#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.

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