The Catcher in the Rye

A Book Review

catcher2Rebelling against the structure and strictures of the traditional coming-of-age novel (with the very first sentence the narrator informs us that he’s not going to go into “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,”) this book instead gives us an unfiltered, uncensored and un-“adult”-erated flash into the life and brain of teenager Holden Caulfield as he wanders around New York City for a couple of days and nights after being kicked out of yet another prep school, not ready to go home and face his parents.  There is no epic adventure or crisis, we are simply pulled in by Holden’s hilarious, confessional narration, which from page to page is obnoxious, insightful, vulgar, sensitive, spazzy, intelligent, depressed, distracted and empathetic. Above all, Holden seems to be in search of integrity both in himself and in the world at large; he constantly rails against “phoniness” wherever he sees it. Salinger captures adolescent confusion and detachment like no one before probably ever had; we are right with Holden as he wrestles with his confusion over love, sex and the hypocrisy and evil of the world. Rather than showing us the boy growing into a man, we are thrust into a very vivid moment right in midst of the “growth,” and are left to conjecture what will ultimately become of our narrator.

Comparing it to my recent reading, it seems that much of contemporary adolescent literature is heavily indebted to this book; everyone from John Green’s narrators in Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns to Neal Shusterman’s Antsy Bonano,  Marcelo of Marcelo in the Real World and the narrator of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao seem to be taking at least some of their cues from Holden Caulfield.  It may just be that Salinger was so remarkably successful at creating an authentic teenage voice that subsequent teenage voices in more recent works remind one of Holden’s voice.  This preeminence will make Catcher in the Rye feel very familiar to readers of today’s YA fiction, but still occasionally shock in its frankness.

Something must be said in regards to the explicit language in the book; although it certainly is full of it, any reader that becomes fixated on its inappropriateness has completely missed the point.  The narrator simply has the guts to describe real and pervasive dialogue and circumstances that some people would want cut out.  Again, this speaks directly to Holden’s desire for integrity; to censor anything real because it might shock or offend would be supremely phony.  Furthermore, much of the power of the book comes as we recognize how troubled he is by these compromising circumstances and moral quandaries.  His oftentimes empathetic reactions to such situations are extremely insightful.

I’m not exactly sure if this is a book that needs much more hyping.  Almost sixty years after its first publication it is still moving more units than many books ever do at the height of their publicity cycles.  Clearly it is well known, and a lot of the kids are hip to it.  Still, I don’t think this book can be recommended enough.  This is a masterful and influential piece of literature that works as well as a high-interest read for teenagers as it does as a text for serious literary study.  Every high school library should have this book on their shelves, and it should probably be displayed because the students will pick it up; don’t make them go to the public library for it.  This is a tried and true classic that has only increased in relevance since its publication.

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