If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know about is that crumby article I found a few years back. It was a really phony piece, in The Guardian or something and all, written by this very intellectual guy who says he re-reads Catcher in the Rye every five years. First of all, what a goddam ridiculous premise for an article. Who wants to hear about some crumby guy and the lousy book he keeps re-reading over and over? The thought of it just makes me depressed as hell. I mean it.
But, if you want to know the truth, I read that article and I thought, Hey, that’s not such a bad idea . . . I mean, Catcher in the Rye is, in a lot of ways, about growing up. The loss of innocence. Why not revisit it every few years?
For those of you who don’t know it, J.D. Salinger’s short novel Catcher in the Rye is narrated by seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield. It’s almost Christmas, and Holden is getting kicked out of Pencey Prep, which is just the latest in a long string of fancy schools Holden’s rich parents have tried shipping him off to. Holden has crashed and burned out of all of them. He can’t stand these goddam schools, and I can’t exactly blame him for wanting out. According to Holden, places like Pencey are filled with guys who bully kids literally to death, guys who freely pressure young women into sex, and “perverty” teachers like Mr. Antolini, who stroke Holden’s hair while he sleeps. If you ask Holden, he’s practically the only one who notices how goddam awful it all is. He’s also mourning the recent loss of his younger brother, Allie, who succumbed to leukemia sometime before the beginning of the book. But Holden doesn’t like to talk about that.
I first read Catcher in December of 2010, when I was sixteen. I read it for a class, and I connected deeply with Holden’s bitter loneliness. As an only child and an awkward teenager myself, I saw a lot of me in Holden’s desperate search for companionship. He stalks the streets of New York, grumbles about the ducks in Central Park, pretends he’s been shot, and lashes out at people he claims to love. And I appreciated his company, bitter though it was.
Holden is infamous for being a whiny, unsympathetic narrator. And having read the damn book three times now (since I’ve been trying to follow that phony article’s advice and all), I think I’m allowed to say that that’s a fair take. But I think I’m also allowed to say that Holden’s not just being whiny. There’s more to it than that.
In 2016, I read Catcher again for a different class. This time around, I was drawn in by Holden’s sense that pretty much everyone besides himself was a total phony. I was in my senior year of college then, and bitter about the complex social dynamics of my school. Like Holden, I wanted to be left alone, maybe live the rest of my life in the woods as a deaf-mute. But I also desperately wanted companionship. I’m not proud of the ways this emotional dichotomy affected my relationships at the time. But hell—neither is Holden.
During a date with his old flame Sally Hayes, Holden confesses, “I don’t get hardly anything out of anything,” before begging Sally to run away with him to Vermont. “I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all and, later on, we could get married or something. I could chop all our own wood in the wintertime and all.”
But Sally is a realist. She tells Holden, “We’d starve to death.” Besides, they’re practically children. Can’t he wait until they’re out of college to run off like that? “There’ll be oodles of marvelous places to go to.”
Holden instantly deflates. He hates the word marvelous. “Open your ears,” he tells her. “It’d be entirely different. We’d have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We’d have to phone up everybody and tell ‘em good-by and send ‘em postcards from hotels and all… It wouldn’t be the same at all. You don’t see what I mean at all.”
Like Holden, I felt “confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior,” as Holden’s old English teacher puts it. Like, I couldn’t believe how everyone I knew (people I really respected, too) was breaking their necks, posting selfies and attention-gobbling pictures of food. People were treating rallies like fashion statements. Going vegan but then eating pepperoni. It made me want to puke.
But Holden assured me I wasn’t crazy. Or at least, if I was, I wasn’t alone.
I’m writing this in December 2020. Ten years exactly since I first met Holden. I figured I’d copy that lousy article, give Holden another visit. It was snowing out, hard, and I was feeling low when I slid the book back off its dusty shelf. The perfect evening for some literary company. But I have to say, reading this book for the third time, in my mid-20s, was an altogether different experience. I was surprised by how immature Holden seemed, and surprised by my surprise. His continual search for companionship seemed almost comical, and I had a hard time with his outright anger at the world. On one level, this experience was a relief. Maybe I was growing up. But on another, I felt sort of panicky and wayward. I realized I’d wanted something from Holden. Some wisdom that Salinger could pass on through him. I mean, why else do we read a book like Catcher in the Rye if not to gain some insight? Hell, why read it three times if it’s not wise?
By the time I finished the book, I still hadn’t found that wisdom. I followed Holden through a long string of vignettes as he spends days wandering the city, avoiding telling his parents that he’s flunked out of yet another school. Desperate not to be alone, Holden meets an old friend for a drink, has breakfast with a pair of nuns, sneaks into his home late at night to talk to his kid sister Phoebe, dances with a group of women from Seattle, bugs a bunch of cabbies, gets beaten up by a pimp, and more. That’s practically the entire book—Holden’s conversations over a two-day period. And after all these scenes, Holden offers nothing. No grand unifying wisdom. The book simply ends. In a brief coda, Holden tells us that when he starts talking about everything that’s happened, he starts missing everyone in the story. He even misses Stradlater, his abusive roommate at Pencey, and “that goddam Maurice,” the pimp who beat him up.
“Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” he tells us. “If you do, you start missing everybody.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to take away from this, Catcher’s final line, when I read it this time. I lay there on my couch for a long time after, thinking about it. You start missing everybody… The hell does that mean? How does that possibly tie up the plot?
