I just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye for about the millionth time, but probably the first time since I was about 18. I was sort of afraid it wouldn't hold up, and I would be shaking my head nostalgically at the outmoded tastes of my younger years, but Catcher isn't like some things I grew up with, and about two pages in I was pleased that the opposite was the case. Oh, I felt some nostalgia in reading it, all right. Catcher was the book that made me realize that I didn't have to feel bad about hating high school. Maybe high school doesn't suck for everyone, but it sure did for me. And if old Holden Caulfield was disaffected, well then I could be too. And you know something? I still hate high school, goddam it.
All right, the book. First let's get something out of the way, because it's been bothering me forever. Among the criticisms you hear from the smart people who read books is that Catcher is dated, chock full of dialogue and narrative that is expressed in an outmoded vernacular. That's true, I guess. Then again, it was written, oh, SIXTY YEARS AGO. I mean, is the book supposed to magically update itself and adopt the lexicon of today's youth? People don't criticize Macbeth for having outmoded dialogue, for crying out loud, and when was the last time you heard someone say something like, Thy crown doth sear my eyeballs? Never, that's when.
So, granted that people no longer talk like they did in 1951, or in 1600, we move along.
Catcher as it relates to J.D. Salinger's life in exile has been analyzed to a bloody pulp. You can read all about it in any number of obituaries that have been printed in the last couple of weeks. What I want to talk about is how every other line of this book cracks me up, because there is no greater master of hyperbole and dry wit than Salinger's Caulfield. With Catcher, there is hardly a moment that I'm not laughing out loud. That's some trick, considering how sad and lonely and devastated this kid is. Critics who call him whiny forget how isolating adolescence can be. They don't remember the ridiculous classmates, the pointless ceremony of our schooling, the way our hormones amplify everything, or the fact that, at age 16, sex is everywhere. Mostly they forget that Holden is trying, without much success, to navigate all this while dealing with a briefly mentioned detail that I believe is the real crux of the novel--his kid brother, Allie, is dead. Holden was terribly fond of Allie, and that void has him pining constantly for the one other person he holds in the same regard--his little sister, Phoebe. By the time his wanderings and encounters bring him to her side, he can scarcely process his emotions. He gets sick and lands in a sanitarium. No wonder. He's been through the wringer, and in the midst of all the getting kicked out of school, getting beat up by a pimp, getting loaded and drunk dialing an ex-flame and getting hit on by a former teacher, Holden keeps cracking us up. None of this is very funny, but it's all part of the comedy.
I'm not going to say I ever went through anything near to what Holden went through, but I could always understand him. Thankfully, I still can.
Official McBone Rating: 5.0 McBones