THE CATCHER IN THE RYE / J.D. Salinger

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE / J.D. Salinger. 1951 (277 pgs)

First 10 Pages = 3.6% of total book

OK, here it is, the book that everyone else read in high school except me. I guess I grew up protected from phonies. With Salinger’s passing a couple of weeks ago, this seems particularly timely, in fact, I checked the book out of the library on the day the news became public. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, with its Picasso style Minotaur drawing of a frightened horse, has been sitting on top of the pile while I have been finding other things to do.

First Sentences:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  The first person steam of consciousness declaration of the main character is a presumptive teenage voice speaking of recent past events in a recent past tense. Events are relayed chronologically and, in the first ten pages, the action moves in a forward direction.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  The nameless narrator spends the first long paragraph disclosing the events he is willing to discuss, which have taken place “around last Christmas just before I got run down and had to come out here and take it easy.” Out here is somewhere near Hollywood, California where his brother is a “prostitute” / writer in the movie industry. As you read in the first paragraph, the narrator is sensitive to his parent’s privacy, and he is also conscious of social standing, money and the four thousand dollar Jaguar his brother drives. The information that follows refers to a short story the narrator’s brother wrote before he became a “Hollywood prostitute” about a secret goldfish that no one else is allowed to see because the little kid in the story bought it with his own money. What follows is: “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”

The second paragraph begins the framed story of the narrator’s time around Christmas. It is the end of the school term and he has not been invited back to Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, one of several prep schools he has been kicked out of.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The first ten pages (and beyond) are a chronological recounting of his last day at Pencey Prep. He recounts a trip to New York that morning, as manager of the fencing team, losing the fencing equipment and gaining the disgust of the team. When he returns to Pencey, an important football game is in progress, which he ignores in order to visit his history teacher who is upset with the narrator’s failure. This scene continues beyond the tenth page and becomes an admonishment by his history teacher. One also learns that the narrator’s first name is Holden.  Aside from narrated events, the reader learns that Holden has been brought up to be respectful and that it is his nature to be so. In the scene with old Spencer, his teacher, he is deferential and polite, and yet his inner conversation runs on a different track indicating that Holden is a complicated young man; a dispiriting combination of bright and lazy. The action is slow and Holden is anxious to leave as soon as the conversation turns peremptory.

Language: Holden is very aware of social standing and is respectful to his elderly teacher, but the language of his thoughts is casual, sloppy and with a sense of know it all bravado. “I don’t much like to see old guys in their pajamas and bathrobes anyway. Their bumpy old chests are always showing. And their legs… “Hello, sir,” I said. “I got your note. Thanks a lot.” He’d written me this note asking me to stop by and say good-by before vacation started, on account of I wasn’t coming back.”

Character:  Holden is self deprecating and unsure of himself which he masks with outward respect and inward bravado. As he recounts the events of his last days at Pencey, he gives the reader an inside story that serves as running commentary of the thoughts that pass through his mind. Most of his thoughts are derogatory toward others, seemingly in an attempt to build himself up in his own mind.

Setting:  In the first paragraph, the reader is not given any indication of the place where Holden is resting in California. It is easy to forget the first paragraph once the action turns to Pencey Prep school. It seems that Holden will return to the frame of the current story  – in California – but that he is intentionally withholding that information out of shame. He is very descriptive about the school, other characters and his perspective in the past segments

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  I suspect that THE CATCHER IN THE RYE will build in tempo and tension as events progress. Holden Caulfield frankly tells the reader upon entering the story that he is “resting,” a coded term for the aftermath of a breakdown. Why he is in California when the story begins in Pennsylvania is a mystery that may or may not be revealed, as Holden seems to be a rather unreliable narrator. How he attempts to right himself or how he sinks, remains to be seen.

Random Comments: Like MRS. DALLOWAY (also reviewed on this site) and other stream of consciousness stories, the reader is kept at arms distance from events, even though Holden is telling the story in an accessible first person.

The copyright dates in the book say 1945 and yet the book came out in 1951.

It is interesting to me that this book emerged into public consciousness in the years WW2 service men re-assimilated into post war society.

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