The Catcher in the Rye—J D Salinger

[I chose to read this novel in three sections, writing in detail about what I had read so far after each section, and nothing beyond. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]

23rd December 2020
Chapters 1-10                                                                                       
I first read this when I was only a little older than Holden Caulfield. I can see why I loved it then, despite not being an American with parents rich enough to send me to an expensive school. The voice is perfect, capturing Holden’s sixteen-year-old seen-it-all-before disdain for anything phoney, which covers just about everything and everybody he encounters. I suspect that my late-teens self didn’t pay much attention to his privileged life and immovable sense of entitlement… maybe I took it for granted that this is what Americans are like. And maybe a sense I had of my own importance in the world was quite close to the one that Salinger is satirising. If that’s what he’s doing. But I’m not sure I had a handle on Holden’s neediness and vulnerability all those years ago. He hides it from himself, of course, and I suspect I went along with the persona he was presenting, along with all his pretended confidence and teenage ennui. Maybe that’s what a lot of people do when they read this book at a young age.

But that was then. Now, I wonder if this novel is only about a troubled adolescent. Holden’s far from grown-up attitude to the world is recognisable in all too many adults in the west. For them, as for him, the attention paid to the individual self far outweighs any concerns about society, and it seems to me that this is what Salinger satirises so mercilessly. Holden might be an adolescent, as are the boys in that other iconic novel of mid-20th Century anxiety, The Lord of the Flies. In that novel, Golding was interested in a society lacking the moral capacity to deal with the world it was creating. Salinger, meanwhile… what? His narrator is lost in the privileged world he lives in, hates the meaninglessness of it, hates his own failure to navigate it, and has no idea what to do about it. He tells us, often, how ‘depressing’ it is. Welcome to the post-war world.

But I should tell you what happens. He tells us he wants to start with ‘the day I left Pencey Prep’ and, ten chapters in, he isn’t at the end of his long afternoon’s journey into night. In every chapter there’s another encounter that confirms his inability to connect with anyone. His roommate at the school, his exasperated history teacher, people he meets that night after he’s decided to leave the place a few days early. He’s been thrown out—he tells us this is ‘about’ the fourth time this has happened—because he can’t engage with his studies any better than with anyone around him. There are people in his life, he tells us, that he would love to talk to. But his older brother, a writer, is now a ‘prostitute’ in Hollywood, his younger brother is dead, and he can’t phone his beloved young sister without his parents knowing all about it. He idolises them all, assuring us he’s ‘the only dumb one in the family.’ But dumb kids don’t read Karen Blixen and Thomas Hardy for pleasure. He has a lot of time for Eustacia Vye, Hardy’s headstrong (and ultimately self-destructive) anti-heroine. He would love to call up the author if he wasn’t dead too. It seems everybody interesting is out of reach.

Every one of his encounters is problematic, or contradictory, or both. He does favours for his room-mate, but hates the way he shaves, the way he treats girls (even though he, Holden, often fantasises about what he would like to do if he could), the way he knows exactly how good-looking he is. Their neighbour in the next room has disgusting mossy-looking teeth, and a whole lot of bad habits Holden loves to tell us about, but he still invites him out to a movie with another friend. He really likes his history teacher, but focuses on his bony chest in his dressing-gown when he visits him at home to say goodbye. When he starts to get the inevitable lecture, he wishes he hadn’t come. Holden wants the man to like him, and tries to deflect his questions through glib answers. Like, does he have any qualms about his future? ‘Oh, I have a few qualms, all right. Sure. . . but not too many. Not yet, anyway. I guess it hasn’t really hit me yet. It takes things a while to hit me.’

He’s being thrown out because he only makes any effort in English, which he likes. He’s failed miserably in all his other studies, and has no interest in getting to grips with why this might be. This first one-third of the novel might only cover the second half of a single day, but we know from the first paragraph that his life isn’t going to become any easier after this. ‘I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.’ In Holden’s personal mix of hyperbole and understatement, ‘pretty run-down’ could mean anything from a bout of adolescent anomie to a total breakdown. And who knows where ‘out here’ might be?

