Holden Caulfield is teen angst bull-crap with a pickax. He's sarcastic, nasty, and completely unlikeable. He also doesn't give a crap. He is every teenager caught between the crapy little games of high school ("you're supposed to kill yourself if the football team loses or something") and the fear of adulthood ("going to get an office job and make a lot of money like the rest of the phonies").
The greatness in Holden Caulfield is that what he has to say is better than a million Celestine Prophecies or anything said by Jonathan Livingston Seagull (save for the squawks after you shoot him) or Jesus (save for the apocryphal "hey Peter I can see your house from here").
Holden Caulfield says that life sucks, everyone is a phony, and you'll be inevitably disappointed by everyone that you hold in awe. If you think that this sounds awful, ask yourself one question.
When was the last time you found any joy in watching Barney or the Care Bears? It isn't just what he says but the way he says it. He goes through life making dead-on observations that completely shoot the kneecaps out from under the terminally self-righteous. When a successful mortician tells the school to follow his example and pray when things go bad, it is Holden Caulfield who points out that the guy is praying for more people to die.
He's depressed by nuns and annoyed by shallow girlfriends, while in love with his platonic friend.
Even more interesting is the fact that Caulfield's general pissed off attitude and his hormones are inextricably linked. He practically wants to kill his roommate, Stradlatter, because Stradlatter might have screwed a girl he desires. He guiltily admits to making out with phonies, and in a major confession he confesses to being a virgin. He gets the crap beat out of him by a disgruntled pimp after deciding that he doesn't want a to have sex with a prostitute for the silliest of reasons.(he just found it disconcerting to see her take her clothes off without fanfare.)The fact that his little brother has just died and that he's being kicked out of yet another school takes second place to the whole sex question. In other words, Holden Caulfield is a guy; stereotype away.
What is also interesting is how closely Caulfield captures the attitude and culture of adolescence. There is the caste system in which Caulfield hates and wishes to be his roommate Stradlatter. Meanwhile zit-encrusted Ackley, whom he maybe should feel sympathy for, is an annoying guy that Holden can't wait to get out of his room. He's sympathetic to the principle's daughter, saying that it's not her fault what kind of a bastard her old man is, and without missing a beat remarks on the fact that she pads her bra. Cruelty and frustration are mixed, but the comedy level allows you to laugh at your own painful memories.
Granted, like many of his fans, Holden Caulfield turns out to be nuts or at least residing in an insane asylum. (Sorry, if you think that those stupid surprise endings are the best reason to read Salinger.) Yet, in Caulfield's insanity, there is a transcendent theme. By being the pissed off, nasty, cynical insane bastard; Holden Caulfield suggests that it is ok to be a crap. Your criticisms of the world are not invalid and nothing you say or think is so bad that you need to repress it. Ironically, this is not only something that is essential to survival (especially if you are a teenager and desperately trying to maintain your lily-white self image) but is also the key to ultimately becoming a decent caring human being.
Keep your prophets, preachers and shamans. I'll take Holden Caulfield over them any day.