It has now been a couple weeks since reclusive author J.D. Salinger died. Despite the fact that this space is meant for pop culture commentary—and that Salinger was a pop giant not solely for the literary gifts he gave to the world, but for his unwillingness to give himself to the public eye – I have avoided spending much ink on the 91-year old who died in New Hampshire on 27 January.
Salinger’s death wasn’t tragic; he lived a long life on his own terms, and the world got more than it deserved out of the man with a few celebrated works. So I’ve avoided saying much about J.D. (whose internal monologue I fantasize was much like Zach Braff’s on Scrubs) because, at best, I figured far more skilled writers would say all there is to say about the author. At worst, I feared I’d be reduced to making lame jokes about Salinger recommending his awful publicist to Thomas Pynchon—although Pynchon has been nearly ubiquitous since his The Simpsons appearance a few years back.
Having lived through The Catcher in the Rye every year of high school and once in college, with the author’s passing in mind I wanted to revisit a book I had difficulty getting into in my younger years. To my surprise, I discovered I do have something to say after re-reading the prototypical teenage experience, coming-of-age story: The Catcher in the Rye is a great novel, but I don’t think it’s any good.
In this book, Salinger gave voice to the angst of what it is like to be a teen, and although he never allowed the novel to be adapted to film, protagonist Holden Caulfield is in the DNA of every overwrought, rebellious adolescent character in the movies from Rebel Without a Cause on through to Rushmore and Igby Goes Down. The character is so synonymous with alienation and rebellion that I’ve always felt it was a missed marketing opportunity to not release a clothing line of ripped jeans called Holdens.
The Holdens, alas never fit me.
Catcher in the Rye didn’t connect with my teenage life any more than The Old Man and the Sea parallels my fishing experiences. My teenage bag was surely full of heartache and frustrations, but I was never an alienated outsider or “one-man wolf pack”, to quote Alan from The Hangover. I operated within an acceptable level of popularity, and was a dorky kid who enjoyed school and was fairly active in many clubs. I didn’t run away or awkwardly (or even smoothly) interact with hookers. Even the worst arguments with my parents didn’t lead to me distrusting them. Mischief and adventure were my mild forms of rebellion, but I never blew up anything I still wouldn’t choose to blow up now.
Probably as a result of being a goofy fanboy who collected comics, and spent Friday nights at the movies or at friends’ homes—not drinking most of the time—and having an overprotective mom and a hardworking dad, reasonably flawed as parents but dedicated and caring, I had a pretty uneventful adolescence wherein I had no reason revolt.
Yet Catcher in the Rye was always the book presented to me as the thing I should relate to. Unlike Huck Finn or Scout Finch—both characters I love but was never forced to see myself in—I got the feeling some teachers were assigning Holden’s tale not just as an important piece of American literature, but as a way of saying, “Holden is you, and I’m hip, I’m cool; I get you.”
When I fancied myself as Brodie (or even T.S.) from Mallrats or more as a Ferris Bueller type than the brain, athlete, basket case, princess or criminal combined from The Breakfast Club, it was hard for me as a teen to get caught up in the alienation of Holden Caulfield.
The book was like a decent blind date. After being told how much I’d like it, it could never really live up to the hype. No matter how much I appreciated the time spent with it, it just wasn’t meant for me—but we remain cordial. Of course, one needn’t see themselves in a work of popular culture in order to love it, but when that is the mandated result, it can’t help but fall flat.
I value Salinger’s story about a screwed up kid who has noble dreams but who is really just an unreliable, unlikable punk with an A.D.D. narrative style. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an important piece of American literary history, and it’s a great work. But for a kid who was told to love it and relate to Holden Caulfield, I’d feel like a phony if I said I thought it was any good.