Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was not at all what I was expecting. I tend to think of classic American novels as depressing books that explore themes like isolation and alienation (an idea that is in a state of reformation), which is precisely what this book did, while somehow still being thoroughly enjoyable. It seems like through the years The Catcher in the Rye has been a controversial novel that has attracted a great deal of attention by being frequently taught in schools despite its ‘salty’ language and ‘provocative’ scenes. In addition to this, Salinger’s recent passing, and seeing the cover in every bookstore as long as I have been alive, I finally bit the bullet and gave the novel a shot. (Did you catch my play on words?)

Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, is a classic antihero stuck in a puzzling identity crisis. His complex dilemma, however, on the surface appears to be a cut and dry case of isolation and alienation resulting from the mistreatment of his peers. But due to the entire novel being written in a first person, stream-of-consciousness style we see that Holden’s unbelievably critical description of his friends and classmates as ‘pimply’ and ‘phony’ make the reader question the reliability of the narrator while simultaneously understanding that Holden Caulfield’s predicament is self-inflicted.

The Catcher in the Rye is Holden’s desperate and yet unconscious attempt to find a sense of belonging, and to make a connection with another human being. And despite the intensity of the above plot description, Holden’s thoughts are often so critical, naive, and subjective, that they will undoubtedly make you giggle or laugh out loud… if not, you are taking yourself and the book too seriously. The book’s themes are also remarkably easy to connect with. Salinger’s novel is a guaranteed one-way-ticket to nostalgia land, with his unmissable commentary on the loss of innocence, the hesitancy of engaging adulthood, and the refusal to mature. (It’s like a very intense rendering of the old toys-r-us theme song). You’ll be frustrated with Holden, you’ll want him to just get it so badly. But the masterful writing of Salinger fabricates such a lovable character in Holden; through his humorous and guileless speech, you have the feeling of reading a beloved family member’s journal. Of course you may get angry with their actions, but they’re family… you’re obligated to love them. Check these quotes and tell me you can’t enjoy a character like this:

When I really worry about something, I don’t just fool around.  I even have to go to the bathroom when I worry about something.  Only, I don’t go.  I’m too worried to go.  I don’t want to interrupt my worrying to go.

All morons hate it when you call them a moron.

I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.

What really knocks me out is a book, when you’re all done reading it, you wished 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.

All that being said, I believe that the brilliance of Catcher in the Rye is not particularly what Salinger writes, but what he doesn’t write. Off the bat, we discover that Holden is recovering from some psychological meltdown, and that the entire novel will be recounting how he got to that particular point. But Holden is NEVER introspective. He is quick to notice (exhaustively) every fault that the ‘phonies’ around him have, but he never takes a look at himself, nor does he let the reader into a full understanding of how he came to be such a pessimist. But we see quick flashes here and there of traumatic events that happen in Holden’s life that he mentions in passing… He refuses to stay on these topics and brings them up for merely functional reasons, but it is an ingenious tactic that Salinger utilizes in helping the reader to comprehend Holden’s damaged psyche.

I loved this book. It’s a short read and worth every second of you’re time. Holden Caulfield is one of the most human characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of literature.

4 1/2 shelf out of 5.

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Owen ain’t no Meany… John Irving’s masterpiece

I’m going to be honest with you. This is a book you should read. Yes it might seem a little bit intimidating due to its size, and yes the title and cover almost guarantee a tear-jerker, (like the cover of Free Willy) but just get past all that and read the book. You’ll be hooked by possibly the most intriguing first sentence I have come across in any work of literature:

John Irving“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

After this – you’re obligated to keep going. And it will be a move that you won’t regret. Johnny Wheelwright is the narrator of John Irving’s novel – and the book is written in the form of memoir of Johnny’s life. At first it seems that Johnny just has diarrhea of the mouth and is regurgitating everything he can remember about his childhood in no particular order. In fact, it is almost overwhelming to the reader. There is a nonstop flood of hilarious and heartbreaking stories, one after the other, that seem to have little to no connection throughout the novel – almost as if they were episodes of some brilliantly written 30 minute television program. But Irving is setting a trap that will spring on you unexpectedly (tread lightly).

Johnny grows up in a small town in New Hampshire with his best friend, Owen Meany, a dwarfed child with a haunting voice. The two develop a peculiar yet heart-warming friendship that drives the powerfully written work into a sentimental masterpiece. Accenting the enjoyable companionship of Johnny and Owen is the eerie sentence that begins the book, anchoring the entire work in the beautiful tale of how  Owen impacts John’s religious convictions. It is a story of friendship, fate, and faith that had me laughing hysterically and crying almost as much. The tour-de-force of metaphors, allusions, and foreshadowing constructs a brilliant coming-of-age narrative that explores the nostalgia of childhood, the pain of emerging adolescence, and the striking reality of adulthood (teased out with the drama surrounding the Vietnam War). It was difficult for me to read a book like this after graduating college, getting my first full time job, becoming financially independent, and getting married within the span of a few months. It made me long for mom’s pancakes from childhood, and the mischief of my grade school days  (despite what many of you may think).

I love this book. You should read it. Be careful though – you will be in an existential funk when you turn the last page. It will cause a great deal of reflection and will stir emotions inside of you that haven’t popped up in awhile (that is if you’re like me and primarily stick to books like Percy Jackson and Ender’s Game). This one is a classic and will be cherished atop shelf number 5.