There were balloons tied to the coffee table by my side, left over from my mother’s retirement party the night before. One of the balloons had sprung a leak and was drifting down toward the table, slow but inevitable. I thought Holden would have appreciated that image. This cheery pink balloon losing its helium, tumbling down through the air. I think it would have killed him. I mean it. He gets a kick out of that kind of thing.
I’d been excited for my third outing with Holden. I’d been interested to see how he’d changed over the years. How I’d changed, really. But as I lay there, watching this balloon drift down, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. I wondered if maybe I’d changed too much. Maybe I wouldn’t need to come back to Catcher a fourth time. And really, who the hell needs to read any book four goddam times?
I thought, and thought. The balloon drifted down, and down.
I’d just watched Holden have conversations with dozens of people. Some of them he’s closer to than others—he even claims to love Sally before he goes off on her and calls her “a pain in my ass.” He pings from one to the next, becoming increasingly, literally, ill.
But that’s the thing. At the end of the day, none of these people work for Holden because none of them are the person he truly wants to speak with. None of them are Allie. None of them are the brother he lost far too young. Thus the anger, the violence, the drinking, the chain-smoking, the whining, the sarcasm. Holden is acting out because he doesn’t know where to turn. No matter where he turns—Allie will still be dead.
Catcher in the Rye may indeed be about the loss of innocence. A battle cry against growing old. But at the end of the day, Catcher in the Rye is also about grief. Holden may be whiny, yes, but he’s also grieving. He’s grieving Allie. He’s grieving himself. Hell—he’s grieving the entire goddam world. He simply doesn’t know how to articulate that grief, or how to process it effectively, partly because he’s seventeen and from a “fabulously wealthy” family. One that seems to throw money at their problems until they simply go away. His grief over Allie’s death, though never explicitly stated, felt like a constant presence beneath the text, and I could see the ways it informs Holden’s chaotic behavior. Grief itself is chaos.
For my third read-through, this aspect of Salinger’s work stood out more than anything, because, frankly, 2020 has been about grief as well. Grief for canceled events, for pretending to hug loved ones through screens or from across very long tables. We grieve for people who can’t pay their rent. For people with deep grooves running down their faces now, after months on the frontline of the epidemic. We grieve for the people shot down in their own homes. And we grieve for people we’ve known our entire lives, who fought like hell for weeks, breathing through a tube, until the end. We grieve for so much this year. And we each do it in our way. We rally, we protest, we sing, we weep. We eat entire buckets of cheeseballs and smoke a bong as soon as we get out of bed. We down entire bottles of wine in a sitting, and we binge entire shows that make us feel happy, make us feel nothing at all. We scroll endlessly through nothing, nothing, hoping that by liking that post or this picture—we’ll feel a little less alone in the chaos of this year.
And that is, I think, Salinger’s point. There is no grand unifying wisdom when it comes to grief. And while I didn’t necessarily connect with Holden Caulfield’s long, whining digressions this time around, I certainly connected with his desperation. I fell in love with the way he offered to tie a little girl’s skates in the park—someone he’d never met before—just so that he had an excuse to talk to someone. I watched him claw at the company of stranger after stranger, paying for their drinks and their meals and their time, becoming increasingly panicked and physically ill as he slouched across the entire city, desperate for some scrap of companionship. I watched him try to buy company, and when it all fell apart, I watched him skip his last few coins across the surface of the pond in Central Park, depressed as hell, and alone.
I don’t know if Holden learned anything. I don’t know if he’s going to get out of that goddam institution and be a new man. If he’s ever going to piece together the bits of knowledge and grace gained from a long slew of people who cared about him but never seemed to listen. I don’t know if he’s ever going to fully process the grief he feels over Allie. I don’t even know if he should. But for two hundred pages, I watched him try. I watched him put in a solid goddam effort. And that alone made this third visit with him worth it.
At one point, Holden waxes poetic about the beauty of museums. The best thing about the museum, he claims, is that “everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish . . . Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything . . . You’d just be different, that’s all.”
When I pick this book up again in 2025, I’ll be different. We all will. The person I am now—he’ll never read Catcher in the Rye again. There’s something sad in that, yes. But something hopeful, too. I hope that the person I am in 2025 feels happier, healthier. That he can hug anyone he wants to without worrying about the goddam air. The grief I feel now? I know that’ll be different, too.
I have a friend who reads Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes every October. I know plenty of people who marathon Star Wars or Lord of the Rings regularly. So my advice, from Holden Caulfield to you? Find whatever thing you love that’s behind glass. Revisit it regularly if you can. Because each time you do, it’ll be like gazing into a mirror. Because the thing itself never changes, but you do. And every time you pick up that book, that film, that song—you’ll be able to see how you’ve changed, within the thing itself.
It’s not that you’ll be older or worse off or better off. You’ll just be different, that’s all. It could be anything. You’ll have some new grief, or you’ll have just let go of some old one. You’ll be wearing a coat or a t-shirt. It might be that the first time you finish this book, you’ll be lying on the carpet in Grandpa’s house. Two months later, Grandpa will be gone. The next time you finish it, you’ll be on your mother’s back porch. Two years later, she’ll sell that house with the porch, and the people who live there now will live with the shutters drawn, the porch void of any furniture. Maybe the next time you finish this book, you’ll be on a beach, or in a hotel. Or watching a balloon drift down toward the floor, deflated and sad and almost funny.
You’ll just be different next time. That’s all. But the book, thank God, won’t be different at all.
SAM REBELEIN holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Starting this fall, he’ll be a PhD candidate in English/Horror at Texas Tech University. He has work in Bourbon Penn, Planet Scumm, Shimmer, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and elsewhere.