I'm Facebook pals with my 16-year-old nephew Whalen. He's a high school sophomore in Westchester, and I noticed recently that he'd posted some pics from a school field trip to New York City. The theme of the trip, I gather, was to visit some of the key sites from J.D. Salinger's beloved novel, "The Catcher in the Rye." They hit Grand Central Station, the carousel in Central Park, Bethesda Fountain, The American Museum of Natural History, the lagoon at the south end of the park (where the ducks are) and a few other spots. To look at the pics, it's fairly obvious that Whalen and his pals thought it was all a bit hokey, but I thought trip was fairly inspired. I wish my school had put together such an outing.
I was first tasked with reading "The Catcher in the Rye" in eighth grade. While inarguably troubled, Salinger's protagonist, the infamous Holden Caufield, almost seemed like a role model. Sarcastic, witty and occasionally acerbic, Holden's observations of the world around him were both hugely entertaining and oddly familiar. While Holden is ultimately a confused, vulnerable misfit, his propensity for wry bullshit and his deeply held convictions (his overriding disdain for "phoniness") cast him in an entirely sympathetic, almost heroic light to me. Even as his trajectory spirals further out of control, you can't help but root for him. My classmates were similarly fond of the book. I remember we all had to get up at one point and give reports about Salinger's text. I vividly remember each of us -- myself included -- routinely mispronouncing the name of Holden's little sister, Phoebe (we all referred to her as "Foab").
I don't re-read books very often, but I've repeatedly paged through my copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" (I still have my dog-eared original paperback from eighth grade). J.D. Salinger, of course, went on to mythically reject his fame and virtually all society around him. "The Catcher in the Rye," meanwhile, was leant further mystique over the years -- arguably to its detriment -- by the notion that it's a big favorite with serial killers (proponents of this theory often point to Holden's exclamation that his favorite hunting hat is a "people-shooting hat"). Would-be Reagan assassin John Hinkley was purportedly a big fan, as was John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman. Personally speaking, I'm not totally sold on the theory that "Catcher in the Rye" is some kind of coded killer's manifesto -- that the character of Holden Caufield is the proto-Travis Bickle -- but I'll leave that debate to English teachers, historians and conspiracy theorists.
Inspired by Whalen's photos, I dug out my weathered copy of "Catcher" this past weekend and read it by the fire at my mom's place out in Quogue. It's somewhat strange to read it from my current perspective, as upon my first reading of the text in 1980, Holden was a few years older than me and seemed implausibly more sophisticated. While his flaws, contradictions and wounds are more apparent from this side of the age-fence, I found my umpteenth reading just as captivating as my first. Like countless other folks (cold-blooded killers and law-abiding citizens alike), I'll always cherish "The Catcher in the Rye."
As a slightly eerie coda to this anecdote, I was paging through The New York Times on our way home from Quogue today, and stumbled upon the following article. Oddly enough, J.D. Salinger turns 90 tomorrow.
Happy birthday, J.D., and thanks!