I'd heard it was controversial, sexy, chock-full of cursing and smut. I checked it out from the library it because it was one of the many classics on my list, one of the well-knowns to check off before I died. J.D. Salinger, the author, was supposed to be pretty good. I'd never heard it personally recommended, never heard someone boldly declare that it had changed their life or was particularly fantastic.
Having finished it about seven minutes ago, I am here to say that it is probably the most truthful book I've ever read.
If you're unfamiliar with the story, it follows the three days that sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield spends in New York after getting kicked out of prep school in the 1930's. Far more than a debaucherous tale of prostitutes and pimps, liquor and lechery, it's the story of how alone a person can feel trapped with too much inside them and almost no way to express it. Since it's written in the first person, the author narrates in Holden's voice, which is slangy, vernacular, and littered with curses; though this is without question one of the many reasons it was banned, it's what Holden (or many of us in his situation) would really say--no Elsie Dinsmores here to sugarcoat reality. Though he declares himself to be "illiterate," Holden reads voraciously. Though he continually fantasizes about how he could build a little cabin for himself far away where he could pretend to be a deaf-mute and wouldn't have to talk to anyone, he makes friends with strangers, adores his little sister, and makes a corageous effort to comprehend the complexities of the prep-school girls who torment him.
What makes him most charming are the details of his personality. He loves a girl because she keeps all her kings in the back row when they play checkers--because she likes how they look. He obsesses continually about the ducks in Central Park and wonders what they do in the winter--does a man with a truck come and take them away to the zoo until springtime? He hates fakes--movies, aristocrats, women wearing too much makeup--he tells the reader that it makes him sick. One of the most beautiful details of who he is gives away the title of book, so I won't reveal it, but simply remark that it is one of the most beautiful passages in American literature. Holden is a contradiction. He fails his classes, gets himself drunk in every bar in New York, and hires a prostitute; he also teaches his little sister to dance, tries to keep his roommate from pawing a girl on a date, and tells the prostitute to take the money and go home without sleeping with him. Throughout his narration, he relates snippets of thought that all of us have, with a Joycian freedom. The book reminds one of Ulysses in its freedom of expression and willingness to digress into the tedious and the crass if it will better communicate the truth.
What I love most about this book is how I feel like less of an Olympic figure skating judge and more of a county fair tomato. I usually scrutinize characters in the books I read, questioning their motives and passing judgement on their choices, deciding whether or not I would enjoy their company at an afternoon tea. When Holden narrates his life to me, I feel he is simultaneously examining me--divining from how I respond whether or not I am one of those dreaded fakes--and entertaining me, winning my affection and the hope that he will not shun me. Forget that tea with Holden might involve a few choice words and a couple of extra-dry martinis--the conversation would unquestionably be worth it.