The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is one of those American classics that everyone is supposed to read. Somehow I never did. As an American who proposes to make a living butting words up next to each other, I’ve been working on closing up some of the gaping holes in my mental library.
The results of these efforts are almost always rewarding. There’s a reason these books have gained the stature they have. This one is no exception and I will not attempt to add to the already-too-large body of criticism surrounding it. People, it seems, can make a big deal out of a good story.
The main guy, the narrator, Holden, is a high-school kid who is full of contradictions. He knows what he is supposed to be, he knows what he wants to be, and he’s acutely aware that he is neither. What he is, we start to realize, is better (by conventional standards) than what he thinks he should be. He aspires to be a modern, devil-may-care man, but he simply isn’t. He cares about a lot of things. He cares so much it’s a little scary.
That’s my take, anyway.
After reading the first few paragraphs I knew this book would be a special sort of challenge for me. A personal one, a gauntlet thrown. There is a voice driving this narrative, a guy speaking in a very natural manner that exposes his character, and old JD isn’t going to let the English language get in the way. There are times Salinger simply repeats the same sentence twice. The same goddam sentence. Twice. That old JD knocked me out sometimes the way he’d just repeat things like that.
Sometimes I write stuff like that. I just let fly, type like I think, words are punctuation, punctuation are words. Fragments. Asides, nonlinear thought expressed in a linear form. Then I delete it, or clean it up, to make it easier to digest. What I get from Salinger is not just a very good read but also an example that done well there’s nothing wrong with setting aside rules, as long as the result is a distinctive voice. My first drafts tend to be much more courageous than my final results. Maybe that’s not a bad thing most of the time, but I think I miss opportunities too often.
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