Holden Caulfield Just About Killed Me

“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel”

Holden Holden Caulfield would probably have two hemorrhages if he heard someone say this, but it’s true that even for thoughtful and otherwise independent people it simply feels good sometimes to know you’re doing the exact same thing as thousands of others. And judging by the book’s Amazon ranking (I saw it reach as high as #7), I wasn’t the only one rereading The Catcher in the Rye over the past two weeks. Despite my determination to read it, I have to admit that I expected to be put off by the book this time around, and I was. What I didn’t expect was that I wouldn’t be put off by what I’d dreaded going in—the sanctimonious tone—but by what I thought I would enjoy—the novel’s action, watching Holden run around and clash with people. Because I finally realized that, when it comes right down to it, Holden’s a jerk.

It started with one phrase in the book—“It killed me”—and the variations thereof. I say that phrase sometimes, and I never realized where I’d picked the phrase up. Holden says it dozens of times; aside from “phony,” it might be his pet phrase. But I (along with most people) say “It just about killed me” when something just about kills me with laughter, when I find something so absurd or incongruent I almost die in delighted shock. And in fact, far from Catcher being the somber treatise on how to live an authentic life that I remember being assured it was in high school, the book was disarmingly funny. Holden is a master of hyperbole, the comic exaggeration—a style of joke mostly lost on people who take the book a little seriously. But Holden generally doesn’t use “killed me” when he’s speaking of something uproarious. He uses it to point out shams, hypocrisies, or, most often, just plain normal human failings that offend his fragile sensibilities. Jesus Christ never laughed, and neither does Holden Caulfield. If we readers find ourselves laughing, we almost have to hide it from him.

Now, in criticizing H.C., I don’t mean to channel George Will here. Frankly, if (like Will) you can barely fathom how Catcher might appeal to young people, that’s a little strange. (Will was apparently, like Athena from the brow of Ronald Reagan, born an adult.) And it’s silly to wail about the apotheosis of Holden as a role model, and fume about how he helped replace haute culture with adolescent culture. In fact, while I feared going in I would have to control my gag reflex every time Caulfield excommunicated another phony, I mostly didn’t. Because let’s face it: People sometimes do things that are exactly as stupid as Holden says they are. Remember the guy Holden sat in front of in Radio City Music Hall? He deserved being made fun of. He was enthralled with the Rockettes’ high-kick routine, and as Holden says, “[he] kept saying to his wife, ‘You know what that is? That’s precision.’ He killed me.”

Nor did Holden put me off for being passé in today’s much different world, as a garment-rending article in the New York Times last year had it, “Get a Life, Holden Caulfield.” One lad quoted in the story apparently said, “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.’” It’s a line almost engineered to give the flutters to a certain demographic (New-York-Times-reading adults)—and actually sounds exactly like the kind of BS that Holden would spew to an adult asking him some pious question about books. If anything, the tone of that quote reassures me that Catcher will continue to appeal to any generation of human beings that must pass through an adolescent phase.

Holden2 So, what finally exasperated me—what made me want to shake Holden by his ears—was his near-autistic lack of empathy for basically decent people who never do anything wrong per se but don’t meet his standards. I’m thinking of people like Ackley (the pimply dorm neighbor at Pencey Prep), Stradlater (Holden’s macho roommate), Luce (the Columbia student Holden meets in a bar who refuses to discuss his sex life), or the tourist girls from Seattle at the night club who would have gotten a kick out of seeing Cary Grant (who wouldn’t?). In nearly every conversation Holden has, he proves himself obtuse: lousy with basic people skills like not mouthing off, and unable to distinguish between someone’s being just dull or silly and his being actually intolerable or sinister. Nor, despite his own pronounced emotions (he cries at least three times in public), does Holden grasp that even the jerks he meets can, beneath it all, might have complex and contradictory emotions of their own. In short, however well he can observe and describe people physically, Holden cannot move beyond that to inhabit their mental space. Even people we expect Holden to like—like the daredevil roller skater at the stage show he sees—only serve to expand his taxonomy of how people can offend him—he despises the roller-skater for having had to spend hours practicing his craft, for crying out loud. He also misses important things about people he likes sincerely. More than once Holden makes much of a quirk of Jane Gallagher, his Beatrice—how, when playing checkers, Jane always kept her kings in the back row and never moved them out. Earlier, Holden had described traits in Ackley that were just as revealing, albeit in a different way: like Ackley’s constantly keeping tabs on the studly Stradlater’s dating life, for instance, despite his supposed hatred of Stradlater, or Ackley’s alarming lack of nonchalance about cutting his toenails or squeezing his pimples in front of people. I’m not saying Holden should have admired these traits, but they are more revealing of Ackley’s personality, to someone who bothers to consider them, than a cutesy but empty habit during checkers. Indeed, with Jane, Holden cannot face what probably is the most important thing going on in her life—her burgeoning sexuality—because he idealizes her. (It makes me think that Dante’s lucky Beatrice died at twelve.) When confronted with her sexuality—Holden finds out that Stradlater may have (it’s never quite clear) “given Jane the time”—Holden assaults Stradlater. Not exactly gentle, that. When Stradlater throws Holden off and bloodies his nose, Holden flees the state in a huff.

