Holden Caulfield wants to tell us a little about his life, not his ‘whole goddam autobiography or anything,’ just the crazy stuff that happened to him the day he was kicked out of Pencey Prep School. We join Holden, surely one of literature’s great anti-heroes, on a mad and sad few days in New York City, as his troubled mind begins to unravel. Revisiting The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger seems most apt in this centenary year of his birth. Is there still a place for this once controversial novel in the hearts of today’s young readers?
Unwilling to face his parents, the expelled Holden decides to hang out in NYC for a few days. Here, he adopts the demeanour of a jaded man-of-the-world, ordering scotch and soda in seedy jazz clubs, wandering the neon streets, and attempting to pick up women. Most adults are ‘phonies’ and ‘lousy’ hypocrites, and it makes him mad as hell.
Holden feels a profound disconnect from his fellow New Yorkers, and yet curiously, he keeps trying to reach out. There are fleeting encounters with cab drivers, nuns, tourists, a prostitute, and the end of a pimp’s fist, all merely serving to highlight his isolation.
Alternately repelled and seduced by the world of adults, Holden hides behind a wall of cynicism. His sense of alienation is intense.
‘New York’s terrible when somebody laughs on the street very late at night. You can hear it for miles. It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed.’
The smoky, boozy metropolis of Salinger’s post-war New York is vividly depicted, Central Park being key, as both a place of refuge and the scene of later mental disintegration. Holden’s hopelessly idealised view of childhood keeps him subconsciously clinging to the safety of boyhood, and herein lies the crux of the novel.
It may be a period piece but the cursing, turbulent Holden Caulfield still speaks to the adolescent in all of us. A classic worth revisiting.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is published by Penguin, 198 pages.