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Scourge of Phonies

The teenage perspective of J. D. Salinger, 1919-2010.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Driving home from work one night last week, I heard somebody on the radio talking about The Catcher in the Rye. I guessed—correctly as it turned out—that the author had died. What I couldn’t remember, momentarily, was whether his name was J. D. Salinger or Holden Caulfield. 

Like millions of other adolescents, I was obliged to read Salinger’s famous novel at precisely the age it might have done the most harm: 16. Fortunately, I hated it. I didn’t know why I hated it, exactly. Partly it had to do with the sort of boys (it was only boys) who liked it. One or two of them, as I remember, had some high-minded critical reasons to argue for its greatness. Of course, they wouldn’t have used an unironic term such as “great” to describe any book, especially one that had been assigned to them in an English class; but it was apparent The Catcher in the Rye had moved them in some way. 

At the time, I assumed its appeal was based mainly on the fact that Holden Caulfield—the aimless and alienated narrator who escapes from boarding school and wanders the streets of Manhattan for several nights—used words such as “knockers” and “goddam” and drank and smoked himself into a daze. There was something thrilling about being told to read such a book for a class. 

But there was more to its appeal than that. Even I admitted that it was funny, and when you’re a 16-year-old boy, funniness is everything. “All of a sudden, I did something I shouldn’t have,” Holden says at one point, in the middle of a fight with a girlfriend. “I laughed. And I have one of those very loud, stupid laughs. I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I’d probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.”

Holden’s is a kind of foursquare humor, but when I read the book again last weekend, I found myself laughing at the same lines. And there’s something perceptive about it, too—perceptive in some clumsy, unclever way that grabs your attention. “It’s a funny thing about girls,” says Holden. “Every time you mention some guy that’s strictly a bastard—very mean, or very conceited and all—and when you mention it to the girl, she’ll tell you he has an inferiority complex. Maybe he has, but that still doesn’t keep him from being a bastard, in my opinion.”

There’s something impressive, too, in Salinger’s ability to mimic the sound of a teenaged boy’s language. Everything is exaggerated with random numbers: People tell him things “about eighty-five times,” a play is “about five hundred thousand years in the life of one old couple.” He restates his own insignificant observations, and even if they’re plainly false or exaggerated, he declares: “I’m not kidding.” He uses profanity precisely where it doesn’t belong. The narrative is soaked with bad grammar and the stupid verbiage of youth culture (“I like Jesus and all. .  .  . It depressed the holy hell out of me .  .  . she’s always very well-dressed and has lipstick on and all that crap”). 

As a mimic, Salinger was Ring Lardner’s equal. The sound and texture of Holden Caulfield’s meandering narrative comes as close to the real thing as it’s possible to come. That’s what gives the book its power over the minds of emotionally raw young people. To say that The Catcher in the Rye is a powerful book, however, isn’t to say that it’s a good one. As it is commonly read and taught, anyhow, it’s actually a thoroughly bad one.

By calling it “bad” I don’t mean that it confirms teenaged boys in their self-absorption and moral laziness—although there’s a pretty good argument to be made that it does. High-school English teachers assign Catcher because it “speaks” to young people, or because they “connect” with it. That’s true; it does and they do—sometimes. But one suspects that it’s not the kind of “connection” these teachers intend, or ought to intend. 

Writes Ian Hamilton, in his splendid book about Salinger: 

I remember that for many months after reading The Catcher at the age of seventeen I went around being Holden Caulfield. I carried his book everywhere with me as a kind of talisman. It seemed to me funnier, more touching, and more right about the way things were than anything else I’d ever read. .  .  . The Catcher was the book that taught me what I ought already to have known: that literature can speak for you, not just to you. .  .  . It was something of a setback when I eventually found out that I was perhaps the millionth adolescent to have felt this way.

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