If you’ve read it, you’ve never forgotten. Like every other person of my generation and so many before mine, I read Catcher in the Rye during my first year of high school. I had learned to expect the worst of any book assigned for school, but after Salinger’s first sentence hooked me, I devoured the novel. I sat up in bed that night—dorky headlamp switched on—and ripped through the book greedily.
Holden, like the best Dickensian characters, leaps from the page. Early on, he declares, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
It happens with Catcher, but it isn’t just Salinger you wish to know, it’s his protagonist. Holden, in his disgust with the adult world, somehow charms you. He sounds like someone you’d like to pal around with. It doesn’t really feel like Salinger created a fictional character as much as he found a living, breathing human being on the street and wrote about him. Our vague sense that we’ve met Holden before—that’s the magic of the novel.
I remember that a few years ago, I read an intriguing (though upsetting) article in the New York Times about how high school kids were no longer connecting with Holden. They found him to be a “whiner” and were bored by his outdated language. Around this time or perhaps a year after, when Junot Diaz’s debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was out and picking up ecstatic reviews, I found one article that suggested Oscar Wao replace Catcher as the quintessential novel of adolescence. I had read Oscar Wao and, like everyone, was wildly impressed. But replace Holden? Never. I felt then, and still feel, that some 1950s expressions (I’m not sure I’ve ever in my life called something “crumby”) are hardly enough to ruin the effect of Holden’s voice. His honesty and angst have stayed with me.
Catcher is merely the centerpiece of a body of work that is often surprising, in the best sense of the word. Read Salinger’s story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” It’s the same writer, and yet, another world entirely from the rebellious musings of a kid in the city. And it’ll leave you emotionally spent.
If anything, Salinger’s reclusion is less upsetting than his lack of recent output. We miss not the chance to have had another literary celebrity, but the gift of more writing. You can’t help but hope that sometime in the next few weeks a visitor or family member will unearth an unpublished Salinger manuscript. But if not, we still have what he did give us, and “goddam,” that’s a lot.
Note: this piece ran as part of the larger TNB Salinger tribute. Any comments can go in that forum.