The way Holden tells us about what happened at the end of the previous year isn’t quite stream-of-consciousness because his way of narrating it now, after the events, is at least as important as what he was thinking at the time. There’s nothing objective about his minute-by-minute appraisal of everything that’s wrong with his lousy life—‘lousy’ being another of his favourite words. All his favourite words and phrases are negative, except maybe ‘old,’ a word reserved for things and people he likes. And when he really finds something funny, it kills him. Phoebe, his sister, kills him—and she used to kill Allie, the brother who died. This requires some clarification: ‘I mean he liked her, too.’ There are a lot of unresolved issues surrounding Allie’s death. So far, Holden has told us how badly he reacted—‘I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage’—but in the rest of the description it’s as though he’s brushing off how serious it all was. ‘I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it…. It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it.’ I think we’ll hear more about it before he’s done.

Anyway. By the evening, he’s been to a movie with the two others, except they didn’t bother with it, he’s gone back, he’s written his roommate’s English assignment, he’s got into a fight with him both about the assignment and the girl he’s been out with, a childhood friend of Holden’s, knowing he’s no doubt tried to ‘give her the time’ in the car he’d borrowed. His nose bleeding on to his clothes, he’s gone to see their neighbour who’s trying to sleep, and done nothing but bicker….

The end of the semester is Wednesday, this is Saturday night—and he decides to leave now, this minute. Trains from Pennsylvania to New York run until late at night, and the journey leads to a chance encounter. As ever, nothing comes of it as he takes the opportunity to tell the mother of a boy he hates how wonderful he is), before he tries and fails to get her to have a cocktail with him. He had been pleasantly surprised by how sexy she is for someone around 40…. He gets to New York and fails to get the cab-driver engaged in conversation. He sees some low-level sleaziness in the windows opposite his at the hotel, then phones a woman whose number was given him by an acquaintance he hardly knows and fails to arrange a cocktail date with her. He has a dance with some dull 30-year-olds from Seattle, fantasises about the least ugly one, pretends he’s just seen Gary Cooper leaving the room…. He’s absolutely steeped in a typical post-war sense of male entitlement with regard to women—it’s something else Salinger is satirising—but he’s clueless. He thinks he looks older than he really is, but the reactions of absolutely everybody he meets tell us he’s definitely wrong.

As Chapter 10 ends he’s still not in bed. I’ve no idea what time it’s supposed to be, but it must be impossibly late. It makes me wonder how well he’s really remembering these night-time adventures, although the failures seem real enough….

10 January 2021
Chapters 11-20
…and they just keep coming. The failures, some of them toe-curlingly embarrassing. I’ll come back to them, because most of the time it’s just Holden carrying on from where he left off, becoming more and more ‘depressed.’ I don’t know if he uses the word even more now, or if it just seems that way. Whatever, he thinks he’s missing something. He doesn’t know what it is, not really, but the lack of it has cast him adrift. He clings to useless straws, none of them helpful, like his take on a code of male honour when he berates himself for his ‘yellowness.’ He tells us about how, even if he had known who stole his gloves at the school, he wouldn’t have confronted the thief. ‘I’d feel I ought to sock the guy in the jaw or something—break his goddam jaw. Only, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it.’ That’s mid-20th Century America for you—a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and if he doesn’t he’s yellow. Or he berates himself for failing another of the code’s tests, losing your virginity. ‘The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl—a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean—she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop.’ He goes on, helpfully, to explain how any girl he knows, ‘when she really gets passionate, she just hasn’t any brains. I don’t know. They tell me to stop, so I stop.’

This novel is often presented as a master-class in capturing the voice of adolescent angst. It is, but it’s more ambitious than that. Holden is cast adrift because the norms of behaviour he has grown up with are as phony as he describes. He doesn’t have the vision or experience, or even the words, to be able to critique it as an adult might. But he reads widely, so he has at least an inkling that there is more to life than going the whole way with girls, or settling arguments with a fist-fight or, later, getting a well-paid job so you can boast about your new car. He seems comfortable with the mores of the classic books he’s read, very different from what he sees all around him. But it doesn’t help him to get a handle on why most of the behaviour he witnesses disgusts him.

