"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, October 25, 2013

Finally Caught by 'The Catcher in the Rye'

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book has been an act of repentance. It is one of the novels I slacked off on when a high school English teacher assigned it. When it came to assigned reading I was a brat in high school, alternately loving and resenting the books assigned to me. A classic gesture of hypocrisy, I did to J.D. Salinger’s novel what the main character Holden Caulfield did to his school. I blew it off.

I resented my teacher’s focus on identifying and interpreting symbols in the text. That approach felt forced and distracting to me at the time. Moreover, in high school I was a rather privileged/ungrateful mamma’s boy, and hardly a rebel. To me The Catcher in the Rye was an uncouth story about a foul-mouthed cynic who runs away for the mere sake of rebelling. I simply did not identify with the protagonist. I read a few chapters and then I quit ‘and all’, to borrow Holden’s signature two-word tag.

I came back to this book in my late 30s to celebrate Banned Books Week. Having done a great deal of rebelling since high school, I was surprised to find I still don’t strongly identify with Holden. But now I kind of wish I did. Holden is remarkably take-charge about his rebellion. That was generally not me. However, with a college English degree and a great deal of life experience at my disposal, the book still hit home.

The Catcher in the Rye is a triumph of narrative voice. Holden’s slang, his phrasing, the way he improvises assertions and then walks them back, betray a painful self-awareness. There were a few moments, and a whole chapter or two, where I identified completely.

Holden is intelligent and thoughtful, even as his speech is roughshod and rambling. As a portrait of discontent, he is marvelous and richly drawn. I’ll leave the social implications and the stigma of obsessive fans for other critics to mull over. Instead, I’ll say this is a masterful first-person novel and rightly a must-read. I’m sorry I waited so long to give the book, and Holden, my full attention.

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