I was forced to read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school, as many of you no doubt were as well. Even then, as an Earnest, Whiny Teen Feeling Deep Things of my own, I was irritated by the wankey Holden Caulfield. I wanted to punch him in the neck but couldn't articulate that then; "punch him/her in the neck" hadn't yet been incorporated into my special lexicon, and so I merely floundered about, silently hating this loser and nursing a resentment.
Now, the fact is, I read Franny and Zooey before reading TCITR, and absolutely loved it - as in stayed up all night to read it and then re-read it as soon as I woke up the next afternoon. I don't remember why I loved it though. I think it, or a large part of it, was just a lot of talking, and that Salinger's gift for fictional conversation had me at "howdy" - an experience reproduced in this latest reading venture. And because my memories of Holden and his Problems are almost as vague and fuzzy as the conversation of F & Z, I wonder if, in fact, TCITR doesn't suck at all - but that the way it was taught sucked, and that was the problem. And you know? That often was the problem in high school, so why should this one book have been an exception?
The point is, I picked up a Salinger book, in spite of this high school reading disaster, and it was gold. I love, love, love his writing. And I was so pleased to discover, much to my surprise, that he's hilarious! Here's the beginning of Boo Boo's letter to Buddy, about their brother Seymour's upcoming wedding (this is from the beginning of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters). The whole letter is ridiculously good, but I'll just get it started for you, to tempt you. I'd give my left arm to be able to write letters half so engaging as this (I must keep my right arm, however; otherwise there will be no letter-writing by me regardless of what I give away):
Dear Buddy,I may have squealed with delight when I began reading this epistolary bit. And yes, that's all I'm giving you. I demand that you go read this. Because it's not just that the writing is really, really good, or that it's funny as hell; it's also that Salinger is so damned nice to and about his characters. His narrative style is one of a very benevolent god looking down upon his sweet but confused creations. He pokes fun at them, yes, but so gently it seems like kindness itself.
I'm in a terrible rush to pack, so this will be short but penetrating. Admiral Behind-Pincher has decided that he must fly to parts unknown for the war effort and has also decided to take his secretary with him if I behave myself. (p.8)
And Seymour - the subject of both novellas, and the eldest of the Glass family children, all brought into show biz early on - is the reflection of this narrative voice. He's brilliant, strange, and absolutely beamingly in love with the world, but especially his family. He is sentimental according to the definition that makes sense to him: "we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it" (p.67). This is what defines and motivates Seymour's actions throughout both pieces. Sentimentality, here, is not a disparagement; rather, it's something that only the doomed Seymour is capable of.
In Seymour: an Introduction, Buddy tries to describe his deceased brother. He circles about and about, discussing things not apparently to the point but slowly revealing more and more of the loveliness and brilliance of his elder sibling. He's incapable of the kind of uninhibited sentimentality that illuminated Seymour's life, so he tries to get at it from odd angles. And he manages it, in spite of himself. This is Salinger's power - to so perfectly show Buddy's struggle, at the same time that he shows us what we need to know about Seymour, without Buddy realizing he's succeeding brilliantly in his painful task.
If my memories of TCITR are close to accurate, I hope that it was a one-off of angst and gloom and lameness, because I'm going to be reading whatever Salinger there is left to read. And I'll be more disappointed than I can say if I have to punch any creation of Salinger's in the neck.
PS-I am reading China Mieville's The City & The City as per your voting, and I thank you for it. Please go vote in the NEW POLL!