Lost in a New York that is offering him nothing, he seeks solace in a nostalgia for better times, or for when pleasures were simpler. We saw earlier how, when he feared for his childhood friend Jane finding herself in a car with his very determined roommate, it’s their games of checkers he remembers. He even asks his roommate to ask her if she still does that lining-up thing with her kings in the game…. Or, failing to find Phoebe skating in Central Park on Sunday afternoon, an activity he remembers well, he’s drawn to those trips to the museum, where nothing ever changed. He couldn’t be more direct about it: ‘Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.’

But I’m jumping the gun. Before that, we get what is the saddest insight of all into his sense of loss. Having run out of options the night before, he talks to Allie, his dead brother. He remembers a time when Allie wanted to go to the lake with him and one of his friends, Bobby. ‘I wouldn’t let him. I told him he was a child. So once in a while, now, when I get very depressed, I keep saying to him, “Okay. Go home and get your bike and meet me in front of Bobby’s house. Hurry up.”’

This replaying of a guilty memory, but somehow with the chance to get it right this time, comes after the most humiliating experience of Saturday night. The fantasy is all the worse for being hopeless, and it fits his mood after another attempt at a quick fix. What does a sixteen-year-old virgin need, according to the codes? He refers to a book he once read with a womanising hero who says ‘a woman’s body is like a violin and all, and that it takes a terrific musician to play it right. It was a very corny book—I realize that—but I couldn’t get that violin stuff out of my mind anyway. In a way, that’s why I sort of wanted to get some practice in, in case I ever get married. Caulfield and his Magic Violin, boy. It’s corny, I realize, but it isn’t too corny. I wouldn’t mind being pretty good at that stuff.’ He’s pretending to be sarcastic, but he’s buying it at the same time.

And it isn’t all he’s buying in the early hours of Sunday morning, a night of restlessness and pointless encounters behind him. The elevator operator at the hotel has offered him a prostitute for five bucks, and he accepts. He might learn something. But, when the girl arrives, he can’t go through with any of it. He feels as sorry for the girl as he does for himself, imagining how when she bought the dress he’s hung up for her nobody in the store would have known she was a prostitute…. It might be a crass way to think about a needy sex-worker, but it’s his idea and it’s genuine. But she has a job to do, which is to play her part in a scam. She asks for ten dollars although the lift-man had offered her for five, and he refuses. The man comes back with the girl as Holden is falling asleep, and he tries to refuse to pay the difference. It ends with him lying winded on the floor, trying to salvage something after they’ve left by pretending he’s play-acting a shot in the guts. Soon after, cue agonising memory of Allie.

Back to Sunday afternoon. After not going into the museum after all—maybe some memories are just too sacred, or fragile—he hangs around waiting for Sally, another girl he knows, so they can go and see an afternoon play. They see it, it’s not too bad, he admits, but the famous husband and wife Lunts are so good they take it for granted, so it isn’t that impressive. After it, having hated the intervals she spends talking to the phony guy she half-knows, he goes with her to the ice-rink and starts to fantasise about running away with her. ‘No kidding. We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, 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.’ It’s nonsense—he doesn’t even like her, and ends by telling her so. ‘You give me a royal pain in the ass, if you want to know the truth.’ That isn’t true either—he phones her later, and he will go to hers on Christmas Eve—but he’s floundering worse than ever as the day goes on.

Everything is what he doesn’t want. After his speech about their fantasy future together, but before he’s been nasty to her, he tells Sally what he hates about the future that she seems to expect for him: ‘I’d be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels. Newsreels. Christ almighty.’ He’s got himself into such a state of disgust he takes it out on her. Later he phones Luce, the most ‘intellectual’ person he knows, who had been three years above him at one of his earlier schools. It’s as though he knows he needs to talk some things through, but when Luce arrives at the bar where he is already getting drunk, Holden resorts to childish-sounding talk about sex instead. They do eventually start to talk about what Holden might really need, when Luce says, ‘I told you the last time I saw you what you need.’ Holden gets it, and replies, ‘You mean to go to a psychoanalyst and all?’ And he explains to the reader, ‘That’s what he’d told me I ought to do. His father was a psychoanalyst and all.’ But Holden is too drunk for this, and the conversation comes to nothing.

