I had heard so much about The Catcher in the Rye being a classic that I had imagined it as an American version of a Dickens novel. Within the few opening lines, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a story narrated by a teenager living in post-WW2 1950s USA! J. D. Salinger’s hero is a certain Holden Caulfield, a rich kid who has just been been kicked out for the umpteenth time from yet another private school. Other than English literature, he has no interest in any other school subject, so flunks causing schools to keep dropping him. His narration in the novel covers a few days of his life before Christmas that year in intimate detail as he struggles to find a direction in his rudderless life.
Holden is the stereotypical angsty US teenager whom I have watched in countless TV series and movies. Father is a corporate lawyer, home is a NYC penthouse and every luxury in life is at hand. However, money does not guarantee happiness. Our hero says goodbye to his dorm roommates and hitches on an unplanned train ride to NYC, checks into a hotel, runs around the city bars and clubs and even orders up a hooker. In the midst of all this pointless roundabout, hints are dropped as to why he might be a bit messed up. A literature-loving older brother who sold out to write for Hollywood. A younger brother lost to blood cancer. Witness to a mindless suicide in one of his private school dorms. And the all-pervading feeling that everyone is phony, except of course himself and his younger sister. In summary, every person’s teenage years vividly put down in print.
I do not remember reading any realistic fiction from the 1950s USA. So, it was quite a shocker to see a teenager travel around alone, checking into expensive hotels, ordering alcoholic drinks at bars, spending on a prostitute, using profanity, all without any adult around batting an eyelid. Was it really this easy back then?! The novel is set in the cigarette age, so another shocker is to witness teenagers smoke like chimneys at all hours freely, teachers, parents, everyone lighting up in every page and also 12-year olds telling their parents they had a puff to calm nerves! I would not be surprised if the tobacco lobby is handing out this book for free to all teenagers!
This book captures our rebellious moping teenage years perfectly. However, it was quite hard for me to sympathize with Holden’s plight. One reason is that throughout the novel he is basically a rich kid, living a rich life with wads of money to splurge. And even after the final pages of his angsty trip, we can see that he will probably end up at an Ivy League institution anyway. Another reason is that the story relies heavily on its 1940s US culture and norms, which are very different from our world today. There is also a sexist, racist and classist slant from that era that is unmistakable. All in all, I felt the book is a bit over-hyped considering all the greatest lists it is on. What it has going for it though is a genuine teen voice and might appeal strongly to that demographic or even myself, had I chanced upon it a decade or more earlier.