The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

It’s years now since I first read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam Carpenters, stories he wrote in the 1950s, and in my mind some of the best prose ever written. I was thinking as I planned this review that the most comparable prose is the opening of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) and so I wonder was there a New York school of writing at this time of which in my general ignorance of US Literature I remain blissfully unaware.

I knew I should read The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and indeed a copy has been prominent in the general disorder of my TBR stacks for some years. This week in iso that I am taking off from work was the opportunity, a remark from Jackie/Death by Tsundoku that she didn’t agree with Catcher being the Great American Novel was the spur, and a review of The Blue Guitar published today (Sun 6 Sept) as I write by Kim/Reading Matters is my inspiration.

Ok, I finished it. I was about two thirds through when I wrote that intro, then Milly came round and sat on the balcony and drank wine and talked to me through the door, Boy, is she a good sort, old Milly. She even brought avo dip and some stuff for later, dhal and a home-made spinach roll. The kids rang, it’s father’s day, and Gee and Oak, who’d taken baby Dingo camping, promised me home delivery pizza for tea, vego and anchovies. I sure wish that’d turn up soon. I’m old, goddammed well over fifty and I eat early.

But no, it’s not the Great American Novel, more an iconic coming of age story, two or three days in the life of a privileged, troubled New York school boy, Holden Caulfield, a junior, year 11 in Oz-speak I think.

I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself – especially around mid-terms when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer – but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.

He goes to see a teacher who wishes to wish him goodbye and then back to his room, and his annoying dorm-mates, but late decides he can’t wait the few days till end of term, and heads in to town, worrying all the while about his friend, Jane, who’s been on a date with his room mate, and who he doesn’t mess around with but his room mate never misses so what went on. And all the time he’s thinking about his brother, DB who’s a writer in Hollywood, and his other brother Allie who died, and little sister Phoebe who’s only ten but bright as hell and he just wants to sit down and talk to her.

In a downtown downmarket hotel the elevator guy talks him into having a girl come to his room and he doesn’t feel like it, well ok, he’s still a virgin and she might get him started so he knows what to do when he’s married and all, but when she comes and takes off her dress and sits on his lap, he just wants to talk.

The thing is, most of the time when you’re pretty close to doing it with a girl – a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean – she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell … They tell me to stop, so I stop. I always wish I hadn’t, after I take them home, but I keep doing it anyway.

He goes out again for a drink. He’s under-age but tall, 6’2″, he’s been to all the bars with DB, and sometimes he gets served and sometimes he doesn’t. The next day he checks out, wanders around, almost rings up Jane a half dozen times, takes the very good looking Sally who is keen on him, to the theatre; makes some funny observations about the self-awareness of actors, fights with Sally, drinks, sneaks home late at night to talk to Phoebe, sneaks out again after his parents come home, wakes an old teacher/friend who puts him up …

We get to the ending, which I found heavy handed. All along Caulfield has been talking to us, revealing his pain, his confusion, through his own lack of comprehension at what he is telling us, and on this final night he, and we, must endure a long well-meaning lecture about missed opportunities and all that bullshit we say to kids; as though Salinger lost faith in his own story telling (and what is it with Salinger – who had one, older, sister – and families and dead brothers?) though he pulls it together a bit the following day when Phoebe … (I won’t tell you, in case you’re the one other person in the world who hasn’t read it yet) and winds all up too patly with Holden in care.

This isn’t Salinger’s best prose because the voice is Holden’s, but it’s still pretty damn good.

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JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, first pub. as a novel, 1951. My edition (with what appears to be the original cover) Little Brown, New York, 1991

20 thoughts on “The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

  1. This is really interesting – most people I’ve come across who’ve read this first at an age other than their teens haven’t liked it at all. I did first read it in my teens and I’ve never dared to re-read it in case it withers into dust. Really, I don’t remember much about it apart from the “feel” of it.

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    • The feel of it is all I remember from lots of books that I regard as old favourites. I’m disappointed I didn’t read it as a teen, it would really have struck a chord I think. But yes, having read it for the first time as an old man I still think it is a wonderful piece of writing.

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    • I think I’m one of them. When I read it (decades ago, as an adult), I just thought he was a whinger who had nothing much to whinge about.
      Now of course, I understand that the novel ‘invented the teenager’ etc, but LOL I suspect that with my general intolerance for Whinging Lit, I wouldn’t have the patience to read the first 50 pages…

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  2. I’m reasonably sure I read this in Fifth Form (Year 11), I don’t remember anything about it. We also read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I don’t remember anything about that either! In spite of your exhortations, Bill, I won’t be rereading Catcher in the Rye (or Lady Chatterley’s Lover).

