I know I’m going to piss a lot of people off with this review, because for many people this is their favoritest book ever. I read this book as a teenager and I despised it. I couldn’t stand Holden, felt he was, to quote himself, a big phony. I had no idea why he did anything he did, what he was about or why he was so angry. But I decided to read it again now that I’m an adult and give it a second chance.
I was never a teenager like Holden. Holden is girl-crazy, a mostly good kid who acts without thinking and thinks too much without acting. He does things and he doesn’t know why he does them. He has desires that he tries to act on even if he can’t carry them out. He loves and hates with equal abandon. I can see why I hated it as a teenager. He was utterly baffling to me. Absolutely and completely an alien creature with a language, actions, and motives foreign to my teenage self. Why did he want to drink? Why did he want to talk to those girls when he didn’t even know them? Why does he lie compulsively? The fact that so many people found that Holden really spoke to them and for them kind of explains a little of why I felt so out-of-place as a teenager. I always turned in my homework early, made prudent decisions, and planned things in detail before I carried them out, even something as simple as “how am I going to ask the waiter for more water.” Guess I’m still like that.
The other thing that made this hard for me as a teen is the language. Boy. Grand. Sore. Mad for X. Burns someone/thing up. Go crazy for something. I had a very hard time with this as a teenager, and even as an adult I found myself challenged to decipher the mid-century slang. It wasn’t just the slang that made things hard. As a teenager I didn’t understand what a flit was, why he left his teacher’s house in the middle of the night, why he wanted to dance with girls, and what city he lived in. I didn’t understand that his little brother was dead and that he broke his hand because he couldn’t deal with it. As an adult, I still don’t understand what happened in the scene where the kid jumped out the window and died. Did the other boys push him, or did they bugger him and he killed himself out of shame, or what? It was meant to be obvious in a “too horrible to say, but we all know what I mean” kind of way, but I don’t really know what happened.
I do appreciate the skill with which Salinger rendered Holden Caulfield. He feels like truly a typical (typical?) sophormoric teen who is mostly good and mostly smart but impulsive and directionless, the kind of kid who mistakes introspection for wisdom. (Okay, so that sounded like me as a teen.) He’s likeable only because I pitied him. His “too cool for school” attitude pissed me off. I have been annoyed by people like that my whole life, people who squandered excellent opportunities for no good reason, people who don’t know why they do stupid things (but do them anyway) people who think they are the smartest person they know despite an overwhelming lack of evidence to support that presumption.
I don’t feel like the book had much of a point, except that when it was written, mental illness was the cause du jour, so the fact that he went to a mental hospital was probably deemed a sufficient denoument. It was just a guy who gets himself kicked out of school, then wanders around killing time until hunger and exposure and sleep deprivation make him pass out so he can’t fulfill his half-baked idea of running off to Colorado to join a ranch. The only real cause for his breakdown, near as I can see, is that he was unhinged because he couldn’t find meaning in life. He wanted to die for a noble cause, or save people’s lives, but what he really needed to do was pass his stupid classes.
I suppose the only person I would recommend this book for is disaffected teenage boys, but if you know one, you’d probably do better if you didn’t hand him the book, just buy him a copy and sort of hide it where he can pick it up and believe that reading it was his own idea.