Four books reviewed this week were among those that were singled out by the nation's book critics for their lists of recommended summer reading ("In the Critic's Hammock," SRL June 23). A first novel by a young man who has won wide critical acclaim for his short stories popped up on many list: it is J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," which Harrison Smith discusses below. Other recommended books include Edwin G. Huddleston's entertaining picture of life in a small Tennessee town, "The Claybooks"....
That there is something wrong or lacking in the novels of despair and frustration that many of our younger writers are turning out has long been apparent. The sour note of bitterness and the recurring theme of sadism have become almost a convention, never thoroughly explained by the author's dependence on a psychoanalytical interpretation of a major character. The boys who are spoiled or turned into budding homosexuals by their mothers and a loveless home life are as familiar to us today as stalwart and dependable young heroes were to an earlier generation.
We have accepted this interpretation of the restlessness and bewilderment of our young men and boys because no one had anything better to offer. It is tragic to hear the anguished cry of parents:
A remarkable and absorbing novel has appeared, J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," which may serve to calm the apprehensions of fathers and mothers about their own responsibilities, though it doesn't attempt to explain why all boys who dismay their elders have failed to pass successfully the barrier between childhood and young manhood.
It is profoundly moving and a disturbing book, but it is not hopeless. Holden Caulfield, sixteen years old and six foot two inches in height, narrates his own story from the time when he was dismissed from his third private school to return, ill and in a state of physical and mental shock, to the shelter of his home in New York three days later. What happens to him is heart-rending.
To many readers some of his words and accidents that befall him may seem to be too raw to be expressed in the words of a childish youth. If readers can be shocked in this manner they should be advised to let the book alone.
What was wrong with Holden was his moral revulsion against anything that was ugly, evil, cruel, or what he called "phoney" and his acute responsiveness to beauty and innocence, especially the innocence of the very young, in whom he saw reflected his own lost childhood. The book is full of the voices and the delightful antics of children. Especially he adored his stalwart and understanding little sister, who in the end undoubtedly saved him from suicide. And there were the memories of his dead brother, whom he had loved, and a teacher in the first school from which he was dismissed. He had no other friends, dead or alive. He accepted his parents, whose union had been happy, as one of the stable factors in a devastating world. When he ran away from school he knew that he had three days before they would hear of his dismissal from the headmaster. His desire to escape from the ordeal of their disappointment in him and to hide in New York, to go underground, is understandable. Not every boy would have done it, but the reader is convinced that Holden would and that his behavior throughout the book is equally natural and inevitable.
The magic of this novel does not depend on this boy's horrifying experience but on the authenticity of the language he uses and the emotions and memories which overwhelm him. Without realizing it he is seeking the understanding and affection which adults could give him - or even his classmates, who are perhaps an unreasonably repulsive lot of lads. But how could they be fond of this overgrown, precocious, and yet childish boy? His roommate was an arrogant hunter of girls; the boy next door never brushed his teeth and was always picking at his pimples; the group of "intellectuals," the grinds, and the athletes were all phonies to him. But Holden's sense of phoniness is never contempt. It is worse; it is despair.
When he fled to New York he had plenty of money: a doting grandfather who seemed to think that he had a birthday every three months had sent him some, and he had also roused a rich boy out of bed and sold him a costly new typewriter for twenty dollars. On the train he met the mother of one of his least attractive classmates and lied to her about her son to make her happy. The hotel he went to was crawling with prostitutes and "queers." In spite of his height waiters would not serve him a drink. Three older women left him their check to pay; a prostitute came to his room and took ten dollars away from him for five minutes' distraught conversation. He wandered through the city night and day like a lost soul.
He slipped into his parents' apartment after midnight to look at his sleeping little sister and then visited the one teacher he thought he could help him. The man was slightly intoxicated, and he told Holden,
He writes out a text for the boy to remember:
None of this is any use to Holden, who simply wants to know what makes him find so many people false and ignoble at the same time that he is aware of his own capacity for love.
Whatever effect the man's wisdom might have had is ruined when the boy wakes up in the night in horror to find the man stroking his head. Holden dashes into his clothes and escapes. "Boy, I was shaking like a madman."
"The Catcher in the Rye" is not all horror of this sort. There is a wry humor in this sixteen-year-old's trying to live up to his height, to drink with men, to understand mature sex and why he is still a virgin at his age. His affection for children is spontaneous and delightful. There are few little girls in modern fiction as charming and lovable as his little sister, Phoebe.
Altogether this is a book to be read thoughtfully and more than once. It is about an unusually sensitive and intelligent boy; but, then, are not all boys unusual and worthy of understanding?
If they are bewildered at the complexity of modern life, unsure of themselves, shocked by the spectacle of perversity and evil around them - are not adults equally shocked by the knowledge that even children cannot escape this contact and awareness?