Friday, May 7, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye / J. D. Salinger

Whenever I read a classic, I always think about why it's a classic. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding why. But with The Catcher in the Rye, it seemed apparent from the first sentence. Those 63 words incorporate what I think are the main appeals of the novel -- a unique narrative style, sarcastic humor, and a compelling main character, Holden Caulfield:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

What he does feel like talking about is the substance of the rest of the book. The plot is fairly simple -- Holden gets kicked out of (yet another) prep school and his parents won't find out until they receive a letter from the school several days later, so he decides to leave his dormitory and kill time in New York City for a few days so he doesn't have to break the news to his parents himself.

The narrative style is intensely personal and refreshingly honest. Holden is inviting the reader into his life -- on his own terms, but with an implied promise that he will tell the raw truth instead of saying all the things one is supposed to say. The everyday language he uses reinforces the fact that he's going to tell it like it is.

The sarcastic humor is what I enjoyed most about the book. One of Holden's main observations seems to be that a lot of things and people are "phony." When one of his teachers tells him his parents are "grand people" in chapter 2, Holden says to the reader, "Grand. There's a word I really hate. It's a phony. I could puke every time I hear it."

Holden himself is the third main appeal; he's a really compelling character -- mostly because he's hard or even impossible to figure out. For instance, he's really smart but doesn't apply himself at school. Why? And he gets disgusted by so many things but has joy in a few others, like how a summer (girl) friend played checkers, and almost any detail related to his siblings.

And of course there's the bigger question -- what will happen to Holden? Well, like many good literary novels, whose endings are "often open or ambiguous" (Saricks 178), so too is the ending of Catcher. And that's a good thing. Because in a novel so intent on telling the raw truth, slapping on a Hollywood ending would seem utterly out of place. And Holden would not approve. As he says in the first chapter, "If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me."

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