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The Catcher in the Rye

 The Catcher in the Rye book coverHolden Caulfield is pretty goddam cynical for a boy of sixteen. He really is. And he sure says “goddam” a lot. He really does. Probably about 10,000 goddam times in 160 pages. I’m not kidding. He smokes a ton of cigarettes too. He probably mentions cigarettes a million times. I mean it. That’s a ton.

He drinks, he gets kicked out of school, and he talks to a prostitute. He doesn’t give her the time, or anything, I’m not saying that. He just talks to her. In fact he says he is a virgin. He really does. But it is a pretty shocking thing to read that a 16-year-old boy who just got kicked out of school checks into a pervy hotel and hires a prostitute to come up to his room for five dollars. Even if he just talks to her. It really is. Shocking, I mean.

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is listed at #2 on
Bachblog’s 113 Great Novels of the 20th Century. It was first published in 1951.

I guess old J. D. Salinger shouldn’t have been surprised when Holden’s book was banned from so many schools. He really shouldn’t have been. I’m not kidding, it’s a pretty subversive book. A lot of parents would have about two fatal heart attacks apiece if they knew their 16-year-old kid was reading this stuff. Well, in the 1950s they would have. Nowadays there is a lot worse on TV. You could probably hear “goddam” 10,000 times in one sitcom, that is if the word hadn’t gone out of style. I don’t even want to write the words that have replaced it. I really don’t.

But the book is subversive. Not that it ends that way. It’s a pretty mild ending, really. Just when you think old Holden is really going to do something wild, he kind of goes all mushy. Really, he is pretty enraged when he finds that someone has written “fuck you” on the steps at his sister’s school, and you think he may kill someone for it—he threatens to, he really does—he takes his sister to Central Park and kind of breaks down when he watches her ride the carousel. He does have a soft spot for little kids and especially his sister Phoebe. All through the book, I mean. He probably mentions that a million times. I’m not joking.

Anyway, he ends up in some sort of hospital in California. Maybe he’s trying to get better. It’s hard to see that it is working, though, since he dictates the 160-page book from there and it’s not like he isn’t still angry at everyone. It really isn’t. He’s still pretty mad at millions of people, but he does, in the end, admit that he kind of misses them. Even the phoneys. Even the ones he hates.

I read this book when I was in high school. I really did. It didn’t make all that much of an impression on me. It just didn’t. I think I read it because it was supposed to be a “bad” book. It seemed pretty mild to me, even then. Now when I read it as an adult, I can see how it is such a cleverly subversive book. I say “cleverly” because it’s hard to see 60-some years after its publication why exactly it was seen as so subversive. But millions of critics said it was, so it must have been. Billions of teenagers believed them, alright. They really did. It was probably single-handedly to blame for all of the problems of the 60s. Well, it and the Vietnam War I suppose.

If it is subversive, I don’t think it is in the way that parents thought so. I doubt it really makes kids say “goddam” a lot and want to talk to a prostitute in a pervy hotel. It probably doesn’t make them want to wear a red hunting hat or get kicked out of school, either. It really doesn’t. And if it made an idiot like Mark Chapman want to shoot John Lennon, well then Mark Chapman didn’t understand anything about the book. He probably didn’t really read it anyway. The phony.

The book might make kids think that love and innocence are pretty important. That the loss of childlike wonder is just the first step to becoming a phony. It doesn’t really have any answers to tell us how to avoid that loss of innocence. It really doesn’t. In fact, it leaves us to wonder if Holden ever really figured it out. And if Phoebe will.

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is listed at #2 on
Bachblog’s 113 Great Novels of the 20th Century.

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