Saturday, August 18, 2018

Catching the End of Innocence

I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger many moons ago, either in junior high or high school. I remember liking it without totally understanding it. But there was something relatable about it, I remembered. A few weeks ago, I came across a copy on my mom's bookshelf and read it again. Of course, it was relatable! While my journey through adolescence was some time ago, I still remember the angst and the excitement. I also have a front row seat as my kids are growing up. This is why I have an entirely new appreciation for Holden Caulfield.

I didn't go to a private prep school. I have no sense of what it's like to grow up in the '50's. New York is almost a foreign country to me. But I still connected to this story – this strange, stream-of-conscience narrative about a boy who paints himself as an outsider and is disgusted with any bit of superficialness. Who doesn't relate to the angst of growing up, discovering others' imperfections, and trying to figure out who you really are? Not long ago, my daughter and I were having a conversation with someone who told us how difficult high school had been for their daughter – lots of pressure to fit in! Later, Alex said to me, "And she was one of the mean girls." Everyone struggles. Even the mean girls. Maybe, especially the mean girls.

Holden is a literary hero. He's so utterly self-aware, honest, tormented, and, yet, not without hope. I love that he understands how all mothers are insane (I agree), but he truly doesn't want his own mother to worry about him. It's almost a lesson in parenting. Salinger reminds us that kids do care about their parents, but they'd prefer them to back off a bit. Ageless wisdom in this era of the helicopter parent.

I'm also amused by Holden's obsession and confusion over women. He seems to be equally in love and annoyed by them. "... I didn't even like her much, and yet all of a sudden I felt like I was in love with her and wanted to marry her." Ahhh, the joy of young love. Or young lust. You decide.

Holden is most interesting because of his contradictions. He hates movies, but he seems to watch a lot of them. He worries desperately about an old crush, but he's not willing to reach out to her. His conversation with a cab driver captures this see-saw nature of Holden's sentiments:

"I let it drop... Besides, he was such a touchy guy, it wasn't any pleasure discussing anything with him."

Then Holden asks the driver to go out for a drink.

"He didn't answer me, though. I guess he was still thinking. I asked him again, though. He was a pretty good guy. Quite amusing and all."

The story takes place over a few short days, after Holden is kicked out of school, again. We don't know what lies ahead for him. But somehow we get the feeling he'll be okay – even if he isn't quite okay right now. After all, he's extremely self-aware.

"I know. I've very hard to talk to. I realize that."  –Holden Caulfield

Holden doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life, but it's obvious he's clinging to the innocence and sense of wonder of childhood. This is most obvious when he relates a recurring dream to his beloved little sister. Holden stands in a field of rye and catches children as they fall off a cliff. Now that's a metaphor.

Salinger reminds us how intensely we felt in our youth. The extreme highs and the extreme lows. He reminds us that it's okay to be different and to be uncertain. It's challenging stuff, but it's what connects us all. And as a parent, it reminds me to be more tolerant when I wonder what in the heck is going through my kids' heads. So, yes. It's a great coming-of-age story. But it's not a bad parenting guide as well.

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