This is, notoriously, the novel-of-choice for Americans who take assault-rifles into High Schools or stalk celebrities with homicidal intent. That doesn’t make it intrinsically bad. The problem seems to be that the narrator, Holden Caulfield, is the prototypical angsty teenage outsider who condemns everyone who isn’t as full-on as him as frauds and phoneys. By our standards he’s very comfortably-off and hasn’t any genuine problems that aren’t of his own making. He is a compelling narrative voice but lacks the insight to spot that he’s just as bad as the people who are, as he puts it, ‘screwed up’ (this book is credited with popularising that phrase). This is lost on precisely the kind of reader who identifies wholly with Holden.
By the end of the book Holden’s not really changed, just decided to act differently because he misses the people who gave him a hard time. He hasn’t learned anything, or developed as a character. To read his account straight is to assume that Salinger identified completely with his creation. There’s strong evidence that he did at the time but after around 1960 he went all Pynchon on us so we only have conflicting accounts. That silence has fed into the mystique of the book and it’s oddly disconcerting to read it (or read it again as an adult) with all this halo and hype. He wrote better novels after this, especially his stories of the Glass family, and authors from Goethe through Flaubert to Joyce have had the Neurotic Boy Outsider™ as the critic of social mores and stifling convention. These cliches don’t start here (see also Nausea, or Hamlet by local author William Shakespeare) but this novel put them in a handy, portable form.
It’s been massively influential on a whole sub-genre of teenage alienation-lit and films as apparently diverse as The Breakfast Club and Donnie Darko. In that regard, it’s hard to see why anyone thought it was part of a Communist plot to overthrow America, but they did. It’s also very clearly a product of its time. You can spot which films Holden watches and pick out the period slang with the aid of a cottage-industry of guidebooks. More to the point, it has a very nineteenth-century idea of childhood as a state of angelic innocence that needs to be preserved. Holden thinks of this as his job, which is where the title comes from. That idea of restoration of lost innocence, or preservation of it in a new generation, was especially popular just after World War II. It’s still worth a look, just as Lewis Carroll’s effort to stave off ‘corruption’ of childhood is still a must-read, it just isn’t as ground-breaking now as it seemed then and seems to be preserved in aspic.
Robert Jordan, from For Whom the Bell Tolls, is plausibly Holden a few years on. There have been lots of unofficial sequels or partial rewrites but the best is a novel from fifteen years earlier by Salinger’s first champion.
By Tat Wood