News has come in today that author J.D. Salinger–famous for both his trademark character of Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye and for his aversion to fame and celebrity–has passed away in his New Hampshire home at the age of 91.
Some will find this hard to believe, but even though I’m a very active reader–and have been since childhood–I hadn’t read Catcher until this Fall, as I was preparing for my first MFA residency.
I was stunned by the book, in ways both positive and negative.
On the positive side, the characterization of Holden as a first person narrator was exquisite. For all of the negative aspects of the book–and I speak here from the point of view of fiction craft, not from a moralizing standpoint of the content of some of Holden’s encounters–the character of Holden stands out as a remarkable accomplishment of literature. Holden is very much a character I didn’t like much, but there were a couple of points in the book where I did at least empathize with him. The character remains true throughout the book, and when dealing with first-person narration that is a difficult task.
On the negative side, I found Catcher to read as more of a character study than a novel. In my notes from the reading I wrote down, “More style than substance.” The thing that draws the reader in–Holden’s remarkable first-person narration–and grows deep roots as the story’s “style” is also a draw back. This same story, told from another viewpoint or from an omniscient overview, would likely be unremarkable and perhaps not worth reading. After a while, it was like listening to a bell choir that had only one or two different bells to play. The bells were all A’s and C’s and there wasn’t much diversity.
There’s a scene where Holden’s sister, Phoebe, is pressing him to tell her something–anything–that he likes. She is frustrated with Holden’s one-note routine. And it was in that scene, with the character of Phoebe, that I most identified with in that book: a desire to shake Holden and get him beyond the “everyone is a phony, everything is fake” attitude.
Catcher is a great work to read for an aspiring author who is learning how to capture a voice and bring forward a character. For all of its faults, there is a resonance sounded in Holden’s monochromatic view of the world. His sentiments echo the sentiments of us all, at some point or another.
Salinger was a recluse. He didn’t like the idea that an author’s public persona was as important as the work itself. In their story today, Time Magazine called him the “hermit crab of American letters.”
Like Holden Caulfield, Salinger was a complex character. There is more there than meets the eye.
The Catcher in the Rye is available in my bookstore. (<—just one click away…)
PS. My buddy Michael Krahn posted his reaction to the death of Salinger at his web-site…he does a nice job of capturing some of the depth that can come from a re-reading of this classic book. I maintain my stance: This character is great, his story is mediocre, and a lot of the depth that IS there is overshadowed by the one-note monotone of Holden…it still keeps it in the realm of the “good” not the “great” for me…