Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.
There are three things you don't talk about on first dates: religion, politics, and The Catcher in the Rye. A casual survey over the tubes to gauge the general opinion on the book is guaranteed to fail. To Kill A Mockingbird, while we're on the topic of mandatory high-school reads, seems to be forever basking in the love the world holds tirelessly for it, occasionally poked at by random moral boners, and entirely unbothered by the obligatory contrarians. Catcher, on the other hand, enjoys nothing nearly so universal. People either adore or abhor it. Further complicating matters is the variety in the reasons they give for their love or hatred for the book. Catcher, not looking to budge a bit any time soon from its much-coveted spot among other literary giants, deserves its place in history because, as those justifications from the former camp typically go, 1) the main character just speaks to them, 2) the book captures a perfect snapshot of the fears faced by teenagers about to become adults, and 3) there's more to it¹ than meets the eye. From the other side, you encounter such retorts as 1) nothing happens in the book, 2) the main character's woe-be-me whining and hypocrisy, let alone his dark-sided atheist propaganda, drive even your most God-fearing Christians to suicide, and 3) J.D. Salinger duped us! That Catcher is polarizing as all get-out is hard to bring up without Nicolas Cage's disembodied head materializing now and here with his you-don't-say face. Indifference is impossible. It gets under your skin one way or another.
My first crack at Catcher was, if memory serves, around last year. The attempt didn't take. Not 20 pages later, my patience had long deserted me, forcing me to shelve it for sometime later to never. In my neat and organized world, that's just not done. Plates are cleared of bread crumbs and other leftover food bits. Movies are watched from their opening titles to end credits. Books are given second and third chances, and finished in more or less the same time frame as when they were started. But there were better things to do than to be subjected to Catcher any longer: securing a toothpick underneath one of my big toenails, say, and then kicking at a wall really very hard with that foot. That would be less painful than to read any more about how many phonies and crooks there are in the world, how life is rigged against anyone who's not a hot-shot, and how often things happen all of a sudden. Catcher was supposed to be a classic, but nothing, not even an inkling, I had suffered so far indicated whoever gave the book that distinction wasn't tweaked the hell out on something even purer than anything Heisenberg himself could ever have dreamed of cooking up. I abandoned ship before one more show of repetition or pointless digression could trigger my violent tendencies, a holdover from our cave-dwelling days of stalking mammoths and fighting sabre-toothed cats.
Round two fared better, albeit only in the sense I actually succeeded at reading Catcher from cover to cover without managing to set it on fire, a feat surely worthy of at least a throwaway mention in the history books. Salinger wrote a character-driven book, yet when the character at the wheel is one you can't stand to save your life, it's a big ask, even for those with the saintliest of patience and abundance of tolerance, to stay with it for the long haul. Buried somewhere among the goddam's, all-of-a-sudden's, damn-near's, I-really-do's, and more goddam's, with rambling asides and self-important judgments heaped in there for good measure, must be a point. There had to be, or the world was snacking on crazy pills, and being nothing if not stubborn, I was determined to find it. A small mercy, then, that Salinger was thoughtful enough to write us so short a book, which I mightn't have bothered with if it were any longer (joke's on me, as I ended up half-wishing it were). On the face of it, Catcher is nothing more than a meandering, meaningless story about a rich, spoiled, ungrateful, hypocritical, prejudiced, condescending, ignorant, pessimistic, lying, whining ass of a teenage boy whose first-world problems, city wanderings, and abrupt detours down his equally unexciting memory lane are about as thrilling to witness as a snail race. And he wears hats backwards, too, just for the hell of it, not to mention how he recycles phrases enough you'd think whoever coined the term "ad nauseam" predicted we would need it for exactly this occasion. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Catcher's reason for existence, other than to set people to fawning over or seething at the book, appears to be to show how temporary, fragile, and precious childlike innocence is in a world inhospitable to it. When you take into account Salinger's wartime experiences—where he had seen so much messed-up craziness² it's no small wonder the man didn't have more issues than those he already grappled with—it's hard to be angry with Catcher anymore.