Now, such mature reflections and poise are a lot to ask of a sixteen year old in love, sure. Then again, Holden is beloved for being supposedly more astute than most people, more discerning and somehow better than those he interacts with. Plus, the entire book isn’t told in a torrent of present-tense passion (when disgust and a lack of empathy would be excusable) but at a remove, after Holden had weeks to reflect. And there are hints throughout that old Salinger knew Holden wasn’t comporting himself well. Two of Holden’s former teachers call him out on his behavior, for instance, once at the beginning and once at the end of the book. Nor does Salinger let Holden “win” at the end—Holden’s certainly not crushed by the phonies, but having a breakdown and ending up in a mental convalescence ward isn’t exactly triumphant. Most revealing is when Holden sneaks back into his parents’ apartment to visit Phoebe, his nine-year-old sister. He reveals he’s been kicked out of Pencey and Phoebe despairs, finally asking Holden what he plans to do with himself now. Holden considers some career options, including (of all things) being a lawyer, but dismisses that, too:

“…How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.”

I’m not too sure old Phoebe knew what the hell I was talking about. I mean she’s only a little child and all. But she was listening, at least. If somebody at least listens, it’s not too bad.

“Daddy’s going to kill you. He’s going to kill you,” she said.

I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else—something crazy.

“You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddamn choice?”

Note the echo. Holden commends Phoebe, here and elsewhere, for at least listening to him—“If somebody at least listens, it’s not too bad.” When Phoebe needs Holden to listen in turn, out it comes—“I wasn’t listening.” Holden does not, or cannot, reciprocate here. He does not, or cannot, grasp that Phoebe is struggling with her emotions just as strongly as he is and might need him to listen to her. He’s too absorbed to notice, and that’s the root of his jerkdom. Immediately after this, of course, Holden answers his own question—“You know what I’d like to be?”—by relating his fantasy of being the catcher in the rye, responsible for catching children that might fall off a cliff. This is a crucial moment in the book, then; and this crucial moment is preceded by a telling insight into Holden’s character—his failure to understand the needs and motivations of even the one person he cares for without qualification. It’s telling, too, that only Phoebe notices the misquote: The Robert Burns poem actually says, “When a body meet a body coming through the rye,” not “When a body catch a body…” But Holden doesn’t budge when she points this out. People meet on equal terms, but there’s master-slave dynamic, a power imbalance, when someone catches someone else.

Holden3 But here’s the funny thing about The Catcher in the Rye. I’m still glad I reread it. What makes a great book great is that you emerge from it with very different thoughts and perspectives each time you read it. Usually, you get more out of something—more layers out of Hamlet, more grace notes in Moby Dick, more overtones and ironies in whatever—and end up appreciating it more. It doesn’t have to work that way. Some people emerge from Catcher embarrassed about their youthful enthusiasm; some people feel merely disappointed the second go-round—and both of those feelings are valid emotions, too, no less an important part of life. I get the feeling Salinger may have realized this about Holden—perhaps the ultimate point of the book is that we’re supposed to grow tired of him, repudiate him, just as we walk away from our former selves. (If so, perhaps Salinger hid out in New Hampshire not because people would have gotten too close to him otherwise, but because everyone misunderstood the bigger meaning of Catcher.) Then again, one funny thing about Salinger is that he, like Holden, never compromised himself in any serious way. But again, compromising yourself is part of life, a powerful and immemorial part, and therefore fair game for art. It’s not good, of course, to advocate that artists compromise themselves, but compromising yourself is one good way to understand how it feels to do so, and may help someone who writes about the human condition understand that—contra Holden Caulfield—even the most bourgeois people can have ideals and probably feel terrible about themselves when they give those ideals up. You wonder whether Holden ever joined the hated phonies when he grew up—and whether doing so might have made for a better, more empathetic telling of those three wrecked days just before Christmas.