When I was aged seventeen, my first girlfriend, Sarah Moore, gave me a tattered paperback copy of a novel she and her father loved. (Her father was the coolest and wittiest Irishman I had ever met; he had lived in Greenwich Village as a young man, and Sarah had photographs of him and her mother in 1950s Manhattan, looking like no married Irish couple I had ever seen, like people out of a Frank Sinatra song.) I had never heard of the novel previously, despite having been raised in a home where books were in plentiful supply. My parents loved the work of the Irish writers who were around at the time: John McGahern, Brian Moore, John Montague, Lee Dunne, Jennifer Johnston, John B Keane, Patrick Kavanagh, Edna O’Brien. They bought every new collection of Irish short stories published by Poolbeg Press. They felt books were important, and music and theatre. They weren’t dreary or preachy about it. They assumed most people felt the same way.
There were grubby old Penguin editions of some of the twentieth century English poets (Auden, Spender, Larkin, David Gasgoyne) and there was a hefty and once elegant tome of The Complete Works of Lord Tennyson, the spine of which had long been missing. There was a copy of Ulysses and a compendium of Sinead de Valera’s fairytales and there were coffee table books about Synge, Yeats and Shaw. Many Irish homes would have had similar collections in the era of my 1970s childhood. I don’t think my parents would have thought of themselves as literati.
What I’m saying is that reading was nothing new to me by that point in my life. But encountering the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye was like waking up in a shocking new world. ‘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.’ Put simply, it had never occurred to me that anyone could dare to write in such an audacious way. I don’t exaggerate when I say it had something of the same effect on me as did hearing Bob Dylan or The Sex Pistols for the first time. So profound was the joy of recognition engendered by The Catcher in the Rye that by the time I had finished the novel, I wanted to be a writer myself. To read would not be enough any more.
The action of The Catcher in the Rye takes place over three days and nights in December of what is probably 1950. The central character, Holden Caulfield, is aged seventeen, and he’s chronicling events (or non-events) that befell him a year ago, when he was expelled from a boarding school, the ghastly Pencey Prep. A restless, questioning, unknowingly witty kid (an Irish-American—something invariably forgotten by critics) he has a watchfulness that is always at odds with his remarkably compelling innocence. Deciding to flit from the school a few days early, he runs away to Manhattan, where his parents and sister live, his plan being to put up in some cheap flophouse and drink and have a bit of sex and have time in which to gather his excuses. A born liar, he cannot resist dissembling to anyone he meets along the way, but his implacable largeness of spirit and forlorn generosities almost always trip him up.
The Catcher in the Rye has almost no plot. Indeed it frequently avows itself suspicious of narrative, literature and all forms of storytelling. Conventional biography is mistrusted, the movies are ’phoney’, Shakespeare’s plays make no sense. The hero’s brother, D.B., a professional screenwriter, is said to have sold out his talent and is continuously likened to a prostitute. Thus the novel brilliantly mistrusts itself by implicitly challenging its own validity. Like Holden, it is endlessly self-doubting. At the time I didn’t see this as experimental (I still don’t see it that way now) although The Catcher is one of the bravest and most radical novels structurally. Its particular mode of unremittingly direct address to the reader, presuming shared experience and knowledge and—often—prejudice was the most profoundly involving stratagem I had ever seen a writer deploy. You felt Holden was talking to you—perhaps to you alone—and that your responses to what he was telling you were somehow part of the novel. You even felt he was listening in whatever zone he inhabited. This was something totally new to me: fiction as friendship-assertion. (‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.’)
What is most remarkable about the book is how it alters its meanings depending on the age you are when you read it. Many great novels manage this alchemy, but The Catcher is in the same league as Joyce’s Ulysses or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim in having built into its texture a perpetual self-regeneration. Every novelist would like to manage the feat of writing a book that changes the reader, but Salinger’s is one of the precious few novels that itself changes over time. I return to it every three or four years, the closest thing in my life to a pilgrimage, and whenever I do, I’m reading a different novel, as fresh and strange and dark and unnerving as the one that switched on the lights of my youth.
Holden’s wanderings around Manhattan, during which he intermittently invites strangers to come and have ‘a cocktail’ with him, seem riotously funny to a teenage reader. This is the only novel I know with a truly anarchist hero, for Holden is so insouciant and entirely lacking in agendas that his chutzpah alone is the force that animates him, often to the point where he doesn’t understand how or why. Indeed his antics call to mind Graham Greene’s verdict on Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds: ‘This is a book that fills one with the kind of glee one feels when actors smash china on the stage.’ Here is a kid who has no rules, for whom boundaries are unimaginable, and he drifts about the city in a sort of ectoplasm of haplessness that nevertheless seems oddly heroic. Rubbishing everything he sees, oscillating between superiority and dread, he keeps up a commentary so beautifully sardonic that you find yourself cheering it on. ‘That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you”.’
But an older reader begins to internalise the true depth of his tragedy and isolation. Holden, like most teenagers, behind the kvetchiness and front, is a mass of self-eroticising neurosis. A virgin in endlessly twinning worlds of boastfulness and avowed conquest (an all-male school and New York City), he is sometimes sexually jealous, oftentimes insecure and almost always in a state of intense frustration. He has suffered terrible losses, including the death (from leukaemia) of his beloved infant brother, Allie, and is writing his chronicle of a breakdown foretold from a room in a psychiatric hospital. He describes feeling himself ’disappear’, finds most things hard to say. If fiction ever offered a character that embodies Prufrock’s inability to express himself accurately it is Salinger’s most famous non-hero. He kvetches, worries, doubles back, self-contradicts, qualifies, denies, rethinks, scores through, to the extent that almost all of the action seems to appear in parentheses that the hero never has the courage to type. It is possible that he has been the victim of a paedophile schoolteacher although the incident in question is written about with such remarkable ambivalence that we’re never quite sure what happened. It is striking how his only tender feelings are expressed towards women or children. The men in the book are either gobshites or sententious bores, but Holden’s frequent attempts to forgive the latter class of criminal lead to some memorable moments of passive-aggressive faint praise. ’I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something.’
The great baritone Thomas Hampson once observed (accurately) that the songwriter Stephen Foster was ’the tree-trunk of American music.’ This novel’s originating role is as important and vital. The Catcher in the Rye is the sourcebook for so much subsequent cultural production that is stands behind everything, an Easter Island giant, so profoundly a part of the landscape for such a long time that it sometimes goes unnoticed in the haze. But many exquisite and wonderful things, from the movie The Graduate (Benjamin Bratter is Holden grown up) to the Ramones first album (Joey Ramone is Holden on speed) would not have been possible without it. And I would contend that everything truly rebellious in subsequent white American culture, from the bands Talking Heads and Television to the novelist Kathy Acker, from The Doors to Patti Smith, from Janis Joplin to Raymond Carver, can be traced back to The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is the founder member of the blank generation, the original punk rocker, the malcontent without language, and the masterpiece in which he appears and disappears so powerfully is that rarest of things, the short but perfect novel.