The Catcher in the Rye had been sitting on my bookshelf for decades and I finally read it sometime in September 2017. After reading it, I know why I could not engage myself in reading it in my 20s even though it was a book much raved about by my circle of university friends then. That was yonks ago….
The story is about Holden Caulfield, an angry and lonely teenager who keeps dropping out of every school he has been sent to. He has just been kicked out of Pencey Prep, a boarding school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania on account that he has not been applying himself and has flunked four subjects and the only subject that he has passed is English. After the Christmas vacation, he will not be returning to Pencey, a school that has a very good academic rating.
The book is written in Holden’s words. He is only sixteen and he is already struggling with growing up and figuring out meaning of life. Holden has a gentle heart and he is sensitive and kind although he rants about how all these friends and teachers he has encountered at school are such phonies and he uses the words ‘phony’ and ‘jerks’ and swears profanity quite a lot. He gets upset when he sees how fake people are. The story spans three days during which time he went to the movie and there was this woman sitting next to him cried all through the picture.
‘The part that got me was , there was a lady sitting next to me that cried all through the goddam picture. The phonier it got, the more she cried. You’d have thought she did it because she was kind-hearted as hell, but I was sitting next to her, and she wasn’t. She had this little kid with her that was bored as hell and had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn’t take him. She kept telling him to sit still and behave himself. She was about as kind-hearted as a goddam wolf. You take somebody that cries their goddam eyes out over phoney stuff in the movies, and nine times out of ten they’re mean bastards at heart. I’m not kidding.’
Holden is generous. He lent his roommate Stradlater his jacket even after finding out that the latter was going out on a date with Jane Gallagher, a childhood friend whom he likes a lot. He was asked by Stradlater to write the essay that the latter had to pass up the next day. He was supposed to write something descriptive about a room or a house. He ended up writing about his brother Allie’s baseball mitt.
‘My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder’s mitt. He was left-handed.The thing that was descriptive about it , though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. He’s dead now. He got leukemia snd died when we were up in Maine,on July 18,1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren’t just shooting the crap.’
He loves his younger sister, Phoebe very much and he is very protective of her innocence. Phoebe is really smart and she’s had all A’s ever since she started school. When she asked him to name one thing he liked, all he could think of were the boy who jumped out of the window at school and the two nuns with suitcases and he had sat next to them waiting for a train. They are teachers, one teaches English while the other one teaches History and Government.
Holden is sweet as he thinks about the ducks that swim around the lagoon in Central Park in springtime and he wants to know what happen to them in the winter-time when the lake turns into a solid block of ice, whether they get picked up by someone who comes around in a truck or go south. When Phoebe asked him to name something he would like to be, he wanted to be the catcher in the rye. He was referring to a poem by Robert Burns when he had thought it was a song and his clever sister corrected him. He had thought the words were “If a body catch a body coming through the rye” when the words were “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” Again old Phoebe corrected him.
‘ I thought it was “ If a body catch a body”,’ I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around-nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’ re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy , but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be . I know it’s crazy.’
Old Phoebe didn’t say anything for a long time. Then , when she said something, all she said was, ‘ Daddy’s going to kill you.’
Salinger’s seemingly effortless writing has cleverly described the growing pains of Holden Caulfield who is disillusioned and feels depressed thinking about how hypocritical, pathetic and mean many people are. I was hesitant to read The Catcher in the Rye probably because I did not want to read about teenage angst and another one of those coming of age novels when I had felt a lot of it in my secondary school days. Since I was twelve, I had kept a journal where I had expressed those angst and I intend to destroy it soon. I did not want to be reminded of any of that. As 2016 was winding down, a friend sent me a link entitled thirty superb books you should read before turning 30 and The Catcher in the Rye was one of them.click Though I had owned some of those books before I turned 30, I have only read a couple of them (now three) and I do have every intention to read them at some point of time.
The Catcher in the Rye is absolutely brilliant and I am truly glad that I have finally read it, thirty years later. If I had read it before I turned thirty, I would not have appreciated the book and the character would not have touched me as much as now.