Sunday, February 5, 2012

In Defense of the Books You Hate: Catcher in the Rye

Tucker got me thinking about Catcher in the Rye the other day, and I left a comment voicing one of my pet peeves.

I can’t stand it when people hate things just because they become popular. I mean, I get it. We all like to be in on the ground floor. We all like to be curators of our own little pop culture universe. But if you ask me, there are few things stupider than yelling “sell-out” just because someone you don’t like happens to like something you liked first. A good indie rock band can be absolutely ruined for some folks, for no other reason than that their songs finally get airtime on mainstream radio stations. What a joke.

I’ve read enough crap commentary about Catcher in the Rye to know that it’s one of those books that people just love to hate. It’s a simple-minded creation. Holden’s a self-centered, whiny little pipsqueak. Nothing really happens in the story. Why are we celebrating this dope? But when it comes right down to it, where’s all this vitriol coming from?

My guess it’s one of those books most people love as a teenager, but one which you’re supposed to “out-grow” once you get a little life-experience under your belt. I just don’t get it. Nobody’s saying it’s got to be your favorite book, but let’s recognize it for what it is. It gives us one of the most memorable narrator’s voices of all time. In fact, on that score, I’d rank it in slot number one. It’s a book that continues to resonate with generation after generation, despite an avalanche of arrogant dismissals by the well-read masses. -And I’m no died-in-the-wool, angst-ridden teen- I say all this as someone who didn’t pick the book up until my thirties.

Here are just two passages that caused me no small embarrassment when they produced involuntary, audible guffaws on-board a packed airplane:

I got bored sitting on that washbowl after a while, so I backed up a few feet and started doing this tap dance, just for the hell of it. I was just amusing myself. I can’t really tap-dance or anything, but it was a stone floor in the can, and it was good for tap-dancing. I started imitating one of those guys in the movies. In one of those musicals. I hate the movies like poison, but I get a bang out of imitating them. Old Stradlater watched me in the mirror while he was shaving. All I need’s an audience. I’m an exhibitionist. “I’m the goddam Governor’s son,” I said. I was knocking myself out. Tap-dancing all over the place. “He doesn’t want me to be a tap-dancer. He wants me to go to Oxford. But it’s in my goddam blood, tap-dancing.” Old Stradlater laughed. He didn’t have too bad a sense of humor. “It’s the opening night of the Ziegfield Follies.” I was getting out of breath. I have hardly any wind at all. “The leading man can’t go on. He’s drunk as a bastard. So who do they get to take his place? Me, that’s who. The little old goddam Governor’s son.”

“All of a sudden- for no good reason, really, except that I was sort of in the mood for horsing around- I felt like jumping off the washbowl and getting old Stradlater in a half nelson. That’s a wrestling hold, in case you don’t know, where you get the other guy around the neck and choke him to death, if you feel like it. I landed on him like a goddam panther.”
Now, you may not have relied on such random feats of stupidity for laughs when you were young, but it sounds an awful lot like a million moments of boredom I passed with my highschool friends.  And just because I haven’t pulled a half nelson on anyone in the last twenty years doesn’t mean it doesn’t ring true. It’s a veritable work of genius, and if I had written it, I’d probably be just as likely as Salinger to hole up in New Hampshire for the rest of my life for fear of never producing its equal. It’s that good. Run, don’t walk…


  1. Of course it is equally dumb to like a book simply because everyone else does.

    I've never liked Catcher in the Rye. Probably because I didn't read it until my late 20s, so it never put a voice to that teen-age angst I must have felt way back when.

    I get why people like it. But that doesn't mean it will ever be meaningful to me.

    You're right that Holden's voice is unique and celebrated, but it is also obnoxious, whiny, and annoying.

    I refuse to like him just because so many other people think I should.

  2. Good points all. I don't think you need to like Holden in order to like the book. But I just get tired of the literati universally panning Catcher as nothing more than a rite of passage for wayward highschool kids, simply because they themselves can't identify with Salinger's protagonist.

    But the question of likable and unlikable characters deserves a post all its own. I've just finished two great books, one of which had a very likable main character and one of which centered on a character I grew to hate. Stay tuned for that one...

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