Let's leave hindsight aside for now, however, and finally look at Holden Caulfield, whom I've tip-toed around for long enough. Holden is a sad, strange little man. At the time of reading about him, however, not for lack of trying, I couldn't see past his whole shtick, and was far from being in the mood to offer him any pity, considering he seemed content enough to continue wallowing in his own self-pity. Holden's most annoying traits have already been listed somewhere above, but of course, they don't end there. Let me count the ways: he's psychotic, he's irresponsible, he's disrespectful, he's inconsiderate, he's cowardly, and then some. He contemplates calling up an ex-girlfriend in the middle of night and, in case one of her parents picked up the phone, making up a story that he was her uncle calling about her aunt who died in a car accident. To get out of a conversation, he lies about having to leave for a prior appointment, and is surprised and angry (at the people he was trying to avoid, no less) he actually has to leave if he doesn't want to look like an idiot. He makes a mental complaint that people shouldn't keep him waiting so long for coffee if they said "[it was] all ready and it isn't." He's ticked off when you block his reading light, but clueless if he does the same thing to someone else's shaving light. He starts fights and, after quickly getting his ass handed to him, confesses he's a pacifist. There's a lot more, but you get the gist. At face value, Holden was impossible to sympathize with.
Catcher is most enjoyable when Holden is put into a corner and forced by the book's side-characters to confront himself, free from his wishy-washiness, delusions, and contradictions. Holden's teachers try their best to set him straight, and their advice is powerful, yet it's Holden's conversations with Phoebe, his younger sister, that are so satisfying to read because she, whose little-girl act doesn't fool me for a second, doesn't hesitate to call him out on his crap. Along the way, you start to pick up on why Holden is acting the way he does. His home life is not the best. Spoilerific things happened, and he hasn't been quite the same since. That doesn't excuse his behavior, as many other people his age come from equally unpleasant or worse backgrounds than his, and have turned into more or less well-adjusted human beings who don't fantasize about shoving people out of windows or chopping their heads off because they think fist-fights don't gel with their "funny kind of yellowness." Yet another example that paints him in such a lovely light is how he "can even get to hate somebody, just looking at them, if they have cheap suitcases with them." But it's plain here that Holden is far from being right in the head, so it's not fair to judge, let alone mock, him by the standards used for fine and upstanding people who aren't superstitious about red hunting hats or so indecisive they end up carrying around snowballs for no reason.
It took skimming through what other readers made of Catcher for me to see past my qualms and understand what Salinger was going for. Holden's tedious sort-of's don't seem so tedious when you realize it's in Holden's nature to be hesitant and non-confrontational. His perpetual and pretentious hard-on for intelligent conversations, intellectual people, and all other things "intelligent" and "intellectual" is more tragic than insufferable when you see he is overcompensating for having geniuses for siblings. Holden's prejudices, so indefensible now, are not so surprising when you remember when the book was written. The reason Catcher doesn't get a one- or two-star rating from me, when it was a no-brainer from the beginning you couldn't pay me to praise it, has mostly to do with how Salinger ties together the story behind the book's title and the ending, which is so beautifully done I am, believe it or not, looking forward to round three. There's a kind of noble hopelessness to Salinger's hope that children be protected from the world's evils, and the message leaves behind a strong and lingering impression I still can't shake off. At the same time, with how blatant Holden's quirks can constantly be on the pages, and how Salinger bombards you with them, it's easy to see why the book is not for everyone. But if you're a betting man, why, bring along your Catcher copy as a conversation piece to show your date and see if the evening doesn't end in overturned tables, shattered wineglasses, and hand-prints on cheeks.
¹Far more cleverer people than yours humbly need to fess up about what the deal about the ducks was. Yet I also don't want to know. The absurdity of the whole debate in the taxi makes the scene.
²From Salinger's daughter's memoir: "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live."