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The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger I was between "liked it" and "really liked it" on this, so I went ahead and erred on the side of enthusiasm.

Two things were striking to me, this time around. First, this is a *very* different book to a woman in her forties than it was to a teenager. Oddly, in some ways I felt I could relate to it more now. This passage, for instance:

"I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell -- I don't know why exactly."

That's the sort of weird moment I have all the time. Not that I do a lot of hanging out with prostitutes, mind you. Those days are long over. But the point is, I tend to make odd connections and think strange little thoughts like that.

However, one thing I *wasn't* in a position to evaluate as a young and very dense reader was how whiny Holden can come across as. I love the scene where his younger sister Phoebe calls him out on this:

"You don't like *any*thing that's happening."
It made me even more depressed when she said that.
"Yes I do. Yes I do. *Sure* I do. Don't say that. Why the hell do you say that?"
"Because you don't. You don't like any schools. You don't like a million things. You *don't.*"

By this point in the book, it feels pretty true. Holden's observations can be funny and canny and even just beautiful, but past a certain point, it's hard not to want to say, "Yes, okay, you're special and unique and a darned adorable snowflake. Now: enough with the rich-kid angst, already!" Which is not the kind of thing I would have thought as a teenager, because I was too busy being full of angst. Okay, and trying to survive being a *real* runaway, which is rather different from fantasizing. Especially if you're female and broke rather than male and privileged. But I digress.

The other reason this was such a different read several decades since the last time was that the last time I read "Catcher," I hadn't just seen the trailer for a documentary about Salinger. I certainly wasn't aware that several men who adored "Catcher" had committed assassinations, or attempted assassinations. But that was almost all I could think about when I read it this time.

And let me tell you -- reading "Catcher" while keeping a close eye out for the kind of weirdness a certain kind of crazy might latch onto is a very disturbing experience. Please note that even if I weren't attempting to write for a living myself, I would have very little patience with the idea of a work of art being hauled into court (a court of opinion, at least, if not of law) as both motive and weapon. And even if a book were written and published with the express intention of prompting citizens to take lives, responsibility for resulting action falls on those who commit murder.

That said? Reading "Catcher" with all this in mind freaked me out. Because this really is a story of madness. Holden isn't some sweet, strange little puppy who's too sensitive for this cruel world. He is exactly what he frequently, jokingly refers to himself as: a madman. He refers quite lightly to shooting people. He has frequent fantasies of bloody violence, committed against both himself and others. He cares very little for most other people, calculating only what he can get from them. He seeks out boys and men he despises simply because he's lonely or bored or needs somewhere to go. He avoids the one admirable girl he knows, making moves on physically attractive but hateable women instead. (But who does he despise most of all? "Phonies.") Even when something makes him laugh, how does Holden describe it? Does he ever say something is funny or amusing? No. "That kills me." "That just about killed me." He really is murder or suicide, or both, waiting to happen.

So why don't I hate this book?

Well, it's brilliant.

Also, I really *do* relate to some of the gems of perspective Holden has to offer. When his roommate asks him to write a composition for him, he cautions Holden not to write it *too* well, or the teacher will catch on. "So I mean don't stick all the commas and stuff in the right place."

Hoo, boy -- Holden starts railing on that, and brother he was preaching to the *choir.* People really *do* denigrate writing talent by boiling it down to the comparatively trivial details. People do that with *everything.* For instance: I worked for years with kids -- as a babysitter, nanny, teacher's assistant, tutor, and the dismissively named position of "program aide" in a home for severely disabled children, where I did everything from occupational therapy to stomach-tube feedings. I worked my arse off, is what I'm saying.

And then one day my older sister, who was an actress at the time, talked about some after-school work she was doing with a fourth-grade class, and how she was having a hard time communicating with the children. "I just don't have that magic *thing* you have with kids," she said.

Great. Here *I* thought it was a combination of backbreaking labor, constant application, studying, figuring out what worked and throwing out what didn't, and praying for patience when I was fresh out. Turns out, I shouldn't have tried so hard! I could have just fallen back on my magic thing!

Anyway. Reading this book again after so many years was a strange, often dark but ultimately beautiful journey. My friends who admire Salinger tell me this is *not* his best work, so I have "Franny and Zooey" lined up next.