Book #18

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

It's Christmas time and Holden Caulfield has just been expelled from yet another school.

Fleeing the crooks at Pencey Prep, he pinballs around New York City seeking solace in fleeting encounters—shooting the bull with strangers in dive hotels, wandering alone round Central Park, getting beaten up by pimps and cut down by erstwhile girlfriends. The city is beautiful and terrible, in all its neon loneliness and seedy glamour, its mingled sense of possibility and emptiness. Holden passes through it like a ghost, thinking always of his kid sister Phoebe, the only person who really understands him, and his determination to escape the phonies and find a life of true meaning.

Another reread of one of my favourites, and another confirmation that as we get older we feel things more deeply, and recognise more in others than our younger selves ever could have. I last read this twelve years ago, as a naive twenty-three year old. I don’t remember at the time feeling Holden’s abject loneliness, his desperate need for help, nor his dark descent into emotional breakdown.

Holden remains a wonderful character. Unreliable and flawed, ironic and sarcastic, his behaviour reflects many teenagers still. I love his thought processes - disjointed, wandering, peppered with lies, and yet I love him all the same. Salinger is careful to allow us to understand him; despite the lies he tells us, we know these lies are his mechanisms of protection. It’s heartbreaking to see his avoidance of truth, and his denial of his own struggle, and yet some of his off the cuff remarks, derogatory comments towards others, and his complete disdain for the world, make me laugh and relate to him entirely.

Another thing I’ve only realised now in my old age is that Holden is, subconsciously or otherwise, terrified of adulthood and all that that means. He is clinging in vain to how things used to be, and how things used to feel when he still had a child’s inquisitive mind. We see clearly his dismissal of adults contrasted with his acceptance of children, and his joy when speaking to them. He wants to maintain their innocence and in doing so preserve something of his own. His insistence that the adult world consists entirely of phonies helps him reinforce his refusal to enter into that world.

I have mostly laughed with Holden over the years, and yet this is the first time I remember crying with him. Such a powerful novel to tell a completely different story depending on your own maturity and mindset. Holden Caulfield, I will continue to love you, and I look forward to finding out what your story is the next time I see you.

“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”