By J.D. Salinger. 1951
The headaches get intense for Holden Caulfield. He becomes too depressed to concentrate. Friends ask him to calm down, to stop yelling. He’s 16, troubled, a mess of neuroses, and The Catcher in the Rye takes place over a few terrible days of embarrassment, assault, and drunken awkwardness.
Because I watch too many movies, I thought this was creepy as I read. The guy who killed John Lennon was obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, and that bit of extremely interesting trivia casts a dark shadow. Holden narrates the story and outright admits he’s a liar. Superficially he seems not to change, violating an essential rule of storytelling. There’s no conflict; he just totes his bad attitude from encounter to encounter. Were he a lying murderer or rapist, and what we read is actually not what’s happening, that would explain the lack of arc.
But a kid who hates adults is no psychopath. He’s normal, but almost too normal. Dark, complicated psychological moments – like rejection or sexual confusion – are rendered in Salinger’s style that perfectly, almost creepily, matches normal speech (“and all”). There are countless lines like this: I was surrounded by jerks. I’m not kidding.
Clues to Holden’s issues escape. His brother died. He may have been molested: “perverty… stuff’s happened to me about 20 times since I was a kid.”
When his little sister accuses him of not liking or wanting to be anything, Holden misquotes a poem and says he pictures kids playing in a field of rye, near a cliff. When they get too close to the edge he catches them. “I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
That is not a job.
The transition to adulthood can be dicey. Holden’s been expelled and fears his parents, and New York City kicks his ass. He’s not cared-for.
The pissed-off voice makes this novel famous, but Holden’s arc is true. He does change, on the last page. It could be cheesy and all – I just hate it when they end all cheesy – but it isn’t. It’s perfection.