#5: The Catcher in the Rye (1951), by J.D. Salinger

“Ernie’s is this night club in Greenwich Village that my brother D.B. used to go to quite frequently before he went out to Hollywood and prostituted himself. He used to take me with him once in a while. Ernie’s a big fat colored guy that plays the piano. He’s a terrific snob and he won’t hardly even talk to you unless you’re a big shot or a celebrity or something, but he can really play the piano. He’s so good he’s almost corny, in fact. I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.”

——

Let’s flash back to the late ’90s, shall we? Bill Clinton was being impeached, Marilyn Manson was the anti-Christ, and I had just finished J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for class, dismissing it as a shrill, overrated “classic” (air quotes included). But like the president, I was suffering under a sad delusion: that I had to like the characters in a book in order to like the book itself. (It’s a common affliction, and not many people ever shake themselves from it, but I was one of the lucky ones.)

As far as I was concerned, Holden Caulfield is a supreme pain in the ass to spend 270 pages with, and so the novel must not be very good. Oh sure, I was aware of narrative techniques like unreliable narrators and ironic perspective, but I was having none of it. I was 17, an aspiring contrarian, and I had decided: “This book sucks. When does the new Stephen King come out?”

My experience this time around was much more rewarding. The Great Thawing probably began last year when I read Nine Stories, Salinger’s collection of short pieces filled with sympathetic, wonderfully-drawn sketches of children and teenagers. It got me nervous that maybe I’d taken a stand on the wrong book, and so I was excited to give Catcher another shot for the Time project.

What is left to say, 60 years on, about The Catcher in the Rye? In lieu of cranking out a few hundred words on its cultural legacy, why don’t I just bullet-point some juicy innuendo surrounding it:

  • It invented a genre. Before Catcher, the notion that young adults were a demographic that could be written about and cynically marketed to was unthinkable.
  • Nobody has so honestly captured the ennui of adolescent angst like Salinger, though the WB Network really gave it a good shot there for a while.
  • Salinger’s most important contribution to American letters was his dogged campaign to spell goddam without the final n. Scholars have posited that Webster’s refusal to codify this in their dictionaries is what drove him to seclusion.
  • It’s little known that Catcher was the first in a planned trilogy in which Holden, upon waking up in the mental institution, would endeavor to escape (with the help of a love interest who would then betray him by sucking the virginity out of him) only to find that the world had experienced nuclear winter in the interim, and so he’d have to team up with all the remaining phonies to ensure civilization’s survival. Alas, this prescient blockbuster was denied us, relegated to the safe for 50 years.

There are few works in American literature as shrouded in myth as The Catcher in the Rye, and even fewer authors as J.D. Salinger. As career choices go, you have to hand it to the guy; staying hidden was a real boon for Salinger Incorporated, creating a little cottage industry of unauthorized biographies and unfounded rumors that lent his works unintended significance. In his infamous, scorched-earth reappraisal of Catcher, Jonathan Yardley spoke to this:

If, Garbolike, he just wants to be alone, he’s entitled. But whether calculated or not, his reclusiveness has created an aura that heightens, rather than diminishes, the mystique of “The Catcher in the Rye.” It isn’t just a novel, it’s a dispatch from an unknown, mysterious universe.

Yardley’s right: Salinger’s reputation comes part-and-parcel with the text. You cannot at this point separate one from the other. If a literary celebrity like Norman Mailer had written Catcher, or if Salinger had written 35 other books, it wouldn’t quite have the same impact. (See also: Thomas Pynchon, though at least Pynchon has had a sense of humor about his reputation.) One reads Salinger’s works as if they are sermons delivered from the mount.

(And don’t think the publishers don’t know this; the edition many readers my age are familiar with isn’t the evocative cover posted above, but the plain white one, Beatles-style, posted here. No summary. No blurbs. Just the title and Salinger’s name presented in simple font. It doesn’t even need to explain how important it is; you already know.)

But reducing Salinger only to his reclusiveness is short-selling his achievement here. Catcher may succeed on other levels, but the thing it has in spades, the one thing that has ensured its eternal life on school curricula and will keep the Salinger estate defying public domain laws for decades to come, is voice. The novel springs out of the gate with a narrative voice so assured and defined that its first sentence is still bracing no matter how many times you read it:

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.

Is it any wonder why this novel appeals to high school kids?  That first line is Holden Caulfield, through J.D. Salinger, telling the reader, “It’s OK. This isn’t like those other books. I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m going to cut through all the bullshit and give it to you straight.” Never mind that it’s all a pose and he’s really a scared, lonely kid distraught over the death of his brother — Holden speaks the part of a cocksure, authentic kid, and isn’t that really what being a teenager boils down to, speaking the part?

Something else that really stood out for me on this re-reading is how little actually happens. The plot of this book can be condensed to two or three sentences, but the novel never suffers from a slow pace or a lack of suspense. Salinger basically has Holden wander around for 26 chapters and keeps us riveted.

What has also kept this book relevant all these years later is its timelessness. After updating the vernacular, you could present the remainder of the text more or less as is, publish it today, and it would still ring true for young readers. It certainly did for me: just look at the excerpt I quoted at the beginning. It’s all attitude. His anger doesn’t even bother to be consistent from one sentence to the next, it’s just reflexive default anger. Nothing is authentic, you can’t trust anybody, everyone’s a sellout (even his brother); Holden was a real Gen-Xer ahead of his time.

Catcher is not a perfect novel. Yardley criticized the book for its mawkishness, its manipulative sentimentality, and you can see some strings being pulled; when Salinger wants to tug on your heart-strings, he’s not subtle about it. Holden is often dismissed a preppy kid whining about stuff, and admittedly, his little verbal tics and colloquialisms, which feel fresh and vital in the first chapter (“if you want to know the truth,” putting “old” in front of everyone’s name), do grow stale by the end.

But for the most part this is a bravura performance from Salinger, one so easy to imitate but hard to pull off. I’m glad I gave myself a second chance with it; my about-face is the first (and hopefully not last) pleasant surprise of this project.

UPDATE (Jan. 12, 2015): Since the publication of this post on The Catcher in the Rye, I have read Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction, which means I’ve read all of Salinger’s four published books. As much as my opinion changed on Catcher after reading it for this project, I still maintain that it is the least of Salinger’s works, and that the Buddy Glass stories are probably the most ideal representations of his writing.

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