The whole day comes to nothing. Every one he meets or speaks to now—including Sally on the telephone—tells him he’s drunk and needs to go home. But how can he, when his parents don’t even know he’s been thrown out of school again? The only reason he’s spending these days before the vacation begins, drifting around New York, is to avoid seeing them until they’ve had time to digest the bad news from the school. But his money is almost all gone—he’s told us, as if we didn’t know, what a spendthrift he is—and, after some more wandering about he thinks it would be nice to see Phoebe. Maybe he can get into the apartment without their parents knowing….

15 January
Chapters 21-26—to the end
He does. Get into the apartment without their parents knowing. They’re out, as it happens, and Holden manages to hide in Phoebe’s closet when they arrive home and their mother comes in to aske Phoebe why her light was on. And when she asks why she can smell smoke, Phoebe pretends she lit a cigarette to see what it was like….

These details aren’t what’s important. Getting Holden alone with Phoebe for an hour or so allows Salinger one of the three set-piece encounters that define how the novel is going to end. Only Phoebe, who is with him for the long penultimate chapter too, seems to be able to see exactly what is going on with him, and forces him to look into himself in a way nobody else can. Certainly not the trusted teacher whose apartment he goes to, who tries to help but… but it gets complicated. I’ll come back to him.

Holden can’t get anything past Phoebe. Despite his protests to the contrary, she knows for a fact that he’s been thrown out of school again—and she feels really, really bad about it. She’s only ten, and she feels things deeply, hiding her head under a pillow in a move which, now I think about it, isn’t much less mature than the way Holden tries to hide away. When she finally comes out from it, she says nothing… until she suddenly bursts out: ‘“Oh, why did you do it?” She meant why did I get the ax again.’ And, for paragraph after paragraph, Holden tells her who and what he didn’t like this time. At the end of it, he gives up. ‘God, Phoebe! I can’t explain. I just didn’t like anything that was happening at Pencey. I can’t explain.’ Phoebe isn’t impressed. ‘You don’t like anything that’s happening,’ and Holden’s reaction shows she’s hit the mark: ‘It made me even more depressed when she said that. “Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do. Don’t say that. Why the hell do you say that?”’

It began to strike me at this point that Salinger is making it easy for us. Or maybe for himself. Phoebe, in making Holden face some difficult questions about his life, is spelling out things that the reader has already gone a long way towards working out. She challenges him to name things that he does like, and it’s no surprise that he finds it hard. He thinks back to an incident in a cheap restaurant earlier that day. ‘About all I could think of were those two nuns that went around collecting dough in those beatup old straw baskets.’ Holden, vainly spending his weekend seeking pleasure and spending money like there’s no tomorrow—a clue in itself—had taken pity on their simple seriousness. All he can think of in response is to spend some more money. He gives them ten dollars, and we notice the echo of the amount he was forced to give for his humiliation the night before.

He eventually remembers somebody he liked from one of his other schools. He had called one of the popular kids conceited, and refused to take it back. In the end, ‘about six of them … went in and locked the goddam door and tried to make him take back what he said, but he wouldn’t do it. So they started in on him. I won’t even tell you what they did to him—it’s too repulsive—but he still wouldn’t take it back, old James Castle. And you should’ve seen him. He was a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils. Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window.’ He’s dead as soon as he hits the ground, ‘and his teeth, and blood, were all over the place.’ He wasn’t a big friend of Holden’s—‘I hardly even know James Castle, if you want to know the truth’—but it’s clearly the principle of his brave last stand that appeals to him. Like the nuns, James Castle isn’t governed by the norms of a society Holden says he despises.

