The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
There is no book so connected to the idea of the disaffected teen than The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Back in 1951, this coming-of-age story of teenage alienation was expelled like bile from the tummy of a radiation-sickness afflicted nuclear family – a cultural outpouring of malaise amid a post-war era of the atom bomb and Korean War draft dodgers.
Preceding the birth of rock ‘n’ roll by some years but still no doubt heralding the rise of the teenage archetype as a rebel against all forms of authority – James Dean et al – The Catcher in the Rye is told from the perspective of 17-year-old youth, Holden Caulfield. As a troubled boarding school student, Holden rails against the superficiality of his peers (who he calls “phonies”), casting himself as a cynical observer of society as if navigating his way around a ‘dummy town’ in a nuclear testing site in Nevada before the A-bomb blows it all to hell.
This book was a product of its time, but I still think there’s a lot subsequent generations can relate to. Holden Caulfield is lazy, discontented, listless, apathetic, and seemingly anaemic of any emotional feeling whatsoever, completely disinterested in what his future holds. He is an anti-hero, almost acting as a mouthpiece for knee-jerk oppositionalism to everything his parents’ generation stood for.
This is why I feel JD Salinger’s book is such a seminal piece of work: at the time of The Catcher in the Rye’s release, only six years had passed since the end of the Second World War. At that time, young American men had fought, died, and won victory over fascism on European soil, and yet here was a teenager, Holden Caulfield, greeting this ‘brave new world’ with a shrug and expressing an altogether more insular and private battle with his own inner demons.
Most teenagers can be touched by depression and mental health issues, so Holden’s own neuroses make for a heavily sardonic story of prep school nonconformity, taking you on a dark, at times humorous, journey of adolescent self-discovery from the point of view of a misfit. There aren’t many books which equivocate youth with disillusionment so brazenly.
In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any earlier 20th century literary portrayals of puberty which are as visceral and as stark as The Catcher in the Rye, with Holden not hiding his disgust with girls for possessing loose sexual morals, whilst behaving hypocritically by not thinking twice about meeting a prostitute in an attempt to lose his virginity.
Morally speaking, JD Salinger’s liberal use of colloquial language – slang and swearing – certainly helped cement the fact that this book was pushing the boundaries of its time, yet it’s the narrative voice of Holden that sticks and lingers long in the memory. It’s no surprise that stylistically the book adopts a mostly conversational tone – we are literally inside Holden’s head, so it’s not exactly the most pleasant place to spend long periods of time in.
The Catcher in the Rye is also the book Mark Chapman happened to be reading the night he shot John Lennon, so as a literary benchmark it almost has a macabre reputation for being choice reading for sociopaths. Perhaps that’s why The Catcher in the Rye has proved so enduring – maybe we all feel like a fake or a phony occasionally, so hearing a lone voice calling people out for their flaws is almost cathartic.
Even if it doesn’t quite make for pretty reading, I think it’s this sense of catharsis that explains why a book like The Catcher in the Rye deserves to exist and has earned itself so many literary accolades over the years. After all, it’s only by listening to the Holden Caulfields and seeing the world through their eyes that we can understand what it really means to be an outsider.
Review: © 2016 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.