Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield is in mourning, but like any teenage boy who’s set on not being phony, he will not tell you this. Instead, he will tell you everything else about his life, the people in it, the movies, the cabs, the schools, and what he thinks of them. Repeatedly. In a single breath.
Salinger’s classic manages to get into the head of a truly angst-ridden and confused teenage boy so well that he has been emulated repeatedly through the decades. Just find the guy on the show/in the book who hates everything except one girl (in Holden’s case, his little sister) and who doesn’t care who knows it and you’re looking at someone who has interred a bit of Holden in himself.
The novel opens with the revelations that Holden has been expelled from yet another boarding school. We’re never sure how many schools he’d been to before Pencey, only that this latest expulsion is just one in a long line of them and he has no qualms about those that came before or those that are likely to come after. He doesn’t like school - it’s full of phonies. He doesn’t like his roommate, who is “yearbook handsome” but a phony, and an irritating womanizing phony at that. He doesn’t like his neighbor, who is a bore and a phony. Cab drivers are phony, bartenders are phonies, most of the people - with the exception of the brother he is mourning and his younger sister - are phonies.
In order to cope with his unsatisfactory world and to also put off the inevitable confrontation with his parents, Holden leaves school in the middle of the night, 4 days before it’s due to break for Christmas anyway. He gathers up his suitcases and his money and take a train into New York, where he proceeds to behave in a way that has had People Who Feel The Need To Control What You Can Read up in arms since the day the book was published. This, of course, has made it wildly popular. Foul language pours out of Holden’s mouth of its own accord, it would be turrets except that it’s buried in sentences that are both circular and insightful. Salinger’s phrasing is memorable: “give her the time,” “yearbook handsome,” “roller-skate skinny.” The list goes on and on. It’s tempered with the aforementioned circuitousness of Holden’s thought process - a combination that gives him depth and believability.
There’s the thing of it. Reading Holden’s train of thought (which is the way this book is written) can be exhausting. He rarely pauses for breath, he is often angry and borderline hostile and hateful and then will turn on a dime and wax poetic about his sister, or the ducks in Central Park. He describes experiences with his deceased brother with the same fervor as he condemns the phoniness of his older brother’s new career and you believe that both characters probably exist as people somewhere in the world. Even Holden, who is telling the story in a way that is therapeutic to both the character and the reader, exists many times over in the world...and that is what keeps this book relevant, even in an age where walking down the street without your tie is not scandalous.