It appears we have run out of month, and so it is time to return to my fairly new feature on The Writer's Notebook. Classic of the Month is back, just sneaking in at the end of May, and once again I have decided to forego Shakespeare for a more recent work. Today, it is time to look at J. D. Salinger's one and only classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
Here's the question: is this a book that everyone should read? Is it really a classic? Is it still, fifty years down the road, worthwhile? Yes, but with a little bit of caution. While this book is about an angsty teenager, this is not the best book to give to the average angsty teenager, as they might be under the wrong impression that Holden is them, and that those phonies really are as terrible as they thought. People misreading The Catcher in the Rye is one of the reasons John Lennon was killed, and it is perhaps the greatest reason Salinger never published anything he wrote again.
No, the real joy of The Catcher in the Rye is how fleshed out and wonderfully unreliable the narrator is. Holden Caufield is not meant to be taken as the light of truth by readers; instead, Salinger is just writing in character superbly. It is the character of Holden that keeps the book from being Just Another Teenage Novel.
Holden Caufield has been kicked out of Pencey, a boarding school, and one would do well to note that this is not the first school where this has happened. Everybody has something they want Holden to do with his life, but Holden himself is unsure. School doesn't really motivate them. It doesn't help that at Pencey there are a lot of people who are "phonies" to themselves, and that is something that Holden simply can't stand.
So he leaves Pencey, but he decides to spend three days in New York City before returning to his parents. During that time, his encounters with memorable characters, such as Maurice, Sunny, and a couple of nuns, add spice to the proceedings. But it is only when he reunites with his sister that he finally begins to accept the things that are going on in his life.
This is one of those books where the narrator's voice provides all the charm the book needs and more to be successful. Holden has an unusual, stream-of-consciousness way of telling things that give you a good idea of who he is by the end of the first sentence or so. His voice allows for some comic moments in the bizarre shrewdness of some of his observations, and some extremely heartfelt and sad moments in the overall hopelessness and confusion that he conveys.
All in all, it is Holden Caufield, played in the literary equivalent of an Oscar-winning performance by J. D. Salinger, that makes this book anything special, and it is for this the book is a classic. Touching, unusual, and one-of-a-kind, The Catcher in the Rye is a real literary treat.
My rating: 10/10
Coming Soon: The Warded Man (I promise).