    If you’re after something light and fluffy, but beautifully crafted, try A Wizard’s Guide to Baking by T. Kingfisher. Absolutely delightful.

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    • Neil, what I am after, my elusive grail, is excellence in writing, which Salinger and Lawrence deliver in spades. It’s a long time since I last read Lady Chatterley, and whether or not it’s an interesting story – which I have no opinion on – it will stand for ever as a masterpiece in the depiction of sexual relations.

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  3. I read this when I was 19 and I remember identifying with Caulfield because he thought everyone was phoney & that was my opinion of everyone as well! I suspect if I read it now I would hate it!
    BTW, thanks for linking to my review 😌

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    • And in my teens I would have identified with Holden because I thought girls and sex were really, really difficult – in fact I would have been envious of his ease in going out on dates – ok, so I still identify with Holden. But what strikes me now is Salinger’s brilliance at adapting his rush of words writing style to telling Holden’s story, and more particularly the story that Holden is ‘unaware’ that he is telling.

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      • It’s so long since I’ve read this book, I’ve often wondered whether I should read it again. I think – and I do remember enjoying this one – I would find it hard to call a coming-of-age book a GAN. No matter how good or mature it is.

        I am intrigued by you comment about the story that Holden is unaware that he is telling. That’s the unreliable narrator thing, isn’t it. I do like writers who can pull that off.

        Enjoyed your opening paras. Sounds like you were beautifully feted on Fathers Day.

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      • Jackie said a few weeks ago that she had seen it mentioned as a GAN, and that she didn’t agree. And now I don’t either, though I do think it is very well written. I think its problem as a set text is that kids feel they are expected to emphasize with Holden and of course most don’t – he is too privileged and superficially anyway, too confident. I do think that if kids were asked the question ‘How is Holden dealing/not dealing with trauma?’ they might feel differently about it.
        I hope you do re-read it (or listen to it in the car one day), but then as I hope I have made clear, I love Salinger’s prose.

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  4. When I was about 14 or so I knew the kind of book I wanted to rea but didn’t know what it was called. Only later did I realise it was called The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve read it since and it’s still cool as fuck.

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    • Thank you Jonathon, I’m glad I have at least one supporter. I certainly didn’t know that about myself at 14, but I might have at 20 when I discovered Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac then Richard Brautigan not to mention Sladek, Sheckley, Phillip K Dick. And Catch 22. Ah, those were the days, we will never see their like again (and other cliches). And all guys, I’ll be drummed out of this corner of the blogosphere. Quickly brings up Kathy Acker. And Christina Stead’s New York period.
      Today I am reading Milan Kundera, The Farewell Party. It’s a while since I read Unbearable Lightness and I’m wondering what to make of it – light satire maybe? I may have to read some literary reviews for background.

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  5. Aw. I’m glad I could inspire you to pick up a book from your TBR, Bill! Yeah– it’s definitely not the Great American Novel, but I understand why it’s studied so often in school and so well acclaimed. Interestingly enough, I read this for the first time when I was Holden’s age and I absolutely detested it. I think as a young woman I found Holden to be abhorrent and I couldn’t relate to his experiences or desires. When I read it again as an adult, I see it more how you do — as a great coming of age novel. In that way, it certainly is timeless.

    It sounds like you had a lovely Father’s Day! Did the pizza show up in a timely fashion?

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    • The response on Facebook from my friends and rellos was all, Yep, read this in school, once was enough. Yes the pizza showed up thanks (secretly, I think my daughter may have forgotten to order it straight away) but I preferred this weekend when I was out of iso for one day and could catch up with people.

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  6. I am the one other person in the world who has not read this because every time I hear about what a whiner Holden is, I can’t bring myself to even pretend to want to read Catcher. I will say, though, that his understanding of consent is better than most dudes today. Women say no, he assumes they mean no, done.

    I was more interested in your story about the darling Milly and how you got hangry because you eat food on AARP time. 😀

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    • Guys have never had a good understanding of consent. I mean look at the language – having sex is called scoring. You keep applying pressure until you score. Forming a relationship or doing what the girl wants generally comes under the heading of failing to score. I was mostly in Holden’s camp, I was never willing to apply that sort of pressure (and then I’d go home and wish that I had).

      I stayed home so long this trip that my 14 days were up and so I was able to go round to Milly’s and get a decent meal, at a decent hour (and we took Ms nearly 17 out for her birthday the following day).

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      • I think that even if a woman is saying no in a playful way, she needs to understand that consent is important. So if she says no and he doesn’t make a move and then she finds him weak or unable to “make a move,” that’s on her for having a poor understanding of consent. Good on you, Bill, for being a Holden Caufield in this aspect.

        What did you get the granddaughter for her birthday?

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