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Sunday
Jun032012

The Catcher in the Rye

If I were of a certain bent, it would behoove me to inquire with strict scientific objectivity, of course as to whether any other species apart from our own pass through that troubled period of alienation we conveniently dismiss as teenagery.  Do penguins and goats suffer as much as the average privileged adolescent who cannot seem to handle the shift from doted-upon scion to responsible adult?  What then of the changes chemical changes, everything we do is a symphony of chemicals that we incur as hormones detonate our every limb?  How are we to survive this onslaught?  Perhaps we can learn from less evolved monsters, and the measures taken against such rebellion and if you subscribe to the nonsense proponed in these last few sentences, please stop here.  Go away.  Don't come back.  These pages are not for you.  If, however, you believe that alienation is a specific phase in the development of a creative soul and is re-experienced then defeated as that same creative soul soars above the daily hypocrisy, hatred, and greed that preside over lesser minds, read on.  For one such creative soul is the narrator of this iconic novel.  

Our seventeen-year-old protagonist is one of the most beloved in American literature, and it is of rather amazing coincidence that his name was not derived from the stars of this film.  The name, Holden Caulfield, is sufficiently pompous and upper class that we know we are dealing with someone of extreme privilege, even if he doesn't seem to care much about what has been given to him in life ("Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad"), simply what has been taken away.  He has an older brother, D.B., who is "prostituting" himself as a hack in Hollywood, a younger, highly precocious sister, Phoebe, who corrects a quote of his at a very critical juncture, and another younger brother, Allie, who died recently of leukemia.  It is this last sibling and his wretched fate that shape Holden, inasmuch as teenagers can be sustainably molded by external events.  Holden does not use his brother as an excuse; in fact, fairly the opposite occurs.  Holden's poor work ethic, general antisociality, and anger directed at the "phony" people around him (a word used dozens of times in the novel), are all typical teenage angsts, especially when the adolescent in question has a very sharp mind and a sensitive spirit to guide it.  All these fears could have been discounted by an emphasis on Allie's death, but Holden only has good memories of his brother and does not wish to make him a martyr.  He describes his brother's intellect ("He was terrifically intelligent"), his red hair (in a magnificent passage: "He was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off that's the kind of red hair he had"), and Allie's odd predilection for writing poems on the inside of his baseball glove the confluence of two typical strands of boyhood and, indeed, of manhood.  Holden fails his way out of one expensive all-boys school after another and, as our story opens, has just been told just before that most giving time of the year in the Western world that he will not be invited back to Pencey Prep.

Apart from his family members, few if any persons have made an impact on his life.  He has a ladykiller roommate, Stradlater, and a pimply, hopelessly mistrustful suitemate, Ackley.  Both of these boys cannot be as real as Holden because Holden is their narrator and understands them as the sum of their flaws.  In any case, both represent the stereotypes and stock confrontations to which a teenager must quickly accustom himself.  Very early on comes the lone scene with Spencer, a pedantic old teacher complete with blanket, robe, and "Vicks nose drops"; his approach to Holden's expulsion is akin to a convalescent's raised brow and a tut-tut, a method that will be contrasted much later on with the sanguine wit of another professor, Mr. Antolini.  But what really drives the vast majority of young men his age?  That would be the fairer sex, and we have a lot of young ladies in The Catcher in the Rye: Sally Hayes, a former love interest who generates the fabulous observation, "If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody"; three thirtyish women from Seattle, who are available for perhaps someone a bit older and suaver than Holden ("I thought the two ugly ones ... were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them.  You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn't blame them"); and a prostitute named Sunny, who is assigned to Holden's hotel room by the lift operator and seems almost her customer's age.  His observation of Sunny could be the novel's most telling:

I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her.  It was funny.  It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up.  I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all.  The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it.  It made me feel sad as hell I don't know why exactly.

We, however, do know.  We know that Holden Caulfield is a sensitive and thoughtful young man who does not force himself upon women like the rakish Stradlater (who apparently takes neither "no" nor "please, don't" for an answer).  Although Holden has had "quite a few opportunities to lose [his] virginity," he "keeps stopping" whenever he is asked, by a girl who values her reputation, not to advance any further.  Which makes his claims to being a sex maniac true: he obsesses with something he has never had, but has no real physical courage to get it, perhaps because he fears it will underwhelm him. 

Proof positive resides in the heroine of the novel, the heroine who is permanently absent, the subject of memory and rumors, Jane Gallagher.  Jane is many things to Holden; some say she is his imagined soulmate; others may claim, with a great deal of insight into teenage boys, that what teenage boys need is someone to idealize, to talk about, to desire from afar, the classic princesse lointaine of the romantic poet.  If you do not have an ideal woman as a romantic poet, then you are not a romantic poet, or at least not one anyone would ever bother about; precisely the same can be said for a teenage boy.  So Jane, someone he once comforted and ended up kissing "all over .... her whole face except her mouth and all," becomes what Holden needs to sustain himself against the inevitable disappointment that is teenagery.  Her quirk may be the checkers reference that does not impress Stradlater, who much to Holden's chagrin has a date with Jane at the beginning of the book, but another character trait is far more essential to understanding her:

Most girls if you hold hands with them, their goddam hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they'd bore you or something.  Jane was different.  We'd get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we'd start holding hands, and we wouldn't quit till the movie was over.  And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it.  You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not.  All you knew was, you were happy.  You really were.

This passage may be read several different ways, but the strict literal reading is what should be encouraged.  I do not spoil anything of the novel by admitting that we never get to meet Jane, because that would violate her status and all those dramatic conventions we hold dear.  Jane must remain apart; too much of her would show Holden what he most fears: that she is no different from any other girl.

What happens next is not predictable, not episodic, and, above all, not crude or vulgar.  It is simply what adolescence comprises for a boy: a schedule imposed from without; a series of meaningless meetings with people who know more than you do about life or, in the case of some coevals, pretend that they do; and frustration with your lack of control, your inefficacy, your inability to be taken seriously even though you'll have the rest of your life never to be taken unseriously again.  To ban this book, as it so often has been banned, is to eliminate all the madness of adolescence, the wildness that may not mean as much now but was our world then.  There are undoubtedly more detailed works about being a teenager, but one would be hard pressed to come up with one that better captures its trials.  The voice that Salinger chooses for this journey is so remarkable and original, we are stunned to look back on the novel (I just reread it after fifteen years) and find the grating slang of the nineteen forties, utterly authentic, one presumes, at the time and now, in no small irony, utterly outdated or "phony" if compared to the current generation's lingo and buzz words.  Every so often Holden makes grammatical errors (notice his idiosyncratic usage of "on account of" and "hell") and spells dialogue phonetically, which is the commonest fault of young writers aiming for authenticity, but the key word is still "phony."  Being a teenager, in our modern age at least, means being neither fish nor fowl.  It is not a real existence, clearly defined as a child's innocence or an adult's sober perception of life's vicissitudes and tragedies.  For that reason alone more wisdom and self-awareness can be found in The Catcher in the Rye than in all the combined works of all the so-called existentialists, who are, anyway, simply adolescents trapped in adult bodies.  And why haven't we explained our work's mysterious title?  Now that would be a lousy thing to give away and all.

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