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July 17, 2013

Telling It Like It Is: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger

Welcome back, readers! Hope you all enjoyed your long holiday weekend and had ample opportunity to express your freedom and wear red, white and blue non-ironically and watch the most beautiful fireworks ever (because aren’t the ones you’re watching always the most beautiful? --- there’s a casual life metaphor for you). Hopefully, you’ve slept off your hot dog coma by now, and you’re ready to get back to Telling It Like It Is business with me. Not to get all patriotic on you, but this week I figured we’d do a real American story, or at least a real teenage American story --- a story of angst and freedom and getting kicked out of a stuffy prep school kind of on purpose. Obviously, I’m talking about THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, one of my all-time personal faves. So hold on to your hunting hats because this Salinger classic is about to get REAL. 

Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old NYC-bred kid who’s telling us this story as part of his treatment at a mental hospital. He’s not particularly forthcoming about the details of his present situation, but who is at that age? --- pretty sure I was fine and school was fine and my friends were fiiiine for three years straight from 15 to 18. So Holden’s opening up about a weekend he spent wandering around Manhattan after he was expelled from Pencey --- the fourth consecutive prep school he failed out of. Sounds like he’s on the fast-track to Nowheresville, huh? Thing is, he’s a smart kid, he just doesn’t really like playing the game --- or applying himself, for that matter (which makes him basically every guy I’ve ever dated). He’s in school with a bunch of jerks, and the teachers are a bunch of pedantic blowhards as far as Holden’s concerned, so he figures the whole thing’s not really his scene.

Holden starts the story with one particularly bad day: It’s the weekend before Christmas break, and classes for the semester have just ended. He just found out that he’s been asked not to return to Pencey Prep because he’s failed most of his classes, but his parents aren’t expecting him home for another couple of days. So he’s in this weird in-between situation where he doesn’t want to continue wearing out an already worn-out welcome, but he doesn’t want to go home in shame to his fancy, boozy parents. Holden can deal with the academic shaming and stuff, but what really sets him off is his roommate, Stradlater, who’s the worst kind of retro bro, who comes home from a date with Holden’s White Whale (the one that got away, like Moby Dick, you know? No?), Jane Gallagher, and is kind of mean and sexist about her, which Holden cannot stand for at all. Stradlater’s also kind of dense about this loving essay Holden wrote about his dead brother Allie’s baseball glove (and here’s an important voice thing --- Holden gets serious and lyrical when he talks about his brother), and that also makes Holden nuts. He starts a fight with Stradlater, who was pretty much born to flick off worked-up twerps like Holden, and the outcome is disastrous. That’s the last douche-y straw for Holden, who decides it’s high time he hightails it out of Pencey, and you kind of can’t really blame him.

He heads over to NYC and checks in at the seedy Edmont Hotel, where he plans to stay til his parents expect him home on Wednesday. On the way over, he gets chatty with the cabdriver (this was before the age of Taxi TV and all its vociferous glory) and asks him where the Central Park ducks go when the lagoon freezes (pretty sure that’s the thing 16-year-old boys obsess about). The cabbie isn’t having it at all, though --- he’s no Ben Bailey --- and is not a big fan of Holden’s questions. This is kind of a bummer for Holden, who wants everyone to be into his specific ideas about poetic justice and stuff. His frustration only grows once he’s at the hotel and he sees a bunch of people doing pervy things (depending on what you’re into) through the windows across the way. He goes off about his own sexuality, and how he’s had plenty of opportunities to lose his virginity but the timing was never right, and he, like, respects women too much. (Riiiight. Cool story, bro.) To illustrate this point, he calls up some girl he heard used to be a stripper, who at first is pissed that a random guy is calling her in the middle of the night but then offers to meet Holden the next day. Holden wusses out and ends up hanging up without even arranging a meeting. 

After an unsuccessful attempt to hook up with some older ladies he meets at the hotel bar, he sits in the lobby and gets really reflective about Jane Gallagher and how he loved her and her funny mouth one summer they spent together vacationing with their families in Maine. One day, they were playing checkers on the porch (not a euphemism --- because this was the 50’s and that’s what kids did before they had Temple Run), and Jane’s creepy stepdad came out and when he left Jane just pretty much lost it. Holden comforted her, and kissed her all over her face, but she wouldn’t let him kiss her on the mouth, landing him in the dreaded friendzone. Naturally after this kind of reflection, Holden decides to go to a nightclub downtown to get laid (Real Talk: NOT as easy as it looks). Once there, he sits alone and gets really judgmental and bitter about the rest of the patrons who he figures are all a bunch of phonies because they’re having an easier time socializing than he is. One of his older brother’s ex-girlfriends recognizes him and invites him to hang, but he isn’t feeling it and makes up an excuse to leave.

Back at the Edmont, Maurice, the shaaaady elevator guy, recognizes a desperate man when he sees one. He offers to send a prostitute to Holden’s room for five bucks (five bucks! I can barely get a cup of fro-yo for five bucks), and Holden, a typical teen unwilling to look the fool (which basically sums up the circumstances of my very own first kiss --- another story for another time), is game. The girl, Sunny, shows up at Holden’s room shortly after, and when she starts to undress Holden gets weird about it and starts making conversation, instantly killing the mood. He tells her he’s recovering from surgery and can’t have sex with her, but she continues to push him, until he insists on paying her and showing her the door. She’s not too pleased with this arrangement and comes back later with Maurice, who puts on his scariest angry pimp voice and demands five more dollars. On principle, Holden refuses, so Maurice punches him in the stomach while Sunny takes five dollars from his wallet. And this, guys, is why we don’t get involved with shady pimps and their baby-faced prostitutes --- cautionary tale if ever there were. Bottom line: Save yourself ten dollars and get unlimited toppings at Pinkberry instead.

