Time has not damaged this tome; it remains a sometimes harrowing, sometimes absorbing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes moving look into a mind in a state of disarray.
Others have written more "shocking" books or have been more overtly anti-social, but with The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger captures the bitterly confused mind of a youth who hates the whole world not because the world is worth hating, but because he's frustrated at his own inability to get along in that world, with such crisp reality that it shocks far more than any fantastical American Psycho.
Reading over the negative reviews on Amazon, I can't help but wonder how and why so many people are so unable to get it. The Catcher In The Rye is among the, if not the, most tangibly realistic looks into the mind of a disaffected, disillusioned youth suffering from depression (and a touch of the bipolar). The way Holden Caulfield's mind works is incredibly true to form - the contradictions, the hypocrisy, the confusion, the brief moments of sheer clarity followed by stretches of irrational thought. He thinks he's better than the world, and he thinks he's the lousiest person in the world at the same time. He wants everyone to go away and leave him alone, and he can't bear anyone, not even some schmuck he really dislikes (with good reason), to leave him. He's nothing but hypocrisy and contradictions and confusion. Salinger captures this in an amazing way.
People criticize the book because Caulfield is totally unlikable, a guy who rails against phonies when he himself is something of a phony ... but that's part of the point. Holden throws off all the signals someone in his situation actually throws off in real life, and just like real life, they're almost always ignored. Clearly this was a very, very autobiographical work for Salinger.
There are several moments when Caulfield, narrating in the first person, mentions offhandedly that he began to cry, he didn't know why, he felt like dying, and suddenly it went away and he felt invigorated with energy. It rings remarkably true. Who wrote this stuff with such honesty in 1951? Who tackled these issues, and in such a manner, in the 1950s?
The reason this has impact, though, is not simply because of the subject matter, not because of what Holden Caulfield is going through, and not because of the context of its time, but because Salinger never plays it for melodrama. He doesn't talk it up with purple prose or romanticize Caulfield's mentality or beat you over the head with ham-handed messages and platitudes. He neither makes Holden's mentality seem "cool" nor does he preach against Holden's attitude; he just says, "This is what it is." By presenting it in such a matter-of-fact manner, all in the first person, as if the narrator is simply telling you a story while having a few drinks, the whole thing is rooted in a very tangible, and therefore very disturbing, reality.
You and I KNOW Holden Caulfield. We've known that guy. And in The Catcher In The Rye, you get to peer inside his mind.
Even with dated references and slang and phrasings, I don't know that J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye will ever cease to be relevant and important.