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Author J.D. Salinger immortalizes teen angst

J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield is as wry as they come.

By Claire Landsbaum | Feb. 3, 2012

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The friends you eat lunch with are phonies. The professor standing at the front of your jam-packed lecture is a phony. Your TA, the girl who just passed you in the hallway, the roommate and his clingy girlfriend... all phonies.

At least, that’s how Holden Caulfield sees it. The angsty 16-year-old narrator of J.D. Salinger’s "The Catcher in the Rye" can’t stand phonies. With his red hunting hat and his hackles raised, he guards himself against the adult world that we college students are being primed to enter.

Why so angsty? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps because Holden sees adulthood as the death of childhood innocence and creative spirit. At 16 he’s nearing the dropping-off point himself; naturally, he fights against maturity as fiercely as possible.

Salinger’s novel examines Holden as he teeters along a narrow ledge; on one side is salvation, on the other is destruction. Holden struggles to reconcile his coming-of-age with fiercely negative beliefs about what awaits in the wider world. Seniors: nice to know you’re not alone, right?

"The Catcher in the Rye" spans exactly three days and 224 pages, but that tiny timeframe contains Holden’s personal journey of self-discovery — a series of moments in which he pinpoints his issues with adulthood and moves beyond them. After all, everyone has to grow up eventually.

The journey begins (as cliché as it sounds) at school. Pencey Preparatory, to be exact. Holden has failed four of his five classes (OK, it happens) and has been expelled as a result. He’s packing up his things, complaining about an unhygienic roommate, and saying final farewells to teachers. And, of course, everyone at Pencey is declared a “phony.”

What this means is never exactly spelled out. Sure, some of Holden’s acquaintances are fake and hypocritical, but it gradually becomes clear the word is used as a sort of shield against any semblance of adulthood.

The shield is up constantly. Holden decides to ditch Pencey and head into New York three days early. On the train ride there he meets the mother of a schoolmate, and she’s a phony. He arrives in New York and checks into the Edmont Hotel, where he meets a phony elevator man and his phony prostitute friend. Even Sally Hayes, the cute blonde girl he takes on a date, falls in the phony category.

Holden isolates himself from the “phonies” because he thinks himself superior to them, never realizing he’s a bit of a phony himself. His smoking, drinking and sex talk are feeble attempts to fit into the world he superficially hates. (Sound familiar?)

That’s not to say it isn’t secretly satisfying to read Holden hating on familiar archetypes; no one is safe from his scorn. Schoolteachers, “girls” as a whole and pompous, pretentious young men are all subjects of criticism. Holden’s bitterness is cathartic, especially during midterms or on Mondays or whatever.

The angst is amusing, but in the end, it’s misdirected.

Phonies are part of life. Try as you might to be rid of them, they’re inescapable. The most you can do is learn to cope with them, to see through them and to devote yourself to those rare few who aren’t so phony after all.

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