For lack of a non-ambiguous way of keeping track, let’s call this Holden’s third strike. At the bottom of his barrel, he decides the next morning to call his backburner girl (don’t be so judge-y; we’ve all got ‘em), Sally Hayes, a pretty girl he dated a whole bunch of years ago, and arranges to meet up with her. On his way over, he calls up Jane, but immediately hangs up when her mother answers the phone (this was before caller ID, and also maybe an indication that Jane’s folks don’t quite approve of Holden). He stops off at Central Park to look for his younger sister, Phoebe, whom he loves and thinks is the best, but she’s not there, and her classmate tells Holden she may be at the Museum of Natural History. Holden knows how unlikely this is on a Saturday, but goes there anyway, ultimately deciding not to go in. Guys, Holden’s kind of obsessed with Phoebe, and with the innocence of childhood in general. He wants the world to be pure and beautiful --- a completely good thing to want --- but isn’t able to reconcile himself to the parts of life that aren’t quite so black and white. If adulthood=compromise, then Holden wants no part in it and will totally judge anyone who does. 

Anyway, he meets Sally and they go to a show together (which, apparently, is what teens in the 50’s did when they weren’t playing checkers --- still not a euphemism). Things start off sort of okay, and there’s some “necking” in the cab (50’s slang for hooking up, which my friends and I thought was the funniest thing for about a week), and after the play they head over to Radio City to skate. Neither is too good at skating, so they sit down and Holden tries to have a serious conversation with Sally, who’s a little shallow and doesn’t really get what he’s talking about. Initially, she’s sympathetic and in a really girlie way, tries to be constructive, but when Holden goes off about running away together to live in a cabin in the woods she becomes decidedly less supportive and refuses to get on board. This bothers Holden, who trusted her enough to open up to her, and he lashes out, heartlessly calling her a “pain in the ass,” and laughing when she expresses her dismay. Again, not the most mature response to a little conflict. Despite his apologies, Sally leaves in a huff. 

What does Holden do next? He calls Jane again, of course! Let’s give him a little credit because this was way before Facebook, and he couldn’t just stalk her photos for a few hours and get it harmlessly out of his system. There is no answer, so he calls this guy, Carl Luce, who was his student advisor at one of his prep schools and who now goes to Columbia. Luce and Holden meet up for a drink, and Holden says a bunch of insensitive things about gay people and Luce’s Chinese girlfriend, which is not and never was cool. Luce angrily leaves Holden, who is getting drunker and increasingly more aggressive. He drunkenly calls Sally, who’s not having it at all, then takes this roundabout trek to the lagoon in Central Park to find out once and for all WHAT’S UP WITH THE DUCKS. On the way, he drops and breaks this “Little Shirley Beans” record he’d gotten special for Phoebe, totally breaking Big Brother Code by preemptively disappointing his lil sis. 

Cold and discouraged, he sneaks into his parents’ apartment to finally see Phoebe. She’s thrilled to see him, but also worried about his covert, impromptu visit and is totally bummed when he admits that he’s been kicked out of yet another school. Holden tells her about this fantasy he has about being a “catcher in the rye” (based on the lyrics to a sweet and wacky Robert Burns poem --- basically he’ll be the guardian of all these kids running through a rye field near a cliff, and when one of them comes close to the edge he’ll catch them so they can continue playing cheerfully and without worry. It’s pretty much a thinly veiled wish to preserve the innocence of all the kids in the world forever --- falling off the cliff representing, of course, their descent into adulthood. Phoebe, who’s probably the wisest 10-year-old ever, totally calls him out and tells him he needs to get with the program. When their parents come home, Holden stealthily slips out, and goes to hang with his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who he thought was pretty cool and, like, got it (for a teacher).

At Mr. Antolini’s place, Holden tells him about his recent troubles, and Antolini tries to counsel him re: growing the heck up. He tells him, much to the delight of future Lit majors, that it’s “the mark of the mature man to live humbly for his cause, rather than die nobly for it.” This is pretty much the crux of the whole book, and the thing that Holden struggles with the most. Holden eventually falls asleep, and is awakened in the middle of the night by Mr. Antolini stroking his head in a way that Holden feels is maybe gay, so he panics and bolts. Distraught, and with only one day left until he’s expected home, Holden decides he’s gonna head out west to live his life as a deaf-mute. He leaves a note at Phoebe’s school telling her to meet him at the Museum of Natural History at lunchtime to say bye. She shows up with a packed suitcase and asks Holden to take her with him. Of course he refuses, and she cries and cries and won’t speak to him. He walks to the zoo knowing she’s following him, and although he’s worried about Phoebe safely crossing the street, he doesn’t turn around, and trusts that she can make it on her own (and this is kind of a sign that he’s maturing a little, but not a whole lot). He leads her to the carousel and buys her a ticket to ride, realizing that, despite the heavy rain and his general malaise, he is so happy in that moment watching Phoebe he could cry. 

The story ends with Holden in the mental institution and some vaguely optimistic plans to go back to school in September (frankly, I'll believe it when I see it). He warns us not to tell anyone about our experiences, because then we’ll only end up missing the people in our stories, which is kind of sweet, but pretty sentimental. Anyway, there’s a little bit of Holden in all of us, I like to think, even if it’s just a predilection for snappy headwear (<-- I almost feel too bad for this joke. Salinger, please don’t hate me forever.)