Guilt Books, Or Why I Stopped Worrying and Finally Read The Catcher in the Rye

Baby Jackson is crawling now. Forward, backward. He’s flipping over and swirling around and reaching for my Diet Coke; he’s grabbing pages from the periodicals we’re reading, and he’s trying to consume the children’s books we read to him. (Literally. When he grabs the book, his first instinct is to try to eat it.)

For my wife, and for most other reasonable parents, these cute little actions are seen as the “baby steps” toward vital life functions and abilities: yesterday he was swirling, today he’s crawling, and tomorrow he’ll be walking; today he’s holding a ripped-up piece of paper, and tomorrow he’ll be able to hold his own spoon and feed himself.

But for me, every baby step is building toward the joyous moment when Jackson can actually read, when he opens up the Dr. Seuss and runs his finger along the letters and says them out loud, when he moves on to Go Dog Go! and bursts out laughing at the gigantic final-page splash of the dogs partying in the tree, when his eyes open in wonder as he reads Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl and—as a parent—I can see the imagined worlds taking form in his mind. James, riding his giant peach. The Big Friendly Giant. The evil witches, and the children transformed into mice. Every baby step building toward the moment when Jackson, bored of the G-rated world of Reading Rainbow books he’s given in elementary school, digs through my office closet to find the perfect comic books to satisfy his fix. Old Jim Starlin comics: Dreadstar and Infinity Gauntlet. And then, on some stormy night in his middle school years, I can slip him a copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift, or Pet Sematary, the contraband that he won’t find in school, our little secret that his mother doesn’t need to know about, a rich and (soon-to-be) lifelong literary obsession catching fire. Yes, Jackson, books can do that. And that. And that. And so much more. Then: high school, and don’t just settle for these books on your reading list. I’ve got a stack over here. Here you go: Cold Mountain. Here you go: House of Leaves. Here you go: The Secret History and High Fidelity and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. If your teacher won’t let you read Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, she’s anti-literature, and you can tell her I said that!

Baby steps with his vital life functions, baby steps toward a long life immersed in great books.

That’s been the way that it plays out in my mind, anyway. But there’s also this dreaded moment in my imagined father/son lit-love montage. The moment when Jackson brings home the book that I was supposed to have read but never did. Everyone’s got a reading list of “Books I Should Have Read” (everyone except Harold Bloom, maybe), classics avoided, long works purchased with friends to give the appearance that, yes, I intend to read Anna Karenina or The Grapes of Wrath…and then tucked into that corner of the bookshelf reserved for books that you know you’ll never pluck out again. A corner of Guilt Books, never sexy or topical enough for you to remove them from that dusty spot.

My biggest Guilt Book has always been The Catcher in the Rye. I was vaguely aware of the book back in high school, but got so sucked into Vonnegut and Heller in my AP Literature classes that I never got around to reading it. I remember asking a classmate what it was about, and what the heck “catcher in the rye” meant, and she gave me a confused answer about, like, a kid standing in rye and, like, I think he was playing baseball and wanted to catch things?, but like, I don’t think he was actually standing in the rye or actually catching baseballs, and oh shit, maybe I wrote the wrong thing on the timed writing!, and at that point I said “No thanks.” Later, I heard varying accounts of the book’s awesomeness and stature, whether it was truly worth my trouble to read, but it was only when a Creative Writing student of mine (this was maybe 2006, the first Creative Writing course I ever taught) mentioned that a character in a manuscript seemed a lot like Holden Caulfield, and I said “Who?”, and everyone looked at me like, “How dare you teach us anything writing-related!”, that I finally felt an overwhelming guilt for never having read The Catcher in the Rye. Suddenly I felt like a fraud. A phony. They were right! I had no business writing fiction, let alone teaching it!

Of course, I wasn’t thinking logically: that my own catalogued reading lists far outnumbered theirs, and that I had tackled Anna Karenina and The Tin Drum and Underworld, all in a six-month span. You can’t read everything, after all, and you definitely shouldn’t dedicate your reading time to books whose consumption only satisfies guilt. But at that point, I didn’t even realize that The Catcher in the Rye was the Definitive Angst Novel, as essential to moody high schoolers as a black Kurt Cobain t-shirt. I knew nothing about the book, in fact, except that I should have read it.

But I’m good at suppressing guilt, so J.D. Salinger got shelved a few more years, and I started using the book as my self-deprecating example in Fiction Workshops when I suggested that students create reading lists. It wasn’t until this past summer, as I considered my own responsibilities to my cooing-gurgling-grabbing / soon-to-be-reading son that I found the book on my shelf, set aside a week, and tore into it. I would not let Jackson down. When he someday says, “Dad, that guy is just like Holden Caulfield,” I’ll high-five him and say, “I get it!”

I had an innate curiosity as I read The Catcher in the Rye, too. I wasn’t reading it as a student, forced to write some terrible essay about “themes” and “symbolism,” and I wasn’t reading it as an emo high-schooler, desperate for an angsty kid narrator with whom to identify. I was reading Salinger as an adult, a father, and now—because I was certain that Jackson would someday be assigned the book—I wanted to know what made The Catcher in the Rye resonate. Heck, why did so many 16-year-olds love this book? What had Salinger created here, and how was it able to stand the test of time? Would Jackson still be able to relate to this story, this character, fifteen years from now?

