“What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse” (4).
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in The Rye
Stranded on the runway in Frankfurt, waiting to go home, I’m just bored enough to wish I was almost anywhere but on this too-warm, not-moving airplane. Bored enough to stand on the top of the hill with a fictional Holden Caulfield, just expelled from Pencey Prep, trying to feel a goodbye.
I’m re-reading The Catcher in The Rye. This is monumental, because except for those six or seven class books that I read every year, I almost never read the same book twice. There are so many books I want to read, far too many to read all of them even once, let alone more than that. When I do return to books, they are typically ones that I loved the first time, when the experience of reading them was tangled up with an especially pleasant place or time. The Catcher In the Rye is not such a book, and as such it wins the distinction of being the only book I’ve ever both intensely disliked and read a second time.
The Catcher in The Rye, the reclusive J.D. Salinger’s only full-length novel, concerns the disillusioned wandering–mental, emotional and physical–of seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield around New York City in December. It’s a wintry book, lonely and sad and urban, narrated by Holden himself in a voice that can be abrasive, earnest, playful and sarcastic, often all at once. The plot itself is a loose quest narrative, with the anti-heroic Holden seeking meaning, innocence and, more than anything, a listening ear.
I first read this book in the eleventh grade, and I remember little except that Holden annoyed me. We were the same age at the time, this character and me, but the similarities ended there. Holden was rich and irritated; I was middle-class and content. Holden was failing out of private school; I was a grade-obsessed, public school honors student. Holden had endless complaints, to which my compassionate, teenaged response was usually “Just deal with it.” Reading it again is a sobering flashback on a younger and narrower self.
Because I’m returning to this book, really just a character, to find someone who’s become familiar. I know Holden now. In friends, in siblings, in students and even in myself, I’ve heard echoed the questions of this lost teenager, seeking connection in a world that seems to be increasingly disconnected. This is the Holden who considers vocation with the hope that he can escape being “phony”:
“Lawyers are alright, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me”, I said. “I mean they’re alright if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the… trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is you wouldn’t” (172).
When his sister, the only character who finally listens to him, asks what he’d rather do, he can only describe his hope to be a “catcher in the rye,” a protector of the innocent:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy” (173).
Holden can be maddening, both in his decisions and his motivation, and the narrator that I found so irritating hasn’t changed since I was in high school. I guess it’s me that’s changed, able to hear the truth under the bravado, and appreciate that even though my longing for meaning and connection have led me to Christ, the longing is universal. Though we can avoid chain-smoking or dropping out of school, in essentials Holden is related to all of us, connected in a way that elicits more compassion now than scorn.