Disclaimer: No spoilers, but this review will discuss the premise and themes of the book. If you wish to go in blind, as I did, I suggest not reading.
The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential book on teenage angst. Written by JD Salinger and published in 1951, this Great American Novel follows the escapades of antihero Holden Caulfield in New York City over three days.
It is notable for:
- selling over 65 million copies
- being the most censored book in American schools and libraries from 1961-1982
- the reclusive nature of its author
- association with the murder of John Lennon
Catcher was ahead of its time. Nonconformist icon Holden Caulfield foreshadowed the likes of James Dean, rock ‘n roll and the adolescent backlash against conservative 1950s American society. Not surprisingly this is the era the book’s popularity exploded.
Holden Caulfield narrates. An intelligent but troubled rich kid, Holden is expelled from his fourth school after flunking all his subjects but English. Not expected home by his parents until Wednesday he packs his bags heads to New York.
Caulfield talks in the New York vernacular of the late ‘40s, back when the often invoked ‘goddamn’ and ‘chrissake’, were considered highly offensive. It is one of the first novels to use the f word in print; moral guardians of the time lampooned it accordingly.
Other words in Holden’s lexicon:
- Sexy – In 1940s lingo this meant ‘horny’, not sexually attractive.
- Crumby – Dirty/unpleasant
- Phony – Holden’s favourite word. Fake, disingenuous and hypocritical.
On the surface the Catcher in the Rye is a coming of age story. The problem is Holden doesn’t want to grow up. Adulthood, as far as he can see, is as corrupt and materialistic as it is morally insolvent and, above all, phony. Even so, Holden lies, chain smokes, drinks and thinks of sex constantly. Only children are truly innocent.
Despite his individualist bent, however, Holden still craves human companionship. Throughout the book he stumbles his way through interactions with a variety of characters which range from hilarious to downright depressive. There is subtext aplenty, not all of which is obvious on first reading.
The Catcher in the Rye is a favorite of Bill Gates, Woody Allen, George HW Bush and, most notoriously, Mark Chapman. The Beatle killer was obsessed by the book, and was found reading it moments after he shot John Lennon dead in 1980.
The Catcher in the Rye is still a polarising book. Your perception depends on the stage in life in which you read it. Fans tend to either identify with Holden, or at least appreciate the style and literary significance. Detractors dislike the protagonist, his vernacular, or were forced to read it at school.
JD Salinger admitted in 1953 his “boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book.” He too grew up in Manhattan and wrote early drafts while serving in WW2. At the peak of his success Salinger withdrew from the public eye and gave his last interview in 1965. He wrote 15 novels over the following decades, all of them unpublished.
Catcher is the bestselling novel never adapted into a film. Though Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo Dicaprio all campaigned for the role of Holden Caulfield it was not to be. Salinger guarded the book’s rights viciously on the assertion its subjective voice could only work in print. Though the author died in 2010, rights to the book remain firmly in Salinger’s estate – The Catcher in the Rye will not enter the public domain until 2080.