Ted Obvious writes from New York: I have a confession to make – I don’t like some of the books that are considered by many people to be eternal classics. I’ve tried to like them, I’ve read them and re-read them, but they still don’t appeal to me. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is with me: if I don’t like the characters, the plot, the main idea and what the author stands for generally, then I simply say, ‘I don’t like this crap.’
Why should I accept this or that book just because it is considered a classic? What would be the point of me pretending? That is why today I am going against the tide and saying loud and clear that I’ve never liked J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye and I don’t understand what the fuss is all about. I even suspect that most people just go with flow and praise this mediocre book because they either haven’t read it at all or are afraid to speak their mind. And then there are the stupid hacks who say things that they think make them look cool. Like one of them writing some time ago: ‘If I had to choose one book that I would have given my soul to have written it would be Catcher.’ Yeah, sure, and you probably like The Great Gatsby and think that Picasso was the biggest name in art. Get a life!
Anyway, I don’t consider ‘The Catcher’, as it is known among its die hard fans, to be a good book. In fact, I think it’s badly written and is not at all suitable for teenagers. Normal teenagers, that is. Yes, that’s how I feel about it. I didn’t like the book very much when I’d read it many years ago and I sure didn’t like it when I re-read it again, recently – to check whether my initial impression had been right the first time round.
For those of you, who have forgotten what the book is about, I’ll try to refresh your memories: 16-year old Holden Caulfield is kicked out of his boarding school before the Christmas break for failing his exams. Holden is not exactly keen at the prospect of meeting his parents, having been already expelled from two other schools. (Some rebel, eh?) So he decides to postpone the encounter, especially as his parents who live in New York would not find out about his expulsion for several days at least anyway. So young Holden travels to New York, incognito, leaves his baggage in the locker at a railway station and checks into a hotel. He then goes clubbing, tries to get laid and fails, goes on a date which ends in disaster and manages to get into his flat at night for a chat with his little sister, Phoebe. He then goes on a drinking binge, suffers a mental breakdown and is placed in a psychiatric clinic. Curtain falls, the end.
This is the plot of the book. Of course, as the story is told by Holden himself there are loads of flashbacks and reminiscences of people whom he’d met in the past. Not to mention the many observations of life and events that Holden makes. And that is where the problem arises for me, because Holden very often sounds not like a teenager but like a grown man, a dirty old man at times, and tries to appear original while not being original at all.
And then there’s this dream that Holden has of being the catcher in the rye. The idea originates from his mistaken belief that a rhyme in Robert Burns’ poem goes, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye.’ Not ‘meet’, you see, but ‘catch’. And young Holden, being original and all, wants to be exactly that – the catcher in the rye. As he explains to his sister Phoebe, he imagines thousands of small unattended children playing in a field of rye while he stands on the edge of a cliff to catch them, before they might fall to their deaths. And that, he tells his little sis, is what he really wants to do for the rest of his life – be the catcher in the rye.
I don’t know about you, but that sort of politically correct crap doesn’t really impress me much. It’s a case of trying to sound original for the sake of sounding original. You sort of suggest something meaningless and stupid and then pretend that it’s all extremely original, because no one else had thought of it before. (Strange that he didn’t mention that he wanted to catch black and Asian kids mostly, the PC freak.)
But it just does not work for me. It is plain daft. It’s the sort of thing that Bob Dylan could have come up with when he was on dope. And now that I think about it, I’m actually starting to realise that The Catcher In The Rye is a druggy sort of book. Sure, there are no drugs in it as drugs per say, but it still has a druggy feel to it. You know, Holden talking complete nonsense most of the time, and not being able to concentrate on anything, and jumping from one subject to another, and slowly approaching that point of mental breakdown.
Hmm, I think I now begin to understand why this book has been so heavily promoted by all those bohemian characters.
It is cleverly written – I won’t take it away from J.D.Salinger, because what he does is he picks the subjects that are guaranteed to get young people hooked – girls, booze, sex – and weaves his web of words around them, making his main character, Holden, a bit of cynic, a bit of a rebel, a bit of foulmouthed know-it-all cool dude. And it all sort of holds the book together even though the story line sucks big time, and for an impressionable reader it might even seem like a story with a substance in it.
As I’ve already mentioned, you constantly feel that the book is written by a grown man pretending to be a youngster. And in way it is rather creepy, to be honest. You know, like when you hear about those perverts, who pretend to be teenagers on the Internet to groom their victims.
And here you have a teenager, who is supposed to be still naive in many ways, and yet, time and time again he thinks and behaves like a grown man. And, of course, it’s quite annoying to hear Holden using ‘goddam’ in every other phrase. Sure, there has to be a rebellious streak in him, but I found that I wanted to say to Salinger on more than one occasion: ‘Hey, Jerome, please, cut it out. We got the message. Please, spare us this “goddam” stuff. Don’t be like a bloody scriptwriter for the Sopranos.’
But I think that the biggest problem with Holden Caulfield is that he is actually quite a nasty and unappealing character. He doesn’t really like anyone, he gets easily excited over irrelevant things and he thinks that he’s original when original he ain’t.
And I’ll tell you something else that just isn’t right about The Catcher In The Rye: I think that when Salinger was writing it, he would occasionally stop and say to himself, ‘Right, I need to introduce something here that would make Holden look a bit more appealing. Because he does come across as a piece of shit.’
And so Salinger would introduce a dead brother, Allie, a kind, loveable boy, intelligent and caring, so that Holden would reminisce about the good old days that they had spent together, and all of a sudden he would not look all that bad after all. And, naturally, throughout the book Allie’s image would come up, time after time, and on each occasion we’d be expected to warm up to Holden because he still had fond memories of his dead brother.
But a dead brother is a dead brother, so there had to be someone wonderful, whom Holden could love and worship in his present life. So in came his little sister, Phoebe, the one whom Holden tells about his dream of becoming the catcher in the rye.
Boy oh boy is she nice, that Phoebe: caring, understanding, loving, intelligent, pretty and kind. The lot. And Holden thinks of her all the time and wants to call her and ‘chew the fat’ with her. And it becomes really sloppy and weepy at times, and we sort of have to love Holden for loving his sister, forgiving him for being an indifferent and self-centred prick that he is.
No, honestly, Phoebe is just too good to be a real person. She should have been dead, like Holden’s brother, Allie, and then it would have been easier to accept her as a real human being. Because it is always like that with dead people – we remember the good things about them and omit the bad. Or do not remember them at all.
Sorry, but I don’t like The Catcher In The Rye. And I think that it was a very bad idea to make it required reading in schools. There’s nothing worthwhile in it that a teenager can pick up. Nothing at all.
Classic literature it ain’t, that’s for sure.
– End –