J. D. Salinger - Catcher in the Rye

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If a body catch a body coming through the rye

Sep 23, 2000 (Updated Sep 27, 2000)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:There are a few memorable things...

Cons:J.D. Salinger's style is redundant, his characters are unlikable, and the unrealistic episodes our protagonist engages in reek of bad sitcom humor and denouements.

Contrary to popular belief, the fact that Catcher in the Rye uses misspelled profanity does not make it edgy. On that same note, the fact that assassin Mark Chapman asked John Lennon to sign it for him earlier in the morning of December 8, 1980 before he murdered him later that day does not make it Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers either. This is nothing more than a teen angst story that has not stood the test of time. I must truly be ignorant to say that I can't see how today’s youth can relate to its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. This is because Holden’s a mean-spirited, cynical, racist asshole that deserves all the punishment given to him. That includes, but is not limited to, when this virgin doesn’t want to pay for his whore and she gets her pimp to kick his ass because of it.

How can anyone like Holden Caulfield? He’s a peeping tom who calls others names, blows cigarette smoke in nuns’ faces, and is a hypocritical moron who thinks almost everyone in the world is phony while omitting the fact that he himself, a seemingly pathological liar, is just as, if not phonier, than all of the characters he meets or speaks about. Holden Caulfield is a spoiled brat with a piss poor vocabulary that likes to start fights that he usually loses anyway. He looks down on anyone who watches movies. He’s a walking contradiction courtesy of J.D. Salinger’s description of him and how he actually acts, thus making him a redneck snob. The biggest problem of all has to be that absolutely nothing makes this kid “gay as hell.”

Now if redundancy is brilliance, J.D. Salinger is Einstein. The same dialogue and situations appear again and again throughout the novel with only differently named bromidic, one-dimensional characters. Salinger tries to make an excuse for Caulfield saying the same damn things over and over again until they become clichés by driving home the point that not only isn’t Holden a bright student, he’s well aware of that and is more than happy to tell us about it. Jerome David even tries beginning the novel with that same bit of cleverness in the very opening of Catcher in the Rye with another dose of that self-aware Kevin Williamson type wit:

IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

I won’t even get into how many times Caulfield uses the word phony in the novel because that would be akin to the scene in Bowfinger where Kit Ramsey looked up how many times the letter K showed up in a particular movie script. But here are some conspicuous examples of what I’m talking about.

Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.

- Holden Caulfield in Chapter 2

Grand. If there’s one word I hate, it’s grand. It’s so phony.

- Holden Caulfield in Chapter 15

I swear to God I’m crazy.

- Holden Caulfield at the beginning of Chapter 17

I swear to God I’m a madman.

- Holden Caulfield at the end of Chapter 17

Another thing I noticed here in Catcher in the Rye, is that the ideas have potential, J.D. Salinger simply doesn’t know how to execute them like Brent Easton Ellis or Patricia Highsmith. Take this passage for example:

Then he and old Sally started talking about a lot of people they both knew. It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life. They both kept thinking of places as fast as they could, then they’d think of somebody that lived there and mention their name. I was all set to puke when it was time to go sit down again. I really was. And then, when the next act was over, they continued their goddamn boring conversation. They kept thinking of more places and more names of people that lived there.

Now in American Psycho or The Talented Mr. Ripley, we can rest assure that there would be something behind this wearisome conversation and even more irksome commentary on it. In those two novels, we know that Patrick Bateman (Who knows it’s “Hip To Be Square”) and Tom Ripley (Who knows “It’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody”) will go off and kill upper class folk like the above in suave style. In Catcher in the Rye however, Salinger’s point of the above passage is essentially nothing more than another jumping point for Holden to start bitching and moaning again about how “phony” people are. If you’re like me, let’s all yawn together at this.

Don’t get me wrong here, obviously a novel like this must have its high points, and it does. Several of the flashbacks described in Catcher in the Rye stand out as poignant sentimentality. This one particularly:

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 and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him…

I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie. My hand still hurts me once in a while, when rains and all, and I can’t make a real fist any more—not a tight one, I mean—but outside of that I don’t care much.


In a way, that scene is parallel to one in Jim Carroll’s poetic, autobiographical, and far superior coming of age story, The Basketball Diaries, where our protagonist played basketball in the rain after his best friend passed away also of leukemia. Segments of that caliber in Catcher in the Rye however are few and far between, making this an overrated piece of literature to say the least.

- © 2000 by Donlee Brussel


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