J.D. Salinger's, The Catcher in the Rye, is one of my favorite books of all time. Now, perhaps I'm just being difficult, but the main character, Holden Caulfield, is one of my least favorite characters-ever. Don't get me wrong. He's a great (if unreliable) story teller. The viewpoint Salinger chose to write from (first person from Holden's point-of-view) really couldn't have been done any other way to tell the story. But, if I'd ever met him (and if he were real), I don't think I would have liked Holden Caulfield.
From the very beginning, Holden tells you he's being treated at a mental health facility in California-a long way from home. (His parents and little sister, Phoebe, live in New York). His California connection is his older brother, B.D., who moved there some years ago and "prostituted" himself (Holden's words) to be a writer.
The story starts off with Holden spending his last weekend at his prep school in Connecticut. He's just been expelled. This is his fourth prep school, and he's only sixteen. We get to meet, through Holden's eyes, his roommate and other dorm mates for a brief period. All the while Holden is telling us about them (and how phony they are), Holden is acting differently among all the fellow students. The obvious irony is, Holden is being just as phony as the rest of them.
After saying his final goodbyes, Holden heads for home a few days earlier than originally planned. We then get treated to the story of a weekend not to be believed. Holden encounters an adult woman on the train ride into New York, with whom he shares conversation and cigarettes. When he gets to New York, he looks up an old girlfriend, another old chum (who Holden had never really liked), gets into a tangle with a prostitute and her pimp and tries to spend some time with his sister before his parents find out he's been expelled. All the while, Holden smokes more cigarettes and drinks more booze than most sixteen-year-olds can handle. The story is great and it's a hell of an adventure. At the crux of it all, Holden is trying to find someone worth his trouble. In the end, Holden tells the reader that, essentially, everyone is a phony. I don't even think that's necessarily a bad analysis, either. I mean, who among us didn't start thinking everyone was putting on an act-especially when we were only sixteen. But, Holden does have problems.
Holden lies to just about everyone he meets. He says the kinds of things he knows each individual wants to hear. About the only person he is completely honest with is his sister. Phoebe is a bit of a hero to Holden. He sees her as still innocent and doesn't want her coming to the same cynical conclusions about the human condition as he has-that everyone is a phony. He tells us, almost nonchalantly, about the passing of a brother, who was older than Holden, but younger than B.D. He tells it in such a way as to make the reader wonder how he had died. Was it an accident? A long illness? Was it fishy at all? That part is never really explicitly laid out-leaving the reader to wonder. All of that is fine, as well. I think Salinger wanted his readers to think-to question. It's a pretty good untold back story, and possibly an excuse for Holden to be the way he is.
A friend of mine and I were discussing Holden's merits, as a person/character. This friend told me that he thought Holden was great-all he wants to do is help people. (The title of the book comes from Holden's mistaken memory of a childhood nursery rhyme. Holden wants to be a "Catcher in the Rye"-the guy who catches people-especially children-when they are about to "fall" from a big mistake.) My response, and I'm sure I'm in the minority here, is that Holden is an unreliable witness. He does obviously have psychological problems-probably stemming from his brother's death, and as a whole, is not to be believed. Sure, he tells a good story, but in the end, Holden Caulfield is nothing more than a spoiled little rich kid.
Great book, though.