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Sunday, 6 September 2020

Review - J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye (5*)

Another book not picked up since I was a teenager at school, indeed, to be honest, the very same book in which roughness on the inside of the front cover betrays where the school label has been cunningly removed.

I was unable to finish it in those days. I went through several years of not being able to read anything much at all. I would begin earnestly enough but quickly find myself stepping mentally away and thinking good, I am now reading, really reading, which meant that I wasn’t, which is why I am having to catch up with all these books now.

That sounds almost like the kind of thing the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, would say. I can still, just about, identify with him. Holden has been kicked out of boarding school for failing in nearly everything. He wanders aimlessly around New York for a couple of days, avoiding home and parents and trying to pass for older than his sixteen years. He books into a hotel and goes out for drinks. The lift man fixes him up with a prostitute and then beats him up. He sees an old friend and falls out with a girl friend. He nearly freezes to death. Throughout, we hear his constant, drifting thoughts: hating everything, disliking everyone, moaning about all the superficiality and insincerity he sees; the original angst-filled teenager.

The thing he hates most is “phoneys”: the headmaster who will only talk with influential parents; his older brother for cashing in his talent to write for Hollywood; the lawyers in it for the money rather than to help people. Yet the biggest phoney of all is himself. He tells you the one thing he can’t stand is the movies and then a few pages later talks about going to see them. He pretends to like teachers who try to help him. He gets into conversation with the mother of a pupil he dislikes, and lies about what a popular and sensitive boy her son is, the complete opposite of what he really thinks. He then lies to her about why he is not in school:
‘No, everybody’s fine at home,’ I said. ‘It’s me. I have to have this operation.’
‘Oh! I’m so sorry,’ she said. She really was, too. I was right away sorry I’d said it, but it was too late.
‘It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumour on the brain.’
‘Oh, no!’ She put her hand up to her mouth and all.
‘Oh, I’ll be all right and everything! It’s right near the outside. And it’s a very tiny one. They can take it out in about two minutes.’
Then I started reading this time-table I had in my pocket. Just to stop lying. Once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it. No kidding. Hours. (p62)
The only person Holden genuinely respects is his young sister Phoebe, and when he sneaks home to see her she accuses him of liking nothing and of not wanting to be anything. He says the only thing he wants to be is the catcher in the rye:
You know that song “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye”?  … I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye … And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff … That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye. (p179)

which shows how adrift he is. “It’s if a body meet a body,” says Phoebe. “It’s a poem by Robert Burns.”

Many will hate this book and find Holden Caulfield repugnant. I loved both. Holden is real and vivid enough, I imagine, still to ring true with teenagers today. I laughed out loud at some of his overstatements, such as when he meets “... one of those guys that think they’re being a pansy if they don’t break around forty of your fingers when they shake hands with you” (p91). Most of what he tells you is a façade: he is yet another unreliable narrator with a distinctive first-person voice. Beneath the resentment he is intelligent, perceptive and generous: he reads a lot, lends his jacket to a school friend and writes an English essay for him – the one subject he is good at. Only when his sister Phoebe trusts him unreservedly in her readiness to run away do we glimpse hope as he starts to accept responsibility. He catches her from going over the edge of the cliff. Which takes us back to the start of the novel when he is recovering in an institution and telling us “... about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”

Only one scene has stayed with me from my attempted reading so long ago, which is when Holden looks out through the darkness from his hotel window into other illuminated, uncurtained rooms to see a couple at play and a man dressing up in women’s clothes. Funny what you remember.


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

35 comments:

  1. In your first paragraph you imply that you stole the book. As a former Head of English with limited funds to spend on book provision, getting them back from pupils was an endless mission involving letters, phone calls, interviews, detentions, duplicate reports etc.. I could have done without all that distraction from what I was meant to be doing. In all aspects of life, honesty is the best policy in my opinion. Why not give it back to the school? You will feel better afterwards.

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    1. P.S. I first read "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was seventeen. Your review makes me want to read it again but it will have to join my "books to read" queue.

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    2. I enjoyed it immensely and found it hilarious. The school wouldn't want it back now - as the cover shows it's falling apart. What also struck me is Holden's voice - short sentences repeated in different forms - it struck me that he might have grown up to become Donald Trump. However, Salinger was very possessive of the character and sued someone who wrote a sequel.

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    3. It might have to jump that queue! Thanks for the inspiration Tasker.

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    4. I quoted one of bits I laughed at, when he lies he has a brain tumor and tries to get out of it by adding it was just a little one near the surface.

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    5. I like the idea about Caulfield growing up to be Trump!

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    6. Trump often comes across like an immature overprivileged teenage boy. Another quote: "I don't understand boring guys, I really don't. ... [names someone] He was very intelligent and all, but he was one of the biggest boring guys I ever met. ... He never said anything you wanted to hear in the first place." (p129) Could be Trump trying to discount someone.

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  2. Better than giving this paean to middle class white male culture to the school, you might give them a bit of money to buy something their English teacher's dying to have in today's collection!

