Over the course of three days, a rich kid who can't stop getting expelled from every school he attends wanders around Manhattan trying to get (1) drunk and (2) lucky.
No, it's not the plot of an unreleased Gossip Girl season (RIP). It's the plot of Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger's beloved, banned, reviled, worshiped, and—well, let’s just say polarizing 1951 novel about a depressed prep school boy with a heart of gold.
Chuck Bass, meet your worst nightmare.
After rocketing almost immediately to the top of the bestseller lists, The Catcher in the Rye began its run on the banned books list. Not that we’re surprised by this (profanity, sex, alcohol abuse, prostitution—need we go on?), but we are a little surprised that it’s also so common in high school English classes. Is there’s something more going on than the ramblings of a depressed and admittedly immature sixteen- or seventeen-year-old?
Boy (as Holden would say) is there.
Reaching all the way back to the coming-of-age Bildungsroman tradition, The Catcher in the Rye is a book about a teenager trying to find a way to be true to himself while growing up in a world full of phonies—and a book about post-World War II America burrowing into the “phoniness” of consumerism while trying to pretend that the trauma of the atomic bomb didn’t happen. No wonder The Catcher in the Rye ended up as a symbol of alienation and isolation for the disillusioned and restless post-war generation.
And then there’s J. D. Salinger himself, who stopped publishing and essentially disappeared from public view at the height of his career—almost like he was a sort of Holden Caulfield. So, is Holden really a stand-in for Salinger himself? Does Holden eventually get better? What really happened between his three days in New York and his “rest” out West?
That’s a secret Salinger will never tell.
There’s a lot of reason to hate The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe you’re a nervous school administrator who thinks Holden is as a foul-mouthed misanthrope who flunks out of school, picks up a hooker, borrows money from his kid sister to spend on booze, and ends up in a mental hospital. No wonder Mark David Chapman blamed his obsession with the book for making him shoot and kill John Lennon, right?
Or maybe you’re a teenager who thinks Holden is a boring, whiny hypocrite who despises his life but makes zero effort to change it. He’s in love with a girl; nothing happens. He goes to the Big Apple; nothing happens. He hires a prostitute; nothing happens. All that scandal the censors were promising? It never happens.
Maybe. But maybe Holden is just a confused kid who obsesses over the loss of innocence, hero-worships his kid siblings, struggles to connect with anyone his own age, and thinks all adults are self-important phonies. For a guy who wishes he could pull a Peter Pan on his biological clock, having no forward momentum in the narrative is kind of the point.
You’d think that the Facebook / Myspace / Twitter / reality TV generation would be more receptive to the ramblings of a confused 17-year-old, but many of today’s readers seem less impressed with The Catcher in the Rye than ever. So tell us, Shmooperinos, is Holden getting harder to relate to? Have our attention spans been ruined by incessant texting and a 140 character limit? Are we so caught up in telling our own stories nowadays that we’ve forgotten how to listen to anyone else’s?