50bookchallenge #32/50 The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

I’ve kept this copy since junior high and I’m sure I haven’t read it since sev­enth or eighth grade when I had to read it as part of my edu­ca­tion. I’ve kept it for what? 22, 23 years with­out read­ing it again, just rid­ing on the fact that I had read it. Of course, I did­n’t recall a sin­gle pas­sage from read­ing it the first time when I went through now, with the sin­gu­lar excep­tion of the descrip­tion of one of his teach­ers pick­ing his nose while pre­tend­ing to rub his nose.

Prob­a­bly this is not the best choice for some­one work­ing through depres­sion, or maybe it is. Over and over I was struck not with what a great anti­hero Hold­en makes, but what an imma­ture brat he is. I lost patience with his antics just as his friends did and I had very lit­tle sym­pa­thy for him. I remem­ber my younger self think­ing there was some­thing noble about Hold­en Caulfield­’s self-absorp­tion, but now even as I relate to some of it I view it with dis­taste or at best pity.

Salinger does deserve his rep­u­ta­tion, of course. This is a provoca­tive nov­el even today, and Salinger is able to cap­ture the reac­tions to an ever-chang­ing envi­ron­ment admirably. I sup­pose my only dis­ap­point­ment is that I’m not Caulfield any longer and real­ly was­n’t any­more even in High School. What I don’t think I ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed when I first read it was Caulfield­’s hypocrisy. How am I sup­posed to take a self-described com­pul­sive liar seri­ous­ly when he com­plains of alien­ation amongst all the phonies? Per­haps it’s admirable that Caulfield has at least the self-aware­ness to know that he’s a liar, but aware­ness means very lit­tle with­out the integri­ty to take action.

As a nov­el it’s per­haps much stronger than I remem­bered. As a role mod­el or even a sym­pa­thet­ic anti­hero, Caulfield falls much short­er than I remembered.

One Reply to “50bookchallenge #32/50 The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger”

  1. When The Grad­u­ate was
    When The Grad­u­ate was re-released on its 25th anniver­sary, I remem­ber read­ing the reviews from peo­ple in their 40’s and 50’s who had seen it the first time around and had iden­ti­fied so strong­ly with Ben­jamin as an anti-estab­lish­ment hero.

    Weren’t we all out­raged at Mrs. Robin­son’s “hypocrisy” in for­bid­ding Ben­jamin from see­ing Elaine due to her per­cep­tion of his weak moral fibre?

    With a quar­ter cen­tu­ry of per­spec­tive, these review­ers sud­den­ly real­ized what a most­ly self-absorbed prick Ben­jamin is through­out the movie, and sym­pa­thized more with Mrs. Robin­son, who although her ethics are already long since com­pro­mised, wants some­thing bet­ter for her daugh­ter than a guy who at age 22 is already hav­ing a clan­des­tine affair with his father’s part­ner’s wife.

    Does Ben­jamin real­ly care about Elaine as any­thing oth­er than a sym­bol of his lost inno­cence? Has he made any effort to sort him­self out so that he’ll be a good part­ner for her? All he does is pret­ty much start stalk­ing her at school. He does­n’t even know her.

    Any­way, I think how we respond to pro­tag­o­nists like Hold­en and Ben­jamin depends on where we are in life. Meet ’em when we’re young, and we can sooooo relate with the empti­ness of ful­fill­ing soci­ety’s expec­ta­tions, the per­cep­tion that we’re the only per­son who REALLY expe­ri­ences feel­ings, the impulse to just rebel with­out hav­ing any sort of plan to replace what we’re rebelling against, etc.

    Vis­it ’em lat­er in life, and they’re painful reminders of what we were like before we real­ized the impor­tance of oth­er peo­ple’s feel­ings and hav­ing some­thing con­struc­tive of our own to do, learned how to keep func­tion­ing in our cho­sen role in life despite the effects of strong emo­tions, etc.

    As for me, I first expe­ri­enced both of them in high school, and while I could relate to Hold­en’s alien­ation, I thought that he would have been insuf­fer­able to be around. Ben­jamin I swal­lowed hook, line, and sinker.

    Amer­i­can Beau­ty, a movie that is some­times referred to as being my gen­er­a­tion’s The Grad­u­ate, I expe­ri­enced wild­ly dif­fer­ent sym­pa­thies the two times I watched it.

    The first time around, I total­ly sym­pa­thized with Lester, try­ing des­per­ate­ly to sal­vage a life that had gone astray. Sullen daugh­ter and icy, mate­ri­al­is­tic wife who both rebuff him when he attempts to recon­nect with them.

    Sec­ond time around, blam­mo, every­thing turned around and I saw Lester through the oth­er char­ac­ters’ eyes. His daugh­ter is absolute­ly right when she says that just because he had a bad day does­n’t make them best friends. How can you turn years of emo­tion­al aban­don­ment around in one night?

    How does Lester rebel against his wife’s mate­ri­al­ism? He buys the car he want­ed when he was little.

    How does he approach his beau­ti­ful, mature wife (who we know is any­thing but frigid after the “fuck me your majesty” scene) sex­u­al­ly? He gets drunk on cheap beer and starts grop­ing her.

    His response to the numb­ness he feels about his sub­ur­ban life? Smoke pot, man.

    If Lester’s life is a video game, the moment he picks up the pho­to of his fam­i­ly all laugh­ing on the car­ni­val ride, and grins and says “man oh man,” that’s the moment when he’s solved the lev­el and can progress to the next one. And of course, he does.

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