1. The Catcher in the Rye

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.



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