The protagonist is 16 year old Holden Caulfield, who's just been expelled from his latest school for poor performance. He's not dumb though, he's just not interested. Still suffering from the effects of his brother Allie's death and in a state of... I guess you could call it depression, he leaves school early and wanders around New York like a self-professed 'madman' for a couple of days before returning home to face the music.
When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down that goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, "Sleep tight, ya morons!" I'll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck. (Chapter 7)
I never noticed before just how funny the book is. It's really a riot and I could barely stop myself chuckling out loud on the bus.
I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can. (Chapter 10)
Salinger writes in one of the strongest narrative voices I've ever read. It's completely absorbing and sucks you right into the character of Holden, whether you like him or not (many find him annoying). He's lonely and isolated and horny and angsty and all the things you could expect of a 16 year old, just more heightened. He's at the bottom end of a downward spiral which comes crashing down at the end of his 48 hours of wandering.
There's an underlying tone of tragedy beneath it all, and through his erratic behaviour we sense an impending doom. A review published in 1951, when the book was still fresh, said:
It’s a sort of lost week end; it’s a boy who can’t go home again; he belongs to a lost generation and lives in a world he never made.... but besides that, and despite your hoots of laughter at Holden’s indomitable speech, this is in essence the tragic story of a problem child, unless indeed it’s an indictment of a problem world. Month in, month out, novels don’t come much better. (source)
Rather than it being an indictment of a problem world, I would suggest that it's just a tale of someone trying to find their place in one. It would explain why so many people are drawn to it, and why others identify themselves with it. It offers no solutions but beautifully captures the troubled thoughts of someone navigating their way.
From my current perspective, I think the breakdown was the obvious conclusion to his not having dealt with Allie's death and possibly even the sexual abuse that he hints at ('perverty stuff' has happened to him around 20 times). When he hits rock bottom, we find that he's telling his story from a psychiatric hospital, possibly the best thing that could've happened to him. Although the novel ends on a bittersweet note, we feel that he is on the way to healing.
A note on the title
I love how the title is explained in the book. Although other members of my book club didn't have patience for Holden, I have a soft spot for him because he has such a tender heart.
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. (Chapter 22)
A note on the author
What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. (Chapter 3)
I found this bit quite ironic because although I don't know much about JD Salinger, I do know that he was a recluse. Actually, that's probably why I don't know much about him.
In all honesty though, I probably wouldn't call him up to talk about The Catcher in the Rye because I'd be intimated by his genius.