This isn’t good enough for Phoebe, and she does her ten-year-old best to make him think realistically about what he likes and what he would like to do. Thinking about Allie is no good—‘Allie’s dead—You always say that!’ she can’t help blurting out—what does he want to do with his life? ‘I like it now … I mean right now. Sitting here with you and just chewing the fat and horsing—’ But she isn’t having it. ‘That isn’t anything really!’ Like, what about the future? Maybe he’d like to be a scientist? A lawyer like their father? Hah. After describing the self-satisfied smugness even of a dedicated lawyer, he finally comes up with something else. And it’s another fantasy—the one that gives the novel its title.

‘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.’

But the parents arrive home, and Holden wonders what to do. He really, really can’t face them, and there’s a terrible irony in the worry he feels for his mother, who has ‘nervous troubles’ following Allie’s death. He feels for her but, as so often, he’s going to run away from her pain. She can find out when he isn’t there because, for now, he’s able to stay with Mr Antolini, that old teacher of his. By chance (or not), he’s the responsible adult who picked up the broken body of poor James Castle and, as far as Holden is concerned, he’s the only decent teacher he ever had. He’s still friendly with Holden’s parents, knows all about the older brother (and seems to agree with Holden that he shouldn’t be wasting his talents in Hollywood), and is ready, with his wife, to put Holden up on the couch.

What could possibly go wrong? Antolini clearly likes Holden a lot, and when he guesses what has happened he’s genuinely saddened by it. But he drinks too much, and talks too much. He doesn’t ask Holden questions as Phoebe did, because—because why? Maybe it’s because, unlike ten-year-old kid sisters, adults don’t really want to find anything out. But nor does he know how to get the wisdom in his own head into that of the self-destructive young man he sees before him. And there’s a problem anyway, because he doesn’t have the answers Holden needs. He advises him, at great length, to get an academic education, although his case his hardly galvanising. Educated men, he’s saying, ‘tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end. And—most important—nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker….”’ Holden is stifling yawns, and Antolini seems to have run out of steam by now: ‘Do you follow me at all?’

Holden says he does, but he’s suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. Who wouldn’t be? Antolini has already written out for him an irrelevant little bit of advice. ‘“It was written by a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel. Here’s what he—Are you still with me?” “Yes, sure I am.” “Here’s what he said: ‘The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”’ Holden tells us he still has the paper. If it has any meaning at all, it’s lost on Holden, whose only dream is to live humbly. From what we’ve seen, he wouldn’t recognise a noble cause if he fell over one. In the depression he seems to have been in since Allie’s death, nothing matters. That’s what depression does to you—and Antolini has no idea. (But maybe Wilhelm Stekel did. I’ve just done an online search, and discovered his death was by suicide.)

His stay with the Antolinis ends in near-farce. Holden is fast asleep on the couch that’s been made up for him—and suddenly he’s awake. ‘I felt something on my head, some guy’s hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini’s hand. … and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head. Boy, I’ll bet I jumped about a thousand feet.’ And that’s the end of that. It doesn’t matter what Antolini’s motives are. Earlier, he had jokingly addressed Holden as ‘Handsome’ and now, of course, he assumes he’s gay. But maybe Holden is merely the son he will never have—he has fairly recently married a woman who is much older than him—or maybe all that booze has disinhibited him. Whatever, it’s over, and Holden leaves in a hurry. His suitcase is at the station, so that’s where he goes. But it’s sleep he needs, and he gets a little, in the waiting-room. And there can’t be a reader who doesn’t latch on to the symbolism of it.

The station wakes up, eventually, and so does he. It’s the beginning of the working week now, not that Holden mentions it, and he’s as lost as ever. He’s been wandering from one unsatisfactory encounter to the next since leaving Pencey, and he’s all out of ideas. He goes back to that one he first suggested to Sally the day before, about leaving New York forever and living an independent life. This time he would be on his own, and… and it’s nonsense, obviously. He manages to sabotage it by letting Phoebe know about it in a note he delivers to her school: ‘I can’t wait around till Wednesday any more so I will probably hitch hike out west this afternoon. Meet me at the Museum of art near the door at quarter past 12 if you can.’ When she eventually turns up, late, she has a suitcase with her because she’s coming too. And why not? It’s as sensible as anything Holden has come up with.

