What’s so enchanting about THE CATCHER IN THE RYE?

“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.” ― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye. I beg to disagree with you, Holden. I don’t think writers will make the best friends. My advice is stick to their books and don’t try to get any closer. Writers in general are not the nicest people in the world, or the most social for that matter. There are exceptions, of course, but I believe most of them are quite happy writing in the isolation of their offices or country cabins, when they don’t decide to live romantically in Paris and write at a café. Many of them are also boozers and rude, and would most probably hate to have someone intrude upon their privacy.

Holden Caulfield is the main character of the ultra famous novel The Catcher in the Rye written by J.D. Salinger – a recluse himself –  in 1951. It’s a book hard not to identify with, especially if you are male and is or has been, at some point, 17 years old.

The Catcher In the Rye - Holden Caulfield by MelissaHatford

The Catcher In the Rye – Holden Caulfield by Melissa Hatford

I’ve read this novel three times so far, and the last time, a couple of weeks ago, already as a mature man, I found it even more meaningful and relevant than the first time I laid eyes on its pages a long time ago. Most people know the story. Deceptively simple and direct, it tells of a couple of days in the life of a teenager who gets kicked out of a fancy boarding school for having flunked all the subjects but English, and is sent home for the Christmas holidays. He leaves the school on a Saturday evening – he can’t wait to get out of the place –  although he is only expected at home in Manhattan on the following Wednesday, by which time his parents will have received the formal letter from the dean explaining his situation. Therefore, the reader is taken on a journey following the adventures and ramblings of this charismatic youth around the streets of 1950s’ New York for three whole days.

Despite the simplicity of the plot, written from the perspective and in the language of a typical teenager of the time (see the table at the bottom for some of the slang used in the book and its meaning), the story gets a fascinating and strong  grip on the reader. Holden comes across as a very sensitive, intelligent and generous kid – constantly wearing a stupid hunting hat – who is just going through a rough patch in his life, after the death of a younger brother. He is completely lost, lonely and depressed. Poignant and melancholic at times, the book is never sentimental, and, despite the subject matter, a lot of irony and humor underpins most of the character’s commentary and the events narrated during the time we are allowed to spend with him.

Holden is as a very cool youngster. Funny and sophisticated. A rich New Yorker, chain smoker and heavy drinker. Strangely, still a virgin. One of the funniest passages of the book depicts a meeting between the boy and a prostitute, set up by her pimp, the elevator guy in the hotel he is staying at. The act is not consummated, though.

He is undeniably weird – who isn’t at 17? –  spending, for example, a lot of time worrying about what happens to the ducks in Central Park when the small lake in the south part freezes over during the winter months. Do they remain there like the fish? Where do they go? Are they kept somewhere? He is so obsessed with this that he keeps asking cab drivers, out of nowhere, if they know the answer. These conversations are hilarious, as the drivers couldn’t care less, and don’t understand what this queer boy is hinting at. It occurred to me that there is a clear link between this image and what they used in the plot of the first episode of THE SOPRANOS, the TV show, when Tony’s panic attacks hit right after the ducks which mysteriously landed on his backyard fly away, leaving behind a sense of irreparable loss. I’m sure this was based on the book.

Much of the charisma and warmth Holden exerts on us comes from the fact that he loves his little sister and admires his older brother, who’s a writer, although he thinks that he shouldn’t have gone to Hollywood to prostitute his talent writing for the movies. Holden hates the movies, another thing that makes him peculiar and interesting for a boy his age. The love and care for his sister are shown at different points in the book, and reaches its peak in a wonderful and metaphorical carrousel scene at the end – which I won’t talk about in detail to avoid spoiling it for you, prospective reader.

I enjoyed every page of the book, especially the nuanced way in which the character describes his relationships with dorm mates, colleagues, teachers and girlfriends. He is always either planning or actually calling people in the middle of the night, and these pained passages, emblematic of his loneliness and need for human contact, are paradoxically very funny, which only shows the talent and skill of the writer.

Unlike Holden, when I finished the book, I didn’t feel like calling and befriending Salinger, for the reasons I pointed out in the first paragraph of this text. But if I were still a teenager,  I would surely have loved to have Caulfield as one of my best friends. I would have to ask Tom Swayer and Huck Finn if he could hang out with us, though.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Glossary : THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (Wikipedia): “Critical reviews agree that the novel accurately reflected the teenage colloquial speech of the time. Words and phrases that appear frequently include:

  • “Phony” – superficial, hypocritical, and pretentious
  • “That killed me” – I found that hilarious or astonishing
  • “Flit” – homosexual
  • “Crumby” – inadequate, insufficient, and/or disappointing
  • “Snowing” – sweet-talking
  • “I got a bang out of that” – I found it hilarious or exciting
  • “Shoot the bull” – have a conversation containing false elements
  • “Give her the time” – sexual intercourse
  • “Chew the fat” – small-talk”

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