Sixty-five years since it was first published, in July, 1951, and seven years after the author’s death in 2010 at age 91, The Catcher in the Rye and J. D. Salinger still have the power to capture the imagination of the world and hold on tight. This poignant, unflinching story of growing up without giving in has become one of the seminal works of 20th century literature. Translated into 30 languages, it has sold 65 million copies and continues to sell 250,000 copies a year. No wonder the unconventional trajectory of the book and the odd, reclusive life of the writer continue to enthrall and fascinate readers of all ages. Coming on the heels of the 2015 film Coming Through the Rye, a true story with Chris Cooper as Salinger about a student who ran away from boarding school and traveled all the way to the writer’s remote home in New Hampshire to meet his idol, we now have the keenly researched biopic Rebel in the Rye, written and directed by Danny Strong (creator of the TV series Empire, making a wonderful feature-film debut). Salinger fans never seem to tire of new revelations about the man or his work, so if this is the kind of material that interests you, it should keep you sated until the next one comes along. I recommend it highly.
Concentrating less on why generations of readers have been influenced and shaped by the novel and more on the biographical details of the man who wrote it and suffered greatly to get it published, Rebel in the Rye plunges into the life of Jerome David Salinger (a.k.a. Jerry) to give a balanced picture of his dreams of fame and glory and the pain he suffered to achieve both. The engaging actor Nicholas Hoult shines a light on every aspect of Jerry’s life in a career-enhancing performance. We see the budding artist in the grip of early frustration, encouraged by his mother (Hope Davis) but ridiculed by his disapproving father (Victor Garber), studying creative writing at Columbia under the harsh tutelage of legendary Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). He was a bad student, but he was hugely inspired by Burnett, who was acerbic, insulting and pragmatic. It was Burnett who encouraged him to devote his life to his passion for writing, and who, as the editor of poor but influential Story magazine, also published his first short work of fiction. He’s the one who discovered John Cheever and William Saroyan, among others, and he’s the man who insisted the character of Holden Caulfield was such a unique character he deserved a novel of his very own. Salinger was on his way to getting published seriously when he was broadsided by World War II. His career temporarily stalled, but in the trenches of Normandy Jerry stayed awake by writing, ending up in a hospital with six completed mud-splattered chapters of his masterpiece in his backpack.
REBEL IN THE RYE ★★★
In 1946, he returned from Germany with a German wife and enough postwar stress to give him paralyzing writer’s block. The war made him a better writer, but damaged him psychologically, beyond repair. Through the efforts of his loyal, patient and almost terminally exasperated agent Dorothy Olding (brittle Sarah Paulson) he became a reluctant literary sensation, but his arrogance and eccentricity made enemies of a lot of influential people on the way to stardom. Rude, self-centered and cynical about everything, he avoided publicity and fought with publishers over every detail. “Writing has become my religion,” he announced, “and publishing gets in the way of the meditation.” So after The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories and a few other minor works, he retreated to New Hampshire, married again, became a terrible husband, father and friend, deserted his wife and children for months on end, drank his own urine, landed on the cover of Time despite his refusal to cooperate with all requests for publicity, and drove his publishers crazy. He was a great writer, but it’s not really a great story with universal impact. Still, there are potent moments that stand out. One of the best is when, after years of alienation, his father, rocked by Jerry’s heroic ascent to becoming the idol of a whole generation, says, “So…you’re Holden Caulfield, right?”
You don’t learn much about his personal life (he was in love with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, who married Charlie Chaplin instead) or the eccentricities that drove him to abandon his career to concentrate on writing that he forbid anyone to read. But thanks to salty dialogue and crisp direction by Strong, and a thorough performance by Nicholas Hoult, you do see how Salinger’s own words, thoughts and actions were reflected in the character of Holden. Hoult, a British actor who has been frittering away his time for years on films in the forgettable big-budget X-Men movies, shows the torture, anxiety, insecurity and loneliness a great writer goes through to create a masterpiece.