J.D. Salinger’s books speckled New York this week, as a chorus of readers gave the author an impromptu final salute. Spotted on the subway, 11:15 on Saturday night: Nine Stories en route to Coney Island, devoured with a pencil in hand. Monday morning on Broadway it was Catcher in the Rye in a cafe window seat, words imbibed between sips of coffee. As I write this, I imagine there’s someone seated at a dimly lit hotel bar in Midtown, downing a cocktail and keeping company with a dog-eared Holden Caulfield.
I too was reading Salinger last weekend, for a second time. I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and followed it with Franny and Zooey, appropriately, in college. I never experienced the Salinger epiphany that so many do, but I was compelled to continue reading his work. Holden Caulfield voiced his angst and frustration with far more insight and intelligence than any teenager I knew, and I admired his courage to escape. But he also left me somewhat estranged.
My desire to identify with Holden–and who doesn’t read Catcher in the Rye to identify with Holden?–underscored our vast differences as much as it made him a companion or guide. Literary liberation and rebellion for me, rather, took the form of Nora leaving in A Doll’s House and Margaret Atwood’s female leads. By the time I read Catcher in the Rye, its colloquialisms seemed “phony,” to sling Holden’s favorite insult. His lingo had long ago ceded to other teenage argot. This alone I could have forgiven.
But Holden also embodied adolescent maleness so completely that he left no room for a frustrated girl of a commensurate age. To be fair, he left little room for anyone else. His alienation was the point. The female characters were colored by Holden’s conflicted desire. They were either vulnerable (like and Jane and Phoebe), a source of ambivalent attraction (Sally and the hotel prostitute), or playthings (the Pencey mother on the train and “stupid girls” who dance well). I doubt it’s a coincidence that most of the tributes to Salinger have been penned by men.
Holden’s hang-ups with shoddy suitcases also came between us. Of the ones owned by his former roommate, Dick Slagle, Holden said, “it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs–if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do.” Perhaps it’s because I wondered how my suitcases would measure up that his complaints about privilege, phonies, boarding schools, and New York apartments seemed distant and intangible. Rereading now, though, his insights about class and wealth, and the divisions they create, strike me as more truthful than I then cared to admit.
In spite of his faults, I admired Holden for his audacity to pick up and leave and to always speak his mind. He could be clever, insolent, and charming, simultaneously. He knew he had a precious window of time on the cusp of adulthood, where he could shirk responsibility and leave, say with Sally, until the money ran out. And he was was still young enough to believe that everything would work out in the end.
It occurs to me that I’m judging Holden more like an old friend than a character in a novel. This is perhaps the largest compliment I can pay him, and Salinger, too. Holden himself said that what he most wanted from a book was the sense that “when you’re all done reading it, you wish that the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger, more than most authors, gave his readers that feeling. He implored not only Holden but every weary, cynical teenager reading his novel with Mr. Antolini’s admonition: “you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then start going there. But immediately.” He echoes this in Franny and Zooey, too, when Zooey tells Franny,“if you don’t at least know by this time that if you’re an actress you’re supposed to act, then what’s the use of talking?”
Salinger may have secluded himself for the second half of his life and escaped society in a way Holden only yearned to. But his voice has and will continue, in his death, to resonate through his fiction. He gently nudges his readers at times, and at others he grabs them by their lapels in an attempt to rouse them, to tell them they must decide what kind of skull you want when they’re dead. Get to it, he’s saying, don’t waste time.