A Novel Concept

A NOVEL CONCEPT: ‘Rye’ Guy Still Holden Up

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By Michael Malone

Maybe you’re like me. Your kids bring home a novel they’re reading for school, and you start to think about when you read it in school, and you wonder how it holds up. 

It happened to me with The Great Gatsby and The Outsiders

It did not happen with A Separate Peace

It also happened, more recently, with The Catcher in the Rye

The J.D. Salinger novel, about a wayward teen who keeps getting booted out of private schools, came out way back in 1951, a few years after it ran in serial form. 

Does Catcher hold up?

For the most part. It is a decent YA novel. There’s very little plot to mention. Holden, 16, gets kicked out of school in Pennsylvania and heads home to Manhattan. He dreads seeing his father, who does not like it when Holden gets kicked out of schools but misses his little sister Phoebe. 

The whole novel takes place over the course of like 16 or so hours: Holden gets beat up at Pencey, departs the school, hops a train to New York, visits a few nightclubs, meets some women, hires a prostitute, sees Phoebe, visits an old teacher who invites him to sleep over, and the man makes a pass at Holden. He decides to head west and work with horses, but opts to stay in New York. 

Would the novel, a fixture on the school required-reading list for as long as I can remember, get published today? Maybe. The lack of plot is an issue, but Holden’s a likable teen, despite his negative attitude and shoddy school performance. And he has a distinctive voice. 

The Catcher in the Rye is also a solid New York City book, with stops at Central Park, Grand Central Terminal and the Museum of Natural History, among many other Gotham landmarks. Salinger grew up in Manhattan. It is also an entertaining period piece, harking back to a time when one could stash a suitcase in a locker in Grand Central, jazz bands played in all the nightclubs, and guys called other guys they don’t know “Mac.”

The Catcher in the Rye is by far Salinger’s best-known work. Other books include Franny and Zooey and Hapworth 16, 1924. His prose is solid. He loves the adjectives phony and crumby. He’s got a peculiar habit of italicizing the first syllable of a word, such as everybody and museum. 

Speaking of museums, Holden likes how the stuff on display at the Museum of Natural History stays static: “You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different.”

Yes, Holden said, “deers.” He’s not much of a student. 

Holden refers to gay men or men who might be gay, as “flits”, which does not hold up all that well in the modern age. 

The Catcher in the Rye suffers from a so-so title. Holden passes a kid walking down the street, who sings, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” The tune is stuck in his head, and he mentions it to Phoebe. She informs her big brother that it’s “If a body meet a body coming through the rye,” and it’s a Robert Burns poem. 

That sort of fouls up Holden’s life plans, which include catching the kids playing in a big field of rye before they fly over the cliff. 

Burns’ poem is called “Coming Thro’ the Rye,” and it dates back to the late 1700s. “Gin a body meet a body, comin thro’ the rye/Gin a body kiss a body, Need a body cry?” it goes. 

I guess it fits Holden’s character that the book title is based on him misremembering a lyric, but I still felt Salinger could’ve come up with a catchier title. 

Besides Phoebe, Holden also has two siblings who are mostly out of the picture. Younger brother Allie has died of leukemia, and older brother D.B. is in Hollywood, writing scripts. 

I asked my kids, both teens, what they thought of the book. Both described it as “mid,” which is teenspeak for “meh.”

“I kept waiting for something to happen, a big climax,” Kid 2 said. “And it never did.”

It is a quick read, at 277 pages. In the end, he decides not to head west because Phoebe will miss the heck out of her crumby (but never phony) brother and because moves to the other side of the country are difficult and a bit costly. “I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it,” Holden says near the end. “I really don’t. That stuff doesn’t interest me too much right now.”

Holden very definitely has a Gen X vibe, even though he predated that scene by a half-century.

Local freelance journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 

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