1001 Books, Booklitzer Challenge 200, Books

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D.Salinger

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warl’ ken?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the grain;
Gin a body kiss a body,
The thing’s a body’s ain.

We are starting this review off with Comin’ thro’ the rye, the old poem from Rabbie Burns that inspires seventeen year old Holden Caulfied, and gives J.D.Salinger’s classic work on the disaffection of teenagers its name.  I included a few verses of it because I quite like Burns’ poetry.  It can be quite sly and subversive, and seems to me to be a great fit for the story that Holden lays out for us in this book.

I took some excellent advice from Susan Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind and deliberately did not go looking for information or reviews prior to reading The Catcher in the Rye.  So I came to read this for the first time with absolutely no idea what it was about and where it would take me.  It turns out that I may be one of only a handful of people not to have read this.  It is considered the classic book on that stage of life where teenagers are starting to become adults.

There is pretty much no plot to speak of.  Holden Caulfield is being kicked out of yet another prep school and instead of staying until the day term ends, he heads out to stay in his native New York City until he is due to arrive home.  Over the three days he is in the city we get a non-stop narrative of observation, vulnerability, a child trying to be worldly wise, a whole host of not-so-hidden pain and despite it all, quite a bit of humour.

I found myself split in half.  Half of me wanted to laugh at Holden and the other half felt immense sympathy for him.  For me it was a book of contrasts.  The writing style was perfect, even sixty years on it has lost none of its punch.  The vernacular had me in fits with a constant grin on my face.  It sounded so completely teenager to me.   The observations and thoughts of Holden were caustic, sometime witty, often cutting and at times extremely saddening.

I believe that this is one of the most challenged books in the US, on and off.  Vulgarity, sexuality and blasphemy are often stated amongst the reasons.  Good grief Charlie Brown.  I’ve heard and seen worse in a two hour movie than this book gives out in 200 pages.  Frankly, don’t hold your breath if you’re expecting to hear much about sex either.  Certainly Holden swears a lot, and there are many references to perverts and flits*.  He’s a teenage boy people!  They don’t always talk about rugby (or American football) and what’s for dinner!  Personally I think it is pitched perfectly for our modern ear.  Previous generations may have certainly found it offensive based on the prevailing moral climate, but in our day and age where you are lucky to find a fully clothed singer in a music video I find it quite sedate.

To give you a taste of the writing style I have picked a couple of sections, one where Holden is taking a taxi ride to a nightclub and the other just after he has a set-to with a pimp.

The cab I had was a real old one that smelled like someone’d just tossed his cookies in it.  I always get those vomity kind of cabs if I go anywhere late at night.  What made it worse, it was so quiet and lonesome out, even though it was Saturday night.  I didn’t see hardly anybody on the street.  Now and then you just saw a man and a girl crossing a street, with their arms around each other’s waists and all, or a bunch of hoodlumy-looking guys and their dates, all of them laughing like hyenas at something you could bet wasn’t funny.

After a confrontation with a devious pimp, Holden pretends the punch in the stomach he receives is in fact bullet wounds and that he is crawling away to attend to them.

The goddam movies.  They can ruin you.  I’m not kidding.
I stayed in the bathroom for about an hour, taking a bath and all.  Then I got back in bed.  It took me quite a while to get to sleep – I wasn’t even tired – but finally I did.  What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide.  I felt like jumping out the window.  I probably would’ve done it, too, if I’d been sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed.  I didn’t want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory.

By the end of the book I was, and still do, feel a terrible sense of sorrow for Holden.  He has clearly been abused (or it’s been attempted) at varying times during his childhood**.  He seems quite naive (to our modern eyes) to what goes on in the world, yet tries to behave in a manner much older than he is capable of internalising.

I enjoyed this book immensely, especially the way in which it was written.  The subjectivity and flow-of-consciousness made me feel like I had been let in to Holden’s world and mind.

Highly recommended if you have not read it yet.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


* I hadn’t come across this old term for homosexuals before this reading, but of course this was written in a time when “gay” simply still meant happy.
** feel free to disagree with me, but there is one passage near the end that made me think so.

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