There are books we enjoy and there are books that remove the tops of our skulls and change how we think forever. “The Catcher In The Rye” falls into the latter category for generations of readers. It sure did for me.
I was in my late 20s when I first read the book. It had been assigned in my high school, though not in a class I took. But seeing that it was assigned, I figured it couldn’t be that good. But I kept hearing about it, so what the heck, I thought. And he starts in right away. It didn’t read like any novel I had ever read.
It was the rantings of an angry, bright, alienated teenager from a rich unhappy family. Holden Caulfield’s stream of conscious gripes about his life was so natural that I forgot I was reading a novel and just felt I was reading a sweet, smart, often hilarious memoir of a disillusioned youth.
As Holden, J.D. Salinger accomplished the nearly impossible task of speaking in the voice of a teenager and making it ring true. Much like Mark Twain’s portrayal of Huckleberry Finn captured the voice of a child.
From the first page Holden grabs us and takes us on a tour of his life. We are along for the ride on “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” except Ferris isn’t all that cool and he isn’t all that happy. Which gets to the heart of why “Catcher” has connected so deeply with so many people.
Finally, it was a book that gave a voice to the losers in the world; the underachievers, the screwups. Holden was not a “self-starter,” nor was he “a team player,” and most likely, “school spirit” could kiss his behind. In short, Holden Caulfield had a bad attitude. He did not “apply himself.”
More than that, Holden saw what joyless, soulless hacks kids turned into when they grew up. They became “phonies,” and all they talk about is what kind of gas mileage their cars get. You could update that today to all they talk about is their cellphone plans and how many carbs they eat.
Holden saw childhood, with all its magic, slipping away, and he was not going softly into that good night. Holden asked the question most of us don’t even want to ponder: Does growing up have to mean turning into a bore? Can’t we keep a little of the joy of childhood?
As if that wasn’t enough, Holden walks us through his own gradual realization that grown-ups are a total mess. He saw the people who were telling him what to do for the neurotic, addicted perverts they were. And he wanted none of it.
Once Holden had captivated us and kept us laughing at his self-deprecating rant, he hit us with his little brother. Holden’s little brother died of an incurable disease as a boy, setting up the titular sequence in the book in which Holden talks about a dream he has in which a bunch of little kids are playing in a field of rye and they are near the edge of a cliff, and it’s Holden’s job to catch the kids before they fall off.
The reader can’t help but think, is he trying to save his brother from dying? Is he trying to save all kids from dying? Is he trying to save all kids from growing up? It’s almost like Holden thinks his brother is better off in a way; he died as a child, but at least he never turned into a boring phony.
What started as a fun, profane monologue of an amusing teenager turned into an amazingly rich study of a life, and the culture that surrounds it. We grew attached to Holden Caulfield, we liked him, we cared about him, we wondered what became of him. We were concerned.
At 91 J.D. Salinger died, after many years in seclusion. Perfect. What better way for a genius novelist to live his life. Cranky, fiercely private, he just wished people would leave him alone. Just how Holden would want it.
Phil Perrier, an Atlanta native, is a comic and writer in Los Angeles.