I’d decided to do, I decided I’d take a room in a hotel in New York – some very inexpensive hotel and all – and just take it easy till Wednesday. Then, on Wednesday, I’d go home all rested up and feeling swell…I sort of needed a little vacation. My nerves were shot. They really were.
Even though Caulfield is a year older, and seems more calm and collected than the younger self he describes, there is a sense that he’s never being fully honest with us. It’s to be expected from someone who says he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” At one point, early in the story, he discusses the way he acts, and although the lies he tells us about telling to others at times sound absurd, the down to earth believability of this are deliberately ambiguous. Truth or not, the sad thing is that while he thinks he’s deceiving others, he’s deceiving himself about why he does it: for attention.
I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironical, because I’m six foot two and a half and I have gray hair. I really do. The one side of my head – the right side – is full of millions of gray hairs. I’ve had them ever since I was a kid. And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it. People never notice anything.
In my misconceptions of The Catcher In The Rye being about baseball (although a baseball glove does feature), I’d assumed that the title referred, in some way, to playing baseball in a field of rye. Simple, I know. I was surprised, however, to see, as the story makes clear, that it’s another classic American novel, like Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, taking its title from a Robert Burns poem, in this case Comin’ Thro’ The Rye, a poem that calls for self responsibility without busybodies interfering. It’s a reference to an image Caulfield has of children playing in a field of rye near a cliff where he is there to catch them as they fall, something he misinterprets as to do with the preservation of his sister Phoebe’s childhood, a misunderstanding that leads to epiphany.
That The Catcher In The Rye is often seen as a novel best read in one’s youth is perhaps true in part. The wise words of a teacher, coupled with Caulfield’s realisation showing he is on the path to adulthood, is geared for that age group. The masterly control Salinger shows in his anti-hero’s voice, a casual, limited vernacular, capable of expressing (and suppressing) a great deal of content and experience. Growing up is painful, and Caulfield’s as good a guide as any. But as an adult, the enjoyment of the book is not in its lessons but its allusions, tone, and its character, all satisfying, and nary a whiff of didacticism making the novel feel like a life lived than one taught. In talking about books, Holden says it best:
What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while. I read a lot of classical books like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don’t knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.
Ah, Salinger: he doesn’t write, he doesn’t call. Perhaps that’s why.
November 27, 2008