If you have not read Catcher in the Rye that you might not truly understand youth rebellion. It bothers me that highbrow literary types consider this novel overrated, though I do envy anyone who found Holden Caulfield annoying and therefore didn’t spend their formative years seeking romantic partners who exemplified his mix of prevaricating truth-seeking and extreme angst. But no matter! Whether or not you think Holden is obnoxious, J.D. Salinger’s iconic novel is still a necessary read for any human who’s ever experienced the bliss of adolescence, and the snippets of post-WWII New York are an added bonus, with Rockefeller Center and the Central Park Zoo/carousel rendered eloquently. The opening line always got me.
“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.”
By now the The Catcher in the Rye is so ingrained in the public consciousness, so ubiquitous, it’s strange to think of it as just a New York novel. When revisiting Catcher with an eye to the Big Apple, however, the reader is reminded of the symbolic weight of so many of the novel’s locations. From the Eskimo dioramas in the Museum of Natural History to the ducks in Central Park, Manhattan becomes Salinger’s shorthand for loneliness and alienation. There are fleeting moments of beauty and happiness, like the carousel ride in Central Park, but these images are largely snuffed out by drunken regret in hotel lobbies and bars.
Writing about Salinger’s work makes it sounds depressing, even hopeless. When we remember our early experiences with Salinger, though, we likely remember the levity of the idealistic moments that punctuate the eternal disappointment with the phoniness of humanity. Holden Caulfield’s hopeful longing in the midst of misery is perhaps what makes this a New York novel, rather than mere geography.