Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

It’s not that I can’t see what others would see in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. But I’m not a teenager and I don’t live in the mid-century past. I can also understand that his writing was something fresh and special and that his insistence that it stay the way it was really opened up writing at the time and spoke to a generation. Or several. Noted. Old, hopeful, story-loving lady that I am, I just didn’t like the book.

I have to admit that as I got nearer to the ending I at least wanted to know what happened (though I had a pretty good idea just from being around books all my life and I’m sure this classic has been referenced many times around me). The first two thirds were a real slog, though. I was like, what is this book even about? And if I had enjoyed Holden Caufield’s voice or company, that might have worked. But he’s falling apart, man. It’s painful. And you didn’t even like him from the first page. And his generation-specific lingo and language idiosyncrasies? Some call it genius. I have very strong doubts. Maybe it’s just outdated.

Yet I’m told that Catcher still speaks to people, especially to young people. I guess. I’m not allowed to dissuade you from reading it or I’ll have my critic card revoked. But when I was several chapters in I asked my husband, “Is that what is going to happen the whole time?” and he, who had read it, said, “I’m pretty sure. That’s how I remember it.” Let me add, too, that my husband loves teenage boy angst books, but it’s hard when there is zero action, zero trajectory, and basically stream-of-consciousness writing. Because of the writing style, in fact, even the “action” is bracketed within lingo, repeated phrases, and explaining. In fact, having now seen the movie that I’ll talk to you about below, I feel like Salinger couldn’t have actually taken the advice given him by his professor: get your voice out of the way of the story. Catcher in the Rye is almost all voice, almost all character study.

I know not everyone loves this book, but I also know many people would rate this as their favorite book. There sure is a lot to talk about with some other literary-minded people when you’re done and some of that comes from Salinger’s actual life and his relationship with the book and the world. In case you missed it, Salinger was a young veteran and multi-school drop-out, New York City rich boy who actually snagged the front seat on the writer’s fame and success trajectory. But he hated it. He hated the experience, I think, but he also hated the morality and philosophy of the whole thing. As Caufield would put it, he hated the “phony.” So after some short stories, an anthology, and Catcher (and some obnoxious fans), he disappeared onto some land in New Hampshire and vowed never to publish another thing. He never did, though it is said that he wrote his whole life. (And in so doing became a sort of legend despite himself. See Finding Forester and any number of articles, spin-offs, and Google threads.)

The Catcher in the Rye is about a high school age boy, Holden Caufield. He gets kicked out of yet another school after failing almost every class and that’s about it. He wanders around New York for a couple days and the tension is built around 1) Is this guy real and relatable or is he a real dick? (Sorry. Best word.) 2) Is he going crazy? 3) Is he going to get himself hurt or killed? He is, after all, a kid, and you know that he has a family who doesn’t want him to wind up in a gutter though there are moments when you feel like he might deserve it. Characters from his past come and go and new characters emerge from the hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and taxi cabs around him. Several of these characters are memorable but most of them are depressing and dark because of the way Caufield interprets them. Perhaps one of the more interesting things about the book is his comfortable interaction with the iconic downtown New York of times past and, bizarrely enough, with “innocents.”

Even as I write this, there is a part of me that wants to like the book, wants to appreciate it. Maybe I do, appreciate it, that is. But I didn’t enjoy it and I have my sneaking suspicions that it’s just not that incredible, that it is sadly overblown. I didn’t want to spend another page with Caufield and I was really, really bored of wandering aimlessly around in the freezing rain breathing down the neck of a basketcase.

__________

Image from Amazon.com

MOVIE: THE REBEL IN THE RYE

First, let’s just inform you real quick that there are NO movies of The Catcher in the Rye. J. D. Salinger wanted it that way, so that’s the way it is. Now, since he died in 2010 there have been two movies—one a biopic about this guy who went on a road trip in the 70s to have a chat with ol’, reclusive J. D. Salinger. The other is the one that I watched after reading The Catcher in the Rye, and that is 2017’s The Rebel in the Rye. Now, some people are irritated right out the gate. (Well, some of them see Kevin Spacey and since its after #metoo, they’re out. Okay. But that’s not the point of this review.) They think that making a movie about J. D. Salinger’s life and his writing of The Catcher in the Rye—which was, indeed, based heavily on his life—is cheating and is dishonoring of his wishes. They also love labeling this movie “phony” because that’s so clever that everyone’s doing it. I will admit to some writing and acting issues, but, actually, I thought this movie was really something special. Like the book, then, I am going against the current but now in the opposite direction.

First thing I have to say: within minutes I realized that this movie was a rarity—it was honest about the writing life. Movies about writers usually annoy the heck out of me. And while I see how some people look at it and notice the overdone conventions—like short cuts—that were used to communicate, the movie is still way more honest than all those other comedies and romances and bios about only the most successful of writers, like academic versions of the girl who takes off her glasses and becomes homecoming queen. Salinger was successful, yes, but his whole life questioned the validity of such a thing and I love the exploring of it here. I think people (and even critics) partly didn’t like it because it was just what Salinger would have wanted: it goes against the grain in about ten different ways, including the messaging in the end. To get there we have some eye-rolling triteness in presentation, yup. But then we get somewhere new and interesting, somewhere, I think, honest.

Yeah, I have a lot to say about the movie. The high points on the obvious side were music and cinematography as well as immersion in a historical time. The acting waffled between great and horrible. And the writing was… bad? But sometimes I wondered if even the flaws weren’t done on purpose. Now, hear me out. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield talks about phony actors overdoing it, etc. He also talks about too-happy endings. He talks about the depravity of everyone and his general disappointment with life and the world. His brother is a Hollywood screen writer and he views him a a sell-out. Many of the “issues” with this movie felt like they might actually be a tongue-in-cheek bit of genius. I’m not positive, but it is one way to watch the movie and one that I think might work. I mean, the plot is super meandering and goes nowhere fast. It’s no hero’s journey. Sound familiar? See what I mean? Either way, I actually jotted notes as I watched, because my heart agreed with so many of the important moments, at least as a writer. And, dare I say it, it gave me an appreciation of the story that I most certainly hadn’t gotten from The Catcher in the Rye itself.

Proceed with caution around all the terrible reviews, but I say proceed.

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