Friday, 9 September 2011

At the Edge of a Cliff

I recently became reacquainted with Holden Caulfield, the hero of my teenaged years. First introduced to me in a high school English class, I came across my old dog-eared and yellowed copy of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and was instantly reminded of how intimately I once knew and cherished it.

A few weeks before Christmas 1949, seventeen-year-old Holden has been expelled from Pencey Prep School for flunking out of everything except English. Unable to go home and face his parents, Holden packs his bags and takes the train to New York City where he spends the next few days aimlessly trying to decide what to do and where to go. While Holden contemplates his future he encounters prostitutes, pimps, taxi drivers, nuns, old girlfriends and a former English teacher.

The novel is told from Holden’s perspective – a stream of consciousness monologue in which he frequently uses phrases like “that killed me” or referring to everyone as “old” (Old Ackley, Old Stradlater, Old Allie etc). Holden rails against the phonies of the world: the fake; the superficial; and the pretentious. He is bored and ungrounded with a lack of interest in most things. He lies compulsively, inventing tales to thwart his ennui.

Holden’s angst is central to the novel. He is immature yet deeply thoughtful. He is also anxious and desperate to preserve childhood from the corruption and phoniness of adult life. He seeks to protect his beloved younger sister Phoebe and maintain her childish naiveté forever. Misinterpreting a Robert Burns’ poem, Holden sees himself catching children running from a rye field before they fall off a cliff.

There are laugh out loud moments as Holden describes his thoughts and gets himself in to some strange situations. But more compelling are the moments of tremendous tenderness. Holden is lonely and sensitive and wants desperately to connect to the world around him. Will he ever find a place he belongs? Can he ever be happy? These are questions we all ask ourselves at some point in our lives.

The Catcher in the Rye is one of the best novels of the 20th century. It has been frequently censored for its themes and language, which seem so tame and uncontroversial in modern times. On re-reading Catcher as an adult I have a deeper appreciation of the underlying themes and the quality of Salinger’s writing. I have now bought a new copy to treasure and am sure I will read and re-read this version time and again.