This review will contain spoilers, so if you want to avoid knowing all the details of the sparse and meaningless plot, maybe skip the first couple of paragraphs.
Holden Caulfield is a self-important, spoiled and worthless little shit. At the start of the book, he is cooling his heels at the fourth boarding school he’s been expelled from because he just can’t be bothered to even try to apply himself (having failed four out of five subjects completely), and generally bitching about how phony his room mate, dorm mates and teachers are. Holden, ever heard of the pot calling the kettle black? You are that pot. Not content to waste his the money his parents spent on tuition, he also manages to lose all the fencing equipment belonging to the school before he’s expelled. because apparently reading a subway map and keeping track of bags of equipment at the same time overloads the fragile little mind of special disenfranchised snowflake Holden.
Having spent a while internally bitching about some of his school friends and being jealous of their luck with the ladies, he picks a fight with his room mate and decides to leave school early, before his parents are alerted to his most recent failure. His grandmother is apparently overly generous, so he has cash to spare and goes by train to New York, where he books himself into a rather sleazy hotel. Here he proceeds to ruminate about girls he’s known but never managed to hook up with (probably because they can tell a mile away that Holden is an emo narcissist with an inflated sense of his own self-worth and no apparent sense of humour) and gets beaten up by a pimp after paying a prostitute NOT to have sex with him. He also goes out drinking and hemorrhaging money all over the place. After a couple of days, when he’s nearly broke, he goes home to see his little sister. Then he visits an old teacher who seems to have escaped Holden’s go to judgement of being too phony, but said teacher may or may not make a pass at him, so Holden flees into the night. He then has some sort of mental breakdown and ends up in an institution, from whence he tells the entire story of the book.
As is hopefully clear from my rating of this book, I absolutely loathed this so-called piece of classic literature. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of the fact that it’s not always the worthy texts that survive to become classics. I honestly have no idea how this book is lauded as a great novel or why it speaks to people even today. Holden is absolutely insufferable. He’s a whiny, snivelling, spoiled and clueless little brat, who seems to think he is better than everyone around him, adults as well as kids his own age. The only hardship he’s ever experienced is the death of his younger brother, apart from that, he’s lived a life of ease and privilege and is determined to throw everything he is given away, because growing up is just so, you know, boring.
Not only is Holden absolutely insufferable, and very high on my list of fictional characters I want to knee in the groin and punch in the face (Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is probably still number one, closely followed by Cathy from that same book). He doesn’t appear to undergo any sort of significant development over the course of the book. He starts out a horrible waste of oxygen, and ends the book the same way. The only nice thing I can find to say about him is that he loves his little sister Phoebe, who is about as great a character as Holden is awful.
I seriously, for real, do not understand what is supposed to be so great about this book. What purpose does it serve? Nothing of consequence happens. Holden is atrocious and likes to ramble on about nothing, thinking back to previous events in his life that are also fairly insignificant and amounted to very little. Like so many other teens, he feels alienated from his surroundings and doesn’t fit in. Not that he does a thing to change that or to find some sort of purpose. All he does is complain and sulk, and I wanted to slap him so hard his teeth rattled. My colleagues in the English department have decided that all the higher level kids are to read this book when we’re embarking on our current topic of Classics, and I just desperately hope that it reads better to teenagers than it did to me. As several of my colleagues seemed rather appalled at my vehement hate for the book, it can be their job to defend its worthiness on the curriculum. None have so far been able to explain in a satisfying way to me why this book deserves to still be read in schools or by anyone, anywhere. Sorry, Mr Salinger, your book is bad and if you weren’t dead, you should feel bad. The only upside for me as a teacher that I can think of is that the kids reading the book won’t be able to find a movie adaptation they can watch to cheat and thus escape the reading.
I can now tick this book off the list of “books to read before you die”. I found it even more pointless and hard going than The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina (though at least, like Gatsby, it’s a blessedly short book, not a massive brick like Anna), but don’t loathe it with every fiber of my being like I do Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Although with all those books, I at least see what they bring to literature. This book – nothing. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the lowest rated book I read this year, so at least I got that out of the way early.