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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Catching Holden Caulfield

Book group discussion last night of "Catcher in the Rye," a rarity, as it's the first time I can recall in years at which we universally liked, even loved, the book. Joan asked the question, opening discussion: What happens next to Holden? Catcher ends with him in the sanatorium, and Joan wondered whether he goes back to school. My own view is that of course he does, he sees himself as a rebel, as the only honest guy in a sea of "phonies," but of course he's a phony himself. Catcher was published in 1951, set a few years earlier I guess, and I can see Holden in 9 years, in 1960, as one of the malcontents in the cast of Mad Men, writing jingles for Lucky Strike, complaining about the phonies, or the bullshitters as he'd probably call them by then, on the agency staff, about the meaninglessness of his work, dreaming of writing a novel (but of course not doing so). We wrestled with the question of why he is so enduringly appealing a character, especially to adolescents of many generations, many background, male and female. I think that of course adolescents are drawn to his sardonic humor and his distrust of the phonies he sees everywhere, while all readers are also deeply touched by his innocence, his generosity, his tender sympathies, especially for his sister, Phoebe. As an older reader, I am moved by Holden's innocence, but we also see his fecklessness. The very metaphor of the title is a perfect trope for his dreamy and ineffective idealism: his expressed aspiration is to rescue children at play and to catch them before they fall off a cliff, fine and noble a thought, but there's not a moment in the novel during which Holden actually has a thought about really doing something to help people. Would he like to be a teacher? a writer? a counselor? an activist? By his age, he should be engaged in some aspect of life rather than mindlessly spending (his father's) money. And yet: we still love him, we feel sorry for him, with his empty family, his absent father, his dead brother, his failure literally to catch the suicidal leap of the bullied friend, his lack of connection for guys his age, his trauma. We wish someone would read out a hand to him (and not to pet his forehead, as his creepy former teacher does), we wish someone would catch Holden.

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