He’s finally reaching a crisis, not that he’s recognising it as any such thing. While he’d been waiting at the museum, he’d shown some boys the way to the place where the mummies are kept, and it’s as symbolic a location as the station waiting-room. The boys have lost interest, and ‘I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful.’ I’m sure students reading this have to write essays on the references to death. But something else has been going on in the half-hour or so since he visited Phoebe’s school—which had been his own, of course, a fact that is as unsettling as all the others going on. In the stairwell had been an obscene scrawl of graffiti, ‘…. you,’ and he’s seen several more since. Now, in the tomb, ‘all of a sudden, you’d never guess what I saw on the wall. Another “…. you.” It was written with a red crayon or something, right under the glass part of the wall, under the stones.’

‘That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “…. you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “…. you.”’ Poor Holden. Et in Arcadia Ego. Nothing is sacrosanct, even in death. When he leaves the mummies, he has to race to the bathroom. ‘I sort of had diarrhea, if you want to know the truth. I didn’t mind the diarrhea part too much, but something else happened. When I was coming out of the can, right before I got to the door, I sort of passed out.’ He recovers straight away and feels better, but it isn’t looking good for his trip out west.

And, eventually, along comes Phoebe. He tries to remonstrate with her about coming with him, but it’s no good. Of course it’s no good, it never was. They go to Central Park, to the Carousel, where he watches her go round a few times, always choosing the same horse to ride. It’s another symbolic location, another place where he doesn’t have to think about the realities of the present. But at least by now he’s promised he’s not going anywhere without her, and that he’ll take her home. ‘I wasn’t lying to her. I really did go home afterwards.’ But we learn nothing of the rest of the day, because Chapter 25 ends with Holden watching Phoebe ride her horse. ‘I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.’ Happy? Holden? Or simply content for time to stand still again? Whatever, there he is, watching her go ‘around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.’

In the hands of a different author, the novel would have ended there. But Salinger gives us a little coda, the one-page Chapter 26.  And yes, the ‘out here’ he mentioned on the first page is some kind of recuperation facility with psychiatrists in attendance. And yes, the voice we’ve come to recognise is the one he speaks with now. And he’s still hiding. ‘I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it. I really don’t.’ That’s his favourite evasive manoeuvre, that ‘I don’t feel like it.’ He’s used it throughout, whenever things get too difficult. On the train to New York on Saturday night, he doesn’t pass the time with one of those ‘lousy’ magazines lying around because he doesn’t feel like it. Later that night, will he phone Jane? Will he do it on Sunday? No, he doesn’t feel like it. And so on, another half-dozen times at least. The great thing about a phrase like that is you never have to say what you do feel like.

A different phrase, one used a lot by depressives, is ‘I don’t know.’ For Holden, as often as not, it’s another evasive tactic, a way of getting out of having to explain something—to himself as much as to anybody else. Or, he really doesn’t know… which is what we see in the novel’s final paragraph. His older brother, the one who suggested the memoir we’ve just read, has been visiting. ‘D.B. asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn’t know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it.’ No surprises there, then. But…

…that isn’t the end. The paragraph continues: ‘About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’ (Stradlater and Ackley are the roommate and the kid next door to them. Maurice is the crooked lift-man.) If you miss people, maybe you’re ready to re-engage. Not that Holden realises it yet—he doesn’t celebrate this new insight, he regrets the telling. ‘Don’t ever tell anybody anything.’ It might be too late for that now, but I wouldn’t like to predict that, come the autumn, he’ll be any more willing to give it a try. It’s over three years since Allie died, and we haven’t seen any signs of his getting over it yet.

Whatever else this novel is, it’s an extraordinary portrayal of post-traumatic stress. There were a lot of Americans in the early 1950s who really, really still didn’t know what had hit them only a few years before. References to the war are only in passing—D.B. was at the D-Day Landings, for instance—but it was very recent in people’s lives. Which is why I think Salinger didn’t only have the adolescent experience in mind as he wrote about a young man who has everything, and the only thing he feels is desolation.