J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
J. D. Salinger has only published one novel and this is it. Yet he has a huge reputation. This book has had a major influence on any number of disaffected youth and not just American disaffected youth, though it was originally published for adults. Its hero, Holden Caulfield, is as much a symbol of rebellion as Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The story is narrated by Holden Caulfield, a seventeen year old boy who, a year earlier, had been expelled from Pencey Prep, a boarding school. He is currently in a sanatorium, where he is recovering from a mental breakdown. He tells his story, starting with his expulsion from Pencey, for failing most of his classes. It is not the first school he has been expelled from. He goes and sees his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who is in bed with flu, to say goodbye and then talks with other acquaintances in the school. Next day he leaves and goes to New York, where he stays, planning to delay his return home till the start of normal vacation. His sister, Phoebe, brings him a case of clothes. He meets various people in New York, including a prostitute, a friend of his brother, D. B., who is writing for the cinema, an ex-girlfriend and an old schoolfriend. He goes and stays with a former teacher but when the teacher becomes too friendly, he leaves. He is planning to hitchhike out West but when Phoebe wants to join him, he changes his mind. At the end, as he tells us, he does nothing. He has a breakdown and is all set to go off to another school.
Holden is an unreliable narrator and as the whole book is narrated by him, it is difficult to know much he is telling is the truth. He himself say I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. Like many of his age, he is highly critical of everyone – his peers, his teachers, his family, those in authority, the people he meets casually. He despises what he calls phoniness, which includes the cinema (where his brother is working) and several of his schoolmates. He tries but generally fails to connect with those he meets, except on the most superficial level. At the end, though he is going back to school and it can be thought that he has, at least, in part got over his rebellion, he seems to be not too positive about going to a new school. Has he evolved at all? Probably not. And it is this, along with the use of (very mild) swear words and overt sexuality that led to the book being the most banned in the USA for a long time. It probably is a book that you should read in your teens when you may feel the same way that Holden Caulfield does.
First published 1951 by Little, Brown