The week passed. I finished the novel.

And to be absolutely honest, I was blown away by The Catcher in the Rye. I suppose that I expected a “voice piece,” some novel that was revered because it had so captured the voice of teenagers, but was also—like Dazed and Confused, maybe—sort of plot-less. I expected the book to plod along, to leave you marveling at Salinger’s ability to go teenager, but I never expected it to move with real momentum and energy. After all, that’s how I remember most of the books I was assigned in high school: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Crime and Punishment and Sons and Lovers: I could appreciate some aspect of their existence, one individual image or one individual scene where I forgot I was reading a book for an assignment, and then—two pages later—I would get stuck in the swamp of boring once again. Pages and pages of dense prose that only served to remind me (at age 16 or 17) that there was a bright world outside being denied me by this damned book. But that didn’t happen with Catcher. It wasn’t just a “voice piece.” It was an empathy piece. It burrowed so far into narrator Caulfield’s mind / soul that you hurt for him without realizing that you are hurting until, later in the evening after you put the book down, when you are now eating dinner or watching a game, you notice this weird melancholy surrounding you like Pig Pen’s dust cloud. You can’t get in a good mood. You think something terrible has happened in your life, even when it hasn’t. The book is penetrating, and it hangs over you.

Maybe that sounds depressing. As I write it out, in fact, I realize that it isn’t exactly the sort of endorsement that someone would want on the back cover of their paperback. But as a writer, when I find a book that is able to sneak up on me like this (without being manipulative or obvious), I pay attention. It’s easy to get a reader to care about a character with a ridiculously obvious tragedy; for instance, a woman who loses her husband in a freak accident, and who then loses her job, and who then gets cancer, and who…etc. Anyone can write that story and evoke emotion, and / or plunge the reader into depression. But The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t have that premise. The protagonist is not an “obvious” tragedy. This is a story about a well-to-do prep-school kid who hates all the “phonies” and “jerks,” who doesn’t seem to have any friends and doesn’t seem to even have the ability to see the world in a positive light. In fact, for a good portion of the book, it’s even easy to read Holden Caulfield as just a privileged brat who keeps flunking out of prep schools, and who should quit whining and get his damn act together. I have friends who’ve told me that they couldn’t get into the book because they hated Caulfield.

In a sense, that’s fair criticism. (And to be honest, there probably are a lot of young readers who identify with the book and the protagonist just because they like to whine, or just because they’re anti-social and have no interest in making friends, or even because they want to skip school like Holden.)

But in another sense, that sort of criticism—hating the main character because he’s too privileged and shouldn’t be whining—implies that we shouldn’t write books about people of privilege because their pain is not real, that we shouldn’t write book about teenagers because their problems are too petty, that we should reserve our true emotional connections for characters our own age. You know, characters whose problems are heavier than anything a high-school kid could be going through: jobs, kids, mortgages, all that.

But this is why The Catcher in the Rye is so extraordinary: Salinger writes with such extreme empathy for his character that he is able to make me care about a person that I might not ordinarily have wanted to read about (simply because I thought his problems didn’t matter). No matter what other reasons there might be for the book’s continued popularity, this is the main one, I think. Salinger cares about Holden Caulfield more than Holden Caulfield cares about himself. He never settles for caricature; there is never a moment when you think he is condescending to his high-school narrator, never a moment when you think he’s faking it (and I’ve read very few books or stories about high-schoolers where I get that feeling). Even highly famous and heavily anthologized stories about high-schoolers, like Updike’s “A&P,” for instance, don’t feel authentic. They feel like a literary writer trying to show you how well he can write a high-schooler. Adults read it, and they marvel at the voice, at the “little things” in the diction and sentence structure, but kids read it and they say, “I don’t get it.”

And here’s the other thing I realized. As a high schooler reading The Catcher in the Rye, maybe you also start to realize what it is that you don’t like about all those other books that your teachers have foisted upon you. Here’s one quick passage about a stage performance:

And everybody kept coming in and going out all the time—you got dizzy watching people sit down and stand up. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the old couple, and they were very good, but I didn’t like them much. They were different, though, I’ll say that. They didn’t act like people and they didn’t act like actors. It’s hard to explain. They acted more like they knew they were celebrities and all. I mean they were good, but they were too good. When one of them got finished making a speech, the other one said something very fast right after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was, it was too much like people talking and interrupting each other. (164)

As a high-school reader, maybe you’re not just identifying with Caulfield and the way he sees the other teenagers around him, the “phonies.” Maybe you’re identifying with the way that Caulfield views art, too. Yeah, these other books—Sons and Lovers and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man—are good, technically, but they’re too good. They feel like literature. Complicated. Dense to the point of torturous. But The Catcher in the Rye? Here is a book that feels like real life captured on the page. Here is a book with real honesty and real emotion.

But there’s another reason why this book has resonated for so long, too.

