by JD Salinger
224 pages, Penguin Books ltd.
Review by Pat Black
Only The Lonely
It’s a strange thing watching Goths congregate in a train station.
They have a flocking instinct, getting together in large groups seemingly without incident. In terms of appearance they seem to be much the same kind of kid I remember when I flirted with the idea of being one, a long time ago; the band T-shirts and the black clothes, the long hair on the boys and the piercings and tattoos on the girls.
I call them Goths, but of course they’ll give themselves different appellations, attached to different sects, going by the fashion of the time. Maybe they’re Emos, moshers or metallers, rather than Goths. I’m at least twice as old as some of them and as hopelessly adrift on the sea of youth culture as I ever was, so I wouldn’t dare to break them down into their constituent parts.
Whatever the factions and allegiances, a lot of these people will call themselves outsiders. And sure, they may feel alone in their classrooms or in their homes, buffeted by the disapproval of their parents, teachers, siblings and peers with each fresh tatt or a new puncture in a strange place.
But I don’t think Holden Caulfield would be a part of those flocks at the train stations.
Reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time is a long-overdue introduction to a character who is recognisably teenaged and angsty, a true anti-hero, but in a genuine and occasionally sweet way. No-one in Catcher In The Rye is painted in the washed-out hues of an old Iron Maiden T-shirt; there’s not one character who feels forced or untrue, from the gout-suffering teacher to Holden’s grotty room-mates, and especially not his adoring kid sister. The book is dominated, of course, by our somewhat untrustworthy guide, poor 17-year-old Holden. He’s a misfit, an effortless nonconformist snarling at his middle-class predicament in a posh private school in the dark days before the Christmas holidays. Holden’s been through a few schools, we hear, but none of his expulsions are for any big Hollywood reasons. There are no punched teachers, no drink or drugs taken to excess, no pregnant cheerleaders... just about anything that might slither its way into any kind of teenage drama on offer today. The boy is just a bit of a mess; the book tries to let us know why.
Holden is troubled, but not feral; we’re so used to seeing and hearing about disaffected teens getting themselves into trouble in so many ways, but Salinger dares to make his hero rather dull. With his hunting cap turned back to front, he might think he’s being different, but this image of him seems lame, if not nerdy, these days. Turning your baseball cap back to front is most likely the actions of a drunken uncle posing for a holiday photograph; certainly no teenager would be seen dead doing this now.
While the hipster late 1940s dialogue is similarly dated, it grounds the book to the time it was created – dated, perhaps, but never jarringly so. And Holden’s voice is one of the strongest things about the book; the little riffs, the fingerprints of language, help us get into that wonderful state of telepathy with the author which only the truly great novels can. As I’ve said recently about David Peace’s The Damned Utd, it changes the very rhythm of your own thinking, writing as a powerful form of suggestion. The narrative has the sort of mesmerism that’s the mark of any great novel; a contract between author and reader that holds good from the first page to the last.
Holden has slang terms of his own which seem almost quaint to modern ears (though there are one or two “fucks” thrown around the narrative, plenty of “asses” and a few “shits”, but it rang true in the sense that these colloquialisms do tend to spring up around teenagers and their peer groups, some holding fast through the generations, some dying tragically young (I knew a guy who thought everything was “mega”; try as he might, he could not make this stuck in the vernacular among the rest of the guys). But it draws you in, and it appears that the dialogue is an authentic rendering of the type of things teenagers would say at this time. Hey, just think, if Catcher in the Rye was written today, it’d be in faux-gangsta schtick and textspear... no, forget I said that. Don’t think it.
But what of our narrator? Holden’s up front about many things; first of all, he tells us he’s a terrific liar. It forms the basis of most of the comic scenes in the book; he mercilessly dupes a mother of one of the boys at Pensey on the train, then, even when he’s giving alms to some nuns later on, he still can’t help pulling out whopper after whopper. A curious thing, as to be phony is something that Holden just can’t bear.
He’s no fighter, although we do get a fight scene; no bared-teeth Hollywood swinging and punching here, just one beating - and not a very severe one at that – and a humiliation from a nasty little pimp at a seedy hotel. It would disappoint us if Holden were to be a sweeping tiger’s claw of rage, brawling his way through all these little confrontations, allowing some inner rage to titillate the reader. In his feebleness and passivity, we can recognise some of our own naivety from when we were that age, the lessons we’ve learned in life and the reversals that shape our character. As I once heard a boxing trainer say, any beating you take is an important lesson for you, something to be profited from later. Holden learns a few on his journey.
And it takes our hero a little longer to admit that he’s not been much of a lover, either; there’s some prevarication around the subject, but we finally get the confirmation that he’s a virgin. Isn’t that one that rings true throughout the ages? What teenage boy doesn’t talk himself up in this respect? You can only smile to yourself when the long-suspected truth emerges. Holden’s views on sex were frank, and even shocking, at the time. But they have such a truth to them, a verisimilitude in the awkwardness and confusion and even the going-a-stage-too-far moment when Holden describes Stradlater’s successes with girls in a parked car. A memorable phrase from the lips of no less a charmer than Hannibal Lecter springs to mind here: “Tedious sticking fumblings.”And I was glad that this aspect of that awkward time between high school and university – or adolescence and manhood - is addressed by Salinger. There’s no Dawson’s Creek-style “big romantic moment” at this point in Holden’s life. And possibly not ever.
