I don't recall how I first got my hands on my copy of The Catcher in the Rye, although it must have been a long time ago, as it's priced at only 75 cents and has some other kid's name scrawled on the title page ("Grade 10D - Stratford Central Secondary"). I do remember, however, how different it felt. It started with the cover: the devil's red and yellow print. The absence of any illustration promised the unspeakable, the unsketchable, the sexy. And though there was more outright sex in the copies of Judy Blume that circulated in the classrooms of my youth (the dirty bits helpfully underlined), The Catcher in the Rye was far more explosive stuff. It was, for us, not just a good novel. It was the Angry Young Man's Bible.
What stays with me from The Catcher in the Rye aren't the events of the story, not even its often-imitated prose style (trust me when I say you can't teach a writing course today without finding at least one student trying to "do" Holden), but the sour consciousness of its protagonist, its prep school god of gloom.
Holden Caulfield is the American Hamlet: a troubled maybe-genius haunted not by his father's ghost, but by the ghouls of phoniness, the posturing culture of self-aggrandizement that, at the time when Salinger was writing his novel, was only just beginning to come into fully realized hideousness.
I often wonder, when pondering an inexplicably popular chunk of baloney like American Idol or The Bachelor: what would Holden think? Then again, what would Holden think of what "Holden Caulfield" has become? How would he handle leaping from the (in my edition's case) booger-stained and squashed-mosquito pages to discover that, 60 years after his fictional birth, he has become a lasting mythic figure of modern literature, the ultimate proto-emo sulker, a star?
Such knowledge would kill him, most likely, as surely as it forced his creator into self-imposed exile so that he might avoid "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" as served up by the likes of People and In Touch, and live on to be just a strange old man, allergic to fame, a writer writing only for himself.
And now Holden Caulfield's dad is dead.
While this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone (J.D. Salinger was a very old man, after all), it felt to many of us that he would stay hidden away forever, refusing to explain his influential work or accept honorary degrees or show up on Oprah. Silence, yes. Death? For a man who avoided attention and its attendant sentiments for over half his life, even a quiet exit by natural causes seemed a tad melodramatic.
These thoughts aren't wholly my thoughts, however. My perspective - a 41-year-old man who has often felt misunderstood, an outsider, the only reliable b.s.-detector in his area code - is a perspective foundationally shaped, as it has been shaped by literally tens of millions like me, by Mr. Salinger's masterwork. Is The Catcher in the Rye a technically flawless work of literature? No. But it doesn't need to be. Catcher has more than J.D. back in the engine room going for it. It has Holden.
The Catcher in the Rye is one of those rare works of art whose influence reaches beyond those who have actually read it or even heard of it. Among the more notable works caught in its backdraft, there could be no On the Road, no Less Than Zero (nor, more locally, A Complicated Kindness) without The Catcher in the Rye. And there could be no James Dean - nor, more importantly, the generations who worked so hard to be James Dean - without Holden Caulfield.
But The Catcher in the Rye extends past the literary to become an illicit elixir poured into the punch that even the most goody-two-shoes kids ended up drinking. The resulting intoxication helped change the mood of a generation, shifting it from glee club sunshine to lone wolf sulks. More, it set an entire culture off on searches for a beast as maddeningly elusive as Nessie or Bigfoot: the authentic.
"It's funny," Holden observes at the end of The Catcher in the Rye. "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."
I have returned to these lines almost as often as those of Joyce's The Dead, and though the former isn't nearly as poetic as the latter, it offers the value of practical advice. Because it's true, isn't it? You tell yourself the story of yourself and no matter how alive you might feel, it's like you're looking back from outside of time, already a ghost.
I'll miss you, Mr. Salinger. And I'll miss knowing you were hanging on in your modest house in the woods outside Cornish, New Hampshire, shooing off weird fans and writing away (or so you've hinted), avoiding the phonies by not publishing a word of it. You were a wonderful writer, but an even better recluse.
The good news is that we won't have to miss Holden Caulfield, because he's still with us. As long as there are teenagers who believe they are the first set of ears and eyes alert to the hypocrisies of this world - forever, in other words - you will be here, our rebel without a cause, our poor little rich boy. Our Hamlet.
Andrew Pyper is the author of four novels, including Lost Girls, The Wildfire Season and, most recently, The Killing Circle.
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