Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Catcher in The Rye lives...


My son who's almost 14 had to read this book for school and at first told me he hated it, that it wasn't relevant to this time, that the guy, Holden Caulfield, was crazy, also whiny and boring, that he went on and on. Then he reread it, changed his opinion, wrote a longer report than he's done all year and got an A. What happened? Holden doesn't have any media, not a computer, let alone a smartphone. Yet my son found something on rereading he could relate to. I decided to see if I could figure out what, since I have no recall of this book and could use some insight into the male teenage mind.

When first you meet Holden Caulfield, he's resting some unspecified place. His Hollywood brother with the Jaguar will be taking him home in a month. He's telling what happened to him before he got sick and had to rest. He was leaving Pencey, a prep school, and wasn't sorry about it. He shows you why; there's the handsome, unethical roommate, who by coincidence was preparing for a date with a girl Holden likes, the wierdo next door who enters without asking, pimply and argumentative, who Holden pitie, his disgust of the rah-rah athletic ethic and the rich kids, one of whom stole his warm coat and gloves. His life is mostly lousy and full of phonies. He fears his beloved brother, who's making it in Hollywood is becoming one, writing movies, instead of his very good stories. Holden hates movies because they are phony and you believe them. He also hates that he's leaving Pencey because he's failed four subjects and must again disappoint his parents. He's got a long weekend before the Wed he's supposed to be home and money. Holden decides to go back to NYC but not home. He's wants a good time, before seeing his parents. He says goodbye to a professor who is concerned about him, but rather than focusing on what is being said about his behavior, he flees citing the "lousy" appearance of the old guy.

A lot of this book is about Holden Caulfield's flight. He tries to avoid what's going on in his life, again getting kicked out of school, by losing himself in the adult world or trying to. He gets a hotel room and smokes and drinks, not eating much. He takes cabs to a jazz club and tries to pick up women. He's drunk on his way to his room, when a bellhop offers him a girl. He agrees then doesn't know how to deal with her and ends up socked in the stomach. He has a date with Sally, a pretty girl his age, to see a movie with the Lunts but hates the phoniness of the movie and the actors. Holden says the legendary Lunts are the kind of good actors who know they're good so they're not as good. And when Sally runs into a stylish boy from a better prep school and they have an enthusiastic "phony" exchange, Holden is angry with her. It is his date, though he's not really in love with her--or is he? He tells her he is, when he necks with her in a cab, and then calls himself a madman, because he also knows he doesn't like her so much.

This is what the book's about that constant shift from one emotion to another, unsure which is real or authentic, yet having an acute sensitivity to hypocrisy in people, schools, and, unhappily in one's self. Which is what he's avoiding in his cab rides up and downtown. In Central Park, deserted an icy, he tries to see where the ducks go when the pond freezes over. He also contemplates his own death in some pond or freezing in the park. Throughout, he's trying to grasp what might be true. There's his neighbor Jane, the girl his roommate was dating, who he held hands with in an authentic way. There's his other brother, the one who wrote poetry on his baseball mitt, who died a year ago. Holden was so upset, he badly damaged his hand. He feels the loss and thinks there was never anyone so good, smart or talented as this brother. He also keeps coming back to his little sister Phoebe. He is disappointed in almost everyone else. One reason is that he has a hard time reconciling good and bad sides of people. There's his former teacher, a family friend, who's married in NYC and has helped Holden in the past. He goes to his apartment in the middle of the night, thinking to stay there until Wed, but when the guy touches his head in a way that seems "Flit" meaning gay to him, Holden again flees. He can't stomach ambiguity and literally has nausea and pain in his stomach. He spends the night in Grand Central station, not caring of his bag checked days before.

Phoebe is the one person he knows loves him unconditionally, She "kills me" meaning she makes him laugh. She's also innocent--something he feels he's lost. Phoebe believes in him and he respects her, though she's eleven. In those days before Wednesday, Holden gets no sleep, gets sicker on more alcohol and cigarettes and spends all his money. He sneaks into his parents' apartment and asks Phoebe for money, ashamed he's doing i. Hhe gives her his red wool hunting hat and is shamed, towards the end of the novel, when she puts it on him. Her way of showing she knows he needs to be taken care of. He's told her he's not going home but will go out West. He will hitch through the Holland Tunnel and make it to cowboy country or pump gas.

When he meets his sister at Museum of Natural History to return her eight dollars, she says she's going with him. He gets the horror of her not going back to school. Facing his own failure, Holden finally goes back home. All sense of time and place are dissolved. He comes back to it in the rest place. My son said he's in a mental hospital. Might be a sanitorium, but you get the idea what's been happening isn't as simple as a mental breakdown. It's more about a person without their inner compass. He can't, as he explains, make a point without digressing, that digressions are what's interesting--not setting a target and getting there. Holden is a lost soul. But you get the idea, once he figures out what's the point of life, he'll be able to get somewhere. Whether he will or not, is the question. As he tells the psychologist, who asks whether he'll be able to apply himself at school; how do you know until you're there?

And to me this is the point of the book. Being lost and maybe finding out what's got meaning is the eternal quest--and not just for adolescents. One of Holden's well wishers says scholars do better than creative types, because they have more to hold onto. Holden does well in English but language isn't enough. He has to find out what's good and true. The catcher in the Rye, is from a song about kids playing in a field of Rye. He has a dream where he catches them so they don't fall over the cliff. In this he knows he must somehow save himself. Salinger's like a shrink who uses the poetry of the soul to diagnose his tortured adolescent. And you get the idea Holden will pick himself up and try again with truer aim. What else is an adolescent's journey? Or anyone starting over in life. My son didn't say why he liked it better the second time, he just did, This stays on the classics list for me. Glad I read it again, as a grown up

S.W.