Saturday, 20 March 2010

Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951)

Imagine taking up residence inside the turbulent head of a teenager.

In The Catcher in the Rye, reclusive author J.D. Salinger takes us on a compelling journey into the mind of Holden Caulfield, a teenager about to drop out from yet another high school. Caulfield guides us through a series of encounters as he quits his school in Pennsylvania and journeys back to his home in New York.

Although the entire book takes place over no more than four days, it is a rich and exhausting journey. The book is primarily a vehicle for Caulfield to provide his impressions of the people who populate his life, and through those descriptions, the struggles of a teenager awkwardly attempting to make the transition to adulthood are crystallized.

Caulfield describes his interaction with current and former roommates, current and former classmates, current and former teachers, a group of nuns, a prostitute and her pimp, party girls, a date, a girl he had a crush on, and finally, his younger sister. There are numerous colourful secondary characters, and Caulfield wastes no opportunity to provide his opinion on everyone and anyone that he marginally interacts with.

There is enough going on in Caulfield's mind to fill several thick psychiatric volumes. Clearly depressed, dismissive and quick to express hate, anger and frustration, not to mention an outright liar (often very humorously so), he also displays remarkable maturity, tenderness, caring, sensitivity and self-awareness. Caulfield's complex personality is a rich treasure in which readers will find a lot to admire, love, hate, and identify with, and this is what has made this book a timeless classic.

Written in the first person as an almost uninterrupted narrative, the blunt language must have been shocking at the time of publication. Although the shock is long gone, today the book's language is both descriptive and wildly entertaining.

Peppering Caulfield's language with quick, desperate repetition as a method of emphasis, and a strong tendency to generalize and stereotype as only teenagers can, Salinger comes up with some brilliant, cutting and funny prose. It is genuinely difficult to put the book down, and once Holden Caulfield enters the life of the reader, he never really leaves.

After a touching encounter between Caulfield and his 10-year old sister, The Catcher in the Rye ends with a understated sting in the tale that tangentially hints at where and why Caulfield is recounting his story. It is a fitting ending to a most complex and stimulating book.

Published in softcover by Little, Brown.
214 pages.

Ace Black Book Review No. 34.
The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

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