Holden Caulfield has been expelled from his prep-school. Again. Having failed all subjects but English he now has to pack his bags and go home to New York to face his parents. Right before Christmas, as well. But he hasn’t told them yet, and he dreads doing so, so he procrastinates coming home and spend three days on his own in New York City. Looking for some quiet and solitude, distance from all the phoneys at Pencey Prep and hopefully something real, he wonders around the city at night and runs into all sorts of trouble with drunks, pimps and girls. But what Holden really seeks is something to fill the emptiness he perceives in and all around him. Lost in a maze of teenage-anxieties and desperate to find a meaning in life, Holden feels more and more depressed until all he wants to do is leave everything behind.
What to make of this stream of consciousness of a sixteen year old boy on his nocturnal adventures? What awards this little books its classic status, when most people I talked to seem so annoyed with it? Maybe the achievement of translating that exact annoyance of the teenage heart with itself and the world around it onto the page?
I wanted to give up reading Salinger’s novel at about 13 pages in. Caulfield had already used the word phony more than I had ever encountered it before opening this book and his whining, self-pitying tone irritated me terribly. But I don’t really give up on books, I just put it to the side for a few days and picked it up again in a more patient state of mind. And then I finished the rest in one sitting. Now, that doesn’t mean that I liked it, but I was absorbed, I wanted to know more about our narrator and the experiences and encounters that shaped him up until now. The sense of alienation and isolation in contrast to this deep longing for meaningful human connection are so poignantly put onto the page. And the battle of not wanting to leave one’s childhood behind, but being forced to get ready to enter the world of adults is something many of us go or went through at some point. These themes were explored with such tenderness and nuance, I really enjoyed reading the parts dealing with them. I was less convinced by his characterisation as a rebel against everything his parents and “phony” society stood for, he seemed to embody many of the things he was allegedly against. But then again, that might just be a natural dose of teenage hypocrisy. As a person, Holden has a few saving virtues that balance out his less charming, self-centred and -pitying side: he is generous with his time and material possessions and quite sensitive to the emotions of those around him – or at least he tries to be. Perhaps not yet fully developed, he seems to have a capacity for true compassion that I always love to read in a character and. The casual and conversational prose style is of course an innovative way to get to the hearts of adolescent readers at the time of its publication and might well have contributed to its popularity at the time, though we are more used to reading novels in this way today. Apart from that, I believe what gives The Catcher in the Rye such a special status in literary history, is the achievement of the authentic teenage voice. Whether one identifies with Holden or not, whether one admires his decisions or wants to shake sense into him, it’s hard to deny the truth with which it was written.