Greatest Modern Reads: 'The Catcher in the Rye'

('The Times')
2009

First loves, first sights, are famously hard to beat. 'Til now, my favourite sportsman is the early 20th century Australian batsman Victor Trumper, not least because his was the first sports biography I ever read. The bands I began listening to when I first got beyond 'pop' music, The Velvet Underground and others, remain very dear. And, as with cricket and music, so with the other matter that has dominated my headspace - literature.

I first came across The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13. One of my older brothers was studying the book for his English 'O' Level and a copy of it was lying about the house. At the time I was under a gruelling regime, courtesy of my father, that had me reading a different Dickens novel every fortnight and then giving him an oral report on it whilst he ate his Sunday lunch. I wasn't the biggest fan of those nineteenth century tomes, with their too-linear births-marriage-deaths progressions, so you can imagine the joy I felt when I picked up this book one day and read those opening lines: ' 'If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap...'

Ah, how to start about this wonder? I had read quite a few good books even then, but this was the first 'adult' book I'd read that I desperately wished I'd written. It has, in spades, the three things I cherish most as a reader and aspire to most often, technically, as a writer: (strong) voice, particularity, and a nice, easy, natural-feeling flow. And there was also what might be the narcissistic necessity: I don't believe I've ever read, before or since, a character for whom I felt such affinity.

Its story is swiftly told. Protagonist Holden Caulfield is a sensitive, scornful, self-destructive, off-centre, caring, sweet soul, on the cusp of adulthood, falling in a world thick with someway irritating, or downright 'phony' straights - types better equipped to successfully negotiate these societies of ours. After being thrown out of his prep (read: public) school he stumbles around in his home city of New York for a couple of days before ending up in some kind of mental hospital. Yes, your now-common teenage angst, to some degree, but no-one has nailed it like this.

It is so sharply observed and, best of all, hilarious. Just flicking through the book now, I am chuckling, really chuckling, over and over again. It is also, in a low key kind of way, wise. In one of the book's key scenes, his former, favourite teacher, Mr Antolini, probably the only one who could 'save' him, warns Holden that he is heading, now or later, for a fall and quotes the psychoalnalyst Wilhelm Stekel: 'The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.'

Shrink or no shrink, we all become more familiar with our patterns as we get older. I've grown to notice that my preferred story pattern - most movingly executed, as it happens, in another of my top ten novels - Joseph Conrad's'Victory' - is one we'd now call noir: a world weary, semi-detached hero, bright and disappointed enough to know better, gets sucked into the thick of things once more, usually on behalf or because of a woman, only to meet his doom. Salinger's 'Catcher' is not noir, but Holden is as world weary as they come, yearning for something good and true to live by; there's a certain noiry sentimentalising, even fetishising, going on in his attitudes to women and innocents and, percolating though all, the sweet smell of doom.
 


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