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Caught in the Rye

Here’s one anniversary that has not yet piqued the curiosity of the New York Review of Books. It is now 50 years since I first read The Catcher in the Rye and 50 years, too, since I was expelled, more or less, from Ampleforth College in the north of England. The two events are related: if it hadn’t been for J.D. Salinger, I might have had a lousy education. I swear to God.

As it is, after leaving school abruptly at 16—the same age as Holden Caulfield when he flunked out of Pencey Prep—I went to a “crammar” straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. I smoked, I drank, I dated—or dreamt of dating—girls from the Lycée Français, and sat around my parents’ apartment wondering where the ducks in Central Park go in winter when the lagoon freezes over. It makes me sag with embarrassment to think about it now. My contemporaries, meanwhile, went on to university and thence into government, law, medicine, industry, and the Church. I eventually joined an evening newspaper in the provinces. After nine months as a junior reporter, I was sacked. Two years later, I was assistant editor of Ice Cream Industry. The editor was a stick-thin alcoholic lesbian called Bunty, who could turn a bit funny after lunch.

Perhaps I could sue Salinger for psychological damage and loss of earnings, but so, no doubt, could hundreds of thousands of other boys of my generation. He was one of the key agents of corruption in the 1950s and ’60s, the Jimmy Dean of the typewriter. It’s hard to believe it now, but to a certain sort of boy, he was a god.

Girls were more discriminating. An American woman living in London—a child of the ’60s—told me the other day that she had found Catcher coarse and unintelligible and Franny and Zooey just “yuck.” “When people started talking about Salinger, I just, like, kept my mouth shut,” she said. “I am afraid I was more interested in Kafka, Dostoyevksy, Thomas Mann, and George Eliot.”

Blimey O’Reilly, I thought. My American friend is pretty hip, but the women who in the ’50s and ’60s took up arms against Salinger were not. They wore hats and gloves and butterfly-wing spectacles and denounced Catcher as obscene, thus missing the point entirely: there may have been a case for banning it, even for burning it, but the case did not rest on its PG-rated sex scenes or its notional blasphemies. No, it was a bad book because it encouraged self-love and self-pity on a massive, antisocial scale.

I remember my alarm a few years ago when I found that my youngest son was reading it. I need not have worried: the book made little impression on him. “I could quite easily have lived without the experience,” he now tells me. Anything else? Yeah, he said, he didn’t like all those “goddams.” Now that Catcher is assigned, it no longer corrupts, apparently. Children today are too worldly to buy teenage angst, perhaps because they know they can get it for free. When crazy, mixed-up Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause” cries out to his parents, “You’re tearing me apart!” teenagers everywhere roll on the floor laughing.

But “Rebel” was always trash; Catcher was not, is not. When I reread it the other day, I was less disgusted than I had expected—hoped—to be. In fact, I rather admired it. Perhaps at last I am old enough for the book. J.D. Salinger was, in Catcher at least, a master craftsman. No one had ears as sharp as his. The patois goes way beyond teenspeak. No kid had the wit to talk or think like Holden or to make such happy use of repetitions, nonsequiturs, and wry irony: “I don’t even like old cars. I mean they don’t even interest me. I’d rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.”

Salinger is doing pretty well. He is now 90, and for more than 40 years, as all readers of middlebrow magazines know, has lived as a recluse in Cornish, New Hampshire. Perhaps it’s the sunflower seeds he eats, perhaps it’s the homeopathy (or the “urine therapy”), perhaps it’s the 1940s movies he watches. Maybe he’s just lucky. Whatever the case, it’s time to let bygones be bygones. I forgive Salinger for messing with my head.

And give him this: at least he did not go the celebrity route. He did not become a TV bore or even, in Holden’s sense of the word, a phony. Of course he was a phony, but like Holly Golightly, he was a real phony. America giveth and America taketh away, but it never took anything away from old Jerry, who looks like making it to 100, at least. I bet that kills him.  

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