Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Catcher in the Rye" Author J.D. Salinger Dead at 91 -- What the Book Meant to Me

J.D. Salinger, famous author of "The Catcher in the Rye," has died at the age of 91.  His novels were always special to me, about the confusion and angst of life and one's inability to figure it out or deal with it.

I read "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger as a freshman in college.  The book was in paperback, with a red/brown cover with the title in gold print.  It made quite an impression on me -- and I still have the book.  Years later, my youngest son came home from classes at Bellarmine College Preparatory carrying the same book, with the same red/brown cover.  It was his turn to read it.

The book is written from the point of view of Holden Caulfield, a rich 17 year old high school student who is disaffected and alienated from the adult world around him.  After getting expelled (again) from yet another private prep school, Caulfield spends three lonely days in New York City.

"The Catcher in the Rye" seems an appropriate read for young people who are on the verge of leaving adolescence for adulthood, and who are going through that period of life when everything is reassessed.  Prior to adolescence, everything seems pretty rock solid -- your parents know everything, good always triumphs and if you play by the rules you get to stay up late and eat cookies.  Adolescence is that lonely, painful passageway to adulthood when you first realize your parents aren't perfect and don't know everything, that the world is a messy and dangerous place, and that even people who play by the rules can get hurt.  Worse, there is no place to run to, no place to hide.

Adolescents feel betrayed when they realize this.  It's like finding out there is no Santa Claus.  All the magic and wonderment of existence is deflated like a balloon in a pin factory.  Many if not most adolescents rebel, against what, not even they know.  They are just mightily pissed, depressed and cynical when they find out that there is no free lunch, that life is largely a series of petty humiliations and setbacks, a constant struggle to survive.  Some would just as soon forgo the whole experience, drop out, smoke dope or join a gang.  Holden Caulfield is someone who wishes he could drop out.  He wants nothing to do with adulthood.  He fantasizes about having a cabin somewhere in the woods where he can isolate himself from the rest of humanity.

The story of Holden Caulfield lets adolescent readers know that they are not unique.  Almost everyone goes through the same emotional roller coaster at this stage of their lives.  It is a rite of passage.

The things I most remember about "Catcher in the Rye" are these:
1.  Holden's little brother Allie is dead due to some childhood disease.  Holden remembers that his brother used to love baseball and poetry, and wrote poetry all over his fielder's glove in ballpoint pen [that didn't seem realistic to me then or now].  Now Allie is dead and buried.  Holden finds it strange that his brother is now "surrounded by dead guys" in the cemetery.  Holden's unspoken denial leaped out at me -- the refusal to admit that his brother was one of those "dead guys."

2. Holden hates obscene graffiti and notes that the term "F**K YOU" is written everywhere -- on walls, in bathrooms, on the sidewalk.  He theorizes that after he dies someone will write "F**K YOU" on his tombstone.  This resonated with me, as I always hated seeing obscene graffiti, or any graffiti, the language of contempt for anything and everything.

There are other details I remember, but they aren't important:  how Holden's fellow student at the prep school would clip his toe nails in Holden's room, leaving them on the carpet.  How one of his teachers, with a bad cold and smelling like Vicks vaporub discussed his term paper with him, which he held gingerly "as if it were a turd."  How Holden seemed terrified by homosexuals, thinking that one of his male teachers had made a pass at him.  The novel's gritty details make it seem very real.

"Catcher in the Rye" has been listed in literary circles as one of the best novels of the 20th century.

1 comment:

Shannon said...

It's my favorite book. My FAVORITE book.