Holden Caulfield, the seventeen year old narrator of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, remains one of the most memorable voices in fiction. It's the voice that grabs you and keeps you in Holden's world as he stumbles through 3½ days of Candide-like adventures in his hometown of New York City, trying to avoid going home where he will have to tell his parents he's been kicked out of school.
Salinger shows us Holden's world little by little, gradually revealing his character and history through seemingly random digressions in the nonstop, internal Caulfield dialogue. His familiarity with New York's hotels, bars and clubs reveals a sophistication unusual for a sixteen-year-old boy. His knowledge of life's finer things--Gladstone suitcases, well-made suits, what time of year to drink a Tom Collins--tells us he comes from wealth, privilege and convention.
That convention has been upset, however, by the death of Holden's brother Allie from leukaemia. Holden tells us several times that his mother is still not quite right. Eventually we come to realize that no one in the family is quite right after Allie's death, especially Holden.
The reader remains inside Holden's head as he constantly evaluates and re-evaluates his own and everyone else's behavior, a nonstop commentary on the phoniness that seems to mark adult life, and his own inability to anchor himself in the world. He tries to connect, and desperately wants connection. His thoughts return throughout the book to a real friend, Jane Gallagher, but he keeps finding reasons not to call her. Instead, he calls half-friends with whom he has a pseudo-connection, and who reinforce his view that the world is full of fakes. This terrible worldview has become a comfort zone.
Salinger turns the story when Holden visits his younger sister Phoebe in the family apartment, after being out in Central Park all night. Through her eyes we suddenly understand how depressed he is. She knows immediately that he's been kicked out of school, and when he tries to explain how awful it was, responds with "you don't like anything that's happening." Desperately trying to rebut this, he finally says "I like Allie." "Allie's dead," she responds.
"I know he's dead! Don't you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can't I? Just because somebody's dead, you don't just stop liking them, for God's sake-- especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that're alive and all."
Suddenly we understand how much grief Holden is carrying, and how that grief has catapulted him into a different world, a world where there is no space for anything phony. Holden is flailing around, trying to re-engage with life, but suffering from an acute sense that whatever you attach yourself to can be taken away. "I never seem to have anything that if I lost it I'd care too much." The most important thing is already gone.
The Catcher in the Rye was both adored and reviled on initial publication. Readers and reviewers immediately took to the sharp, original voice, while detractors took aim at Holden's swearing, sexual frankness and openly sacrilegious views. Modern reviewers tend to dismiss the book as sentimental. But as a witty satire on the conventions of adult life, and a portrait of a sensitive adolescent intelligence undone by grief, the book remains as relevant and beautiful as ever.
New York Times, July 16, 1951 Original review
Succinct, comic-book version of The Catcher in the Rye.
Heartfelt fan site of the book.