Holden’s not even particularly clever; wordy and given to philosophising, but he’s no cum laude student. We might discern some irony in the hilariously inept and unlearned essay Holden submits on ancient Egypt... but it’s more the intention of Salinger, and not the essay’s author, I feel. One suspects that while Holden didn’t give a monkey’s about the essay however it turned out, this was nonetheless the best Holden could do, the sum of his knowledge.
Catcher is set in an America we might think we recognise, during the 1950s where the template for classic Americana was set, an America of movie stars and cocktails and hipster dialogue. Except, it’s... that word again, one we see again and again... all phony to Holden. And this is where Salinger begins to hit his targets, one after the other.
We realise early on that this is a book which has no plot, characters who are going to drop out of the narrative without returning, that there’s no big victory or happy ending in the offing. It starts with a parting of the ways at Holden’s latest school, and a fight between Holden and his smarter, better-looking room-mate, the aforementioned Stradlater. Holden part-idolises, part-hates this kid. In one part, Holden talks about how awkward he feels when a fellow classmate intrudes upon his ablutions in the toilet block; in the next he finds himself doing exactly the same thing with square-jawed, lady-killing Stradlater. Whether this was a nod to some latent homosexuality on Holden’s part, or just a mild form of hero-worship mixed with good old jealousy over his friend’s seemingly effortless successes in life, we’re never sure. (There’s one other reference that must have raised eyebrows at the time – the moment when Holden stops over at an old teacher’s house, only for the man to stroke Holden’s hair while he’s sleeping. Holden’s horror at the “flittiness” of this gesture is the pure undistilled homophobia of most straight, horribly insecure teenage males. But the man’s real intent, as Holden later acknowledges, is ineffable. Gaaah, it’s just so goddam confusing, Holden!)
Holden’s lashing-out at Stradlater – there’s a girl involved, naturally, invoking a striking appearance by the old green-eyed monster – ends bloodily, and Holden is left with a sore face and a desire to simply escape his school. This is juxtaposed with the story of another escape by another pupil in the form of a suicide, a shocking moment where an unusual child ends his misery at the boarding school by leaping from a window. Is Holden sad like this child? Why’s he so ornery anyway? Layer by layer, Holden’s facade is stripped away from us; it’s a psychological journey as much as a physical one.
That peculiar desperation among the young to be older, an impatience with the slow passage of time (a hastiness we all live to regret) is rendered here in several sunburnt-red moments of embarrassment. This is most acute where Holden visits bars and is asked for ID when he tries to get served. There can’t be a teenage drinker in the world unfamiliar with this. It runs right the way through his encounter with the women in the nightclub (“Look – there’s Alan Ladd!”) and his disastrous date with Sally – you can almost picture the raised eyebrows and amusement of the waitresses and barmen Holden tries his sophisticate’s act on.
So much for the sweet; now for the sour. For all the embarrassments, set-backs and beatings, Holden’s nihilist edge is apparent. One that has led to the book being linked obliquely to some nasty real-life incidents. He has the simmering rage of the downtrodden – there are some caustic passages, including this one when he considers possible rivals: “These handsome guys are all the same. When they’re finished combing their goddam hair, they beat it on you.” And there is an almost apocalyptic edge to his disgust with society – “I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.” In this we might just glimpse some of the real JD Salinger, a man who saw action in the Second World War and who has been quoted as saying: “The smell of burning flesh is something you never quite get out of your nostrils.” I wonder if this depiction of Holden’s teenage wastelands were Salinger’s way of communicating his feelings on warfare – what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – his anger at the futilities, the phonyness of life once you’ve seen... well, you can imagine.
And we have the Phony. That word we keep coming back to. Relating to Holden’s hatred of falseness, emotional and intellectual dishonesty. This is the normal stuff of teenage rebellion, young people challenging the environment been brought up in, testing the values and morality that’s been held to be true for their childhood. There’s one section that suckerpunched me in particular, where Holden rages against people who cry easily at the movies. In the cinema, Holden describes one mother who ignores her child’s pleadings to be taken to the bathroom so that she can enjoy a film, and Holden seethes: “You take somebody that cries their goddam eyes out over phony stuff at the movies, and nine times out of ten they’re mean bastards at heart.”
But there’s such sweetness in this book; at first I thought the “Catcher” in the title referred to his tragic little brother Allie’s baseball mitt, rather than a misquoting of Robert Burns. I suspect the death of his sibling is what’s really bothering Holden, and his return back home, and all the wonderful moments he shares with little sister Phoebe at the funfair, is his true redemption. This is a simple story, after all – almost a non-story, if you were being unkind – but Salinger’s conclusions and solutions are simple. The best ones always are.
And Holden’s golden reunion with his beloved sister makes me return to those children at the train station – I’m probably going to see a few of these less than half an hour at Central Station. And having considered the matter, I think that that perhaps I was wrong at the start; perhaps Holden’s not unique after all. He is certainly not alone in his life. So instead of seeing the black-clothed flock, I might keep an eye out those odd ones at the edges of the groups, the awkward ones, the ones not so quick to smile – those catchers in the rye.