For many young readers, this might be their first real exposure to the idea of a “literary story,” a book whose plot is directly shaped by the protagonist, rather than the much-easier books they might have read in middle school in which the characters simply seem inserted into some pre-determined paint-by-numbers plot. Perhaps this is the first real “character study” for many high school readers, a book dedicated to peeling the onion off the tortured narrator, to digging deep and discovering what is at the core of his problems.

Page by page, scene by scene, moment by moment, we learn more about Caulfield; we peel off the layers of his facade until we expose something dark and tragic. As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to read the opening of this book and to think, “This kid’s a brat,” and maybe a lot of high-school readers even share this opinion. So early in the book, though, a reader knows nothing about him. We don’t know what he’s keeping to himself, what’s gnawing at his soul, what troubles him on a daily basis and shapes his view of the world. We don’t know why he acts the way he acts. We can dismiss him as a whiny brat, and maybe we would if Salinger wasn’t so shrewd, but little by little, he peels back the onion-skin and forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about Holden Caulfield.

Late in the book, after he gets beat up by his roommate, after he runs away from school and goes on a full tour of New York City and acts like a complete idiot (tries to hit on girls: fails; tries to drink like a champ: fails; tries to hire a prostitute: fails), after much commentary from Caulfield about all the phonies in the world and about all the terrible things that people do to one another (which, at times, we perceive as ordinary high-school complaints from a kid who doesn’t always get his way), we finally learn that he isn’t just whining. Holden Caulfield actually has seen the very worst of human behavior. Seven students at his former school, bullying a boy named James Castle:

So they started in on him. I won’t even tell you what they did to him—it’s too repulsive…And you should’ve seen him. He was a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils. Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window…I ran downstairs too, and there was old James Castle laying right on the stone steps and all. He was dead, and his teeth, and blood, were all over the place, and nobody would even go near him. He had on this turtleneck sweater I’d lent him. All they did with the guys that were in the room with him was expel them. They didn’t even go to jail. (221)

We’re 221 pages into the book, and finally the onion is peeled back and the tragedy is revealed. Finally we understand Holden Caulfield completely.

No, this story structure is not unique to The Catcher in the Rye, and a high-school reader will encounter it a thousand times in their journey through literature and cinema. But the beauty of it is this: all we need is a unique character, and an author who cares deeply about the character (as Salinger does) and it will feel new every time. This is the epitome of empathy: to not give up on a character who seems unlikable, to keep probing, to keep asking questions and testing him, so that we can ultimately learn and ultimately understand what has so deeply wounded him (and ultimately identify with him, finally!). Think of In Bruges, and the moment we learn about Colin Farrell’s terrible memory. Think of Good Will Hunting. Think of each season of InTreatment. The story structure requires a real investment from both author and reader. Do not give up. We’ll get there. We’ll heal. And to be a high-school reader, and to have that experience for the very first time? It must change the way that you view books.

But here’s the thing: in the best of these stories (and in Catcher in the Rye) there’s a sense that the past and the present are colliding. There’s a past tragedy that Caulfield is struggling with, but that’s not the full story. There’s also this present issue that he’s working through: he’s being kicked out of schools, and he’s left his campus and is roaming New York because he doesn’t want to go home and admit his failure to his parents. And the situations he encounters are building and building, showcasing the depravity of human behavior, from pimps and prostitutes to Caulfield’s old teacher trying to cop a feel, everything confirming what Caulfield believes about the pointlessness of existence and the awfulness of other human beings:

“When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.” (251)

We already know the past tragedy in his life, and now we see the awful present. We worry for him. He tells us things that we never want to hear a loved one say:

Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will. (183)

Something will happen in the final pages of the book that will either confirm—once and for all—Caulfield’s dark view of humanity, and thus doom him to an extremely unhappy life (and maybe a “noble death,” as his teacher worries), or instead, something will happen that will save him.

Why does The Catcher in the Rye resonate? Because Salinger doesn’t condescend to a high schooler. Because he has created an authentic voice for a teenager. Because he cares about his character. And because he crafts a story (and utilizes a story structure) that mirrors every human being’s most essential struggle: to believe in life, or to reject it. To believe in others, or to reject them.

In some ways, I read this book with myself at the center, trying to identify with Holden Caulfield. But while I can empathize and care about him, I’m long past the point where I’m making decisions about whether life is valuable and whether I can love anyone else. I’ve got a wife, a son. And now my heart aches so much more for Caulfield as an adult reader than as a high school or college or twenty-something reader precisely because of those two people: wife and son.

Teenagers dig this book because it’s their life, their current struggle: Holden Caulfield is just like me! Etc. But me? I found this book to be heartbreaking because it’s a father’s greatest fear that his son winds up in Caulfield’s shoes, that despite the opportunities you provide, the love you provide, your child can find himself in such a dark place, by his teenage years contemplating whether his life is worth living. That’s some heavy stuff for a high schooler, but there’s one last reason why I think young readers will always love and appreciate The Catcher in the Rye: when we give it to them, it lets them know that we trust them, we respect them, and we want to listen to them.