    I read this as an adult, thought it pretentious but could see how teenagers might like it. Haven't thought about it in years. I thought Raise High the Roof Beam was much better, more perceptive.

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    1. I must still be a teenager at heart. Salinger was in his late twenties when he wrote what is clearly a young person's novel, although on reading now I was surprised how well put together it is. It is of its time.

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  3. i hated the book at school
    I hated its bleakness
    I had a 1970 s upbringing which was bleak enough thank you, I needed a bit of froth

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    1. As I say, I can see that some might hate it. I don't find it bleak now, more a description of an aspect of life at that time and also a portrayal of mental illness.

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  4. This book was never a favourite of mine. I found Holden Caulfield to be a self-pitying asshole.

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    1. Reading now, he is and he isn't. If I met a teenager like that I wouldn't like him. But in the novel you see inside his head. He is mentally ill. What he says is not how he is. There are signs he could become a caring human being. Perhaps it is also a male-female thing. I would guess males are more likely to like him.

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  5. I found Catcher in the Rye on my parents' bookshelves - when in my teens. Can't remember the plot. Do remember the book's atmosphere. The after taste it left. A bit like Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men".

    I too have started re-visiting/re-reading books whilst trying to reduce what it is on my own shelves. Finding many a gem in them, not so much lost on my younger self as just way above my understanding at the time. Others I just nod at affectionately, with no wish to open their covers again, knowing full well I have outgrown them; knowing, instinctively, that they have nothing to say to me now.

    Might I read Salinger again? Unlikely. Some things best left where they are. In the past.

    U

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    1. I wonder whether our knowledge of what happened after the period in which these books are set colours our response to them. I don't fancy Steinbeck's hopeless tale set in the great depression at the moment, but with Catcher we know that opportunities opened up, and I see sufficient optimism to believe that Holden Caulfield could have had a good life.

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  6. This review makes me realize that I've completely forgotten almost everything about this book, except the title and it being about a frustrated young man. I think it was on my reading list for an American literature class in my English studies at university back in the 1980s. My paperback copy is from 1984 and that's also probably when I read it...

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    1. I wish I could remember everything that I'd read! I think I got a lot more reading it now than I would have done in the past even by studying it in a literature class.

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  7. This brought back memories Tasker - it was required reading on the list I was given before starting teacher training college (I read English as a main subject) - I found it very hard going but when I read it many years later I too found it altogether readable.

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    1. Thank you for that. With quite a lot of commentators saying they hated it I was starting to doubt my own reaction.

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  8. Just reading this review takes me back to the many classics I read in my youth. My Mother was a lover of the classics and I grew up on them rarely reading a modern book. I don't think I could reread this one now but for the right person at the right time in their life it is a good novel. I enjoyed your review and I'm now thinking about many books I read so long ago that might be nice to read again!

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    1. I am re-reading one or two things, but more so reading for the first time many books I wish I'd read when younger. As mentioned, I had some kind of problem, going from avidly reading the crime and science fiction sections at the library before I was 16, to not being able to concentrate well enough to read anything much at all for 7 or 8 years.

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  9. A difficult book for me. I read it first in college, before age twenty, I'm sure, and made nothing profound of it. It is a sadly profound book of the struggle of a teenage boy through life, because, for some, it is this mental madness and struggle. The second time I read this book, perhaps ten years ago, I thought, Dear God, this is my brother, and he too will kill himself.There still are no decent "cures" for mania, for bi-polar, for schizophrenia.

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    1. What was it Holden Caulfield had, I wonder. He only says "this madman stuff that happened to me" but he would have had some diagnosis to be admitted to an institution. Perhaps on the autistic spectrum.

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  10. I'm afraid I'm one of the naysayers. I never really understood all the fuss about Catcher in the Rye and I have little sympathy with Salinger's preciousness about never wanting it to be filmed etc.

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    1. We'll have to agree to disagree. I'd put it among the best novels ever written in English. It would have been difficult in a film to do it justice.

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  11. Have you read Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye? A brilliant book on growing up during the Depression. Brilliant book and I preferred to Salinger's Catcher on the Rye.

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    1. Not read it. Thanks for the suggestion. Sounds interesting and I might give it a look if I decide to read more about the 20s and 30s period.

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  12. It drove me mad.Mainly because of the drawl of y'all do this and y'all do that.Couldn't get accent out of my head! However I did read it to the end. Struggled though.

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    1. It didn't bother me at all on this recent reading. Perhaps we're more used to Americanisms now.

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  13. Many many years since I read it too. Like Caz.P above, I did find the colloquialisms very annoying.

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    1. Probably a good job I didn't take it in when I was a teenager. I would have started using them myself.

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  14. It is funny what one remembers from a novel read long ago. I've not picked that book up since I was a teen as well.

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    1. I can usually remember whether or not I have read a particular book but not always anything about it. You haven't said whether anything about CITR stayed with you.

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  15. Your review is a lot more favourable than mine!
    https://liz-and-harvey.blogspot.com/2011/02/catcher-in-rye.html
    I did enjoy the butler one - name escapes me - that you recommended though. Remains of the Day!

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    1. It sounds like you just didn't warm to it as I did.

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