J.D. Salinger’s death in January prompted me to take another look at The Catcher in the Rye. It strikes me that the book’s been overrated in some ways and underrated in others. Readers, male readers particularly, encounter it during adolescence and find it speaks to their sense of alienation. A couple of the obituaries I read in the American press seemed to have been written from that same space.
I didn’t read the book until I taught it in my twenties. I found the narrative voice exhilarating and funny, was moved by Holden Caulfield’s predicament, but didn’t identify with him. I’d come to it too late to endorse his exclusive claim on authenticity. Maybe he’s right, that he’s surrounded by phonies, but he’s far too insecure and demoralized to get anywhere close to offering an alternative vision.
The novel was infamously cited as an inspiration by John Lennon's killer. Boy, did he ever miss the point! Someone should have told him that Caulfield is an unreliable narrator. In telling his own story he buries the lead, because he hasn’t enough perspective to know what the lead is. He’s not morally deranged like Humbert Humbert obsessing over Lolita, nor as disabled as Christopher struggling to make sense of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. But his view of people is significantly distorted by his own pain.
I see it more as a satire on the teenage sensibility than a celebration of it. I'm not sure, though, that Salinger would have agreed.