If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is how The Catcher in the Rye was published, and what its author was like, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap. But what I want to tell you is about how J.D. Salinger’s madman book is fifty years old this year, and why everybody thinks this book is just about the only non-phoney thing out there.
The Catcher is Holden Caulfield, a guy who’s just been kicked out of prep school and decides to run away. But Holden does a funny kind of running away: instead of heading out to Mexico or California or something, he runs home -- to New York City.
People are always telling you that they’re just like Holden. No kidding. The whole world is just lousy with Holdens, if you ask me. It’s because he’s tired of all the phoneys, see? He can’t stand all the liars around him who say all the right things but don’t mean them. Or even people who use other people and don’t care who they hurt. He’s got this obsession with saving people, too.
Somewhere along the line, he misheard the lyrics to a Robert Burns lyric as "if a body catch a body coming through the rye" instead of "if a body meet a body." He’s got this idea that he’s got to act as the catcher in the rye, keeping all these kids from falling off some imaginary cliff. No wonder people who read this book today still find something in it. The world’s still the same dangerous, phoney place.
Go to New York City tomorrow and you’re likely to find somebody wandering around Penn Station or the Natural History Museum with a copy of Catcher in their back pocket. People do it all the time; it’s almost a rite of passage for young Americans. One minute, you’re watching the ducks paddle around the pond in Central Park and the next, somebody’s blocking your view of them with their red book. (This is the spot, by the way, where I’m supposed to tell you about how Chapman did the Holden tour right before he shot John Lennon, but that’s not really important.)
[And this, presumably, is the spot where writers feel the need for parenthetical asides -- Ed's parenthetical aside]
(Besides, the old man would have about two hemorrhages at least if people kept talking about that. Salinger’s a pretty private guy. He doesn’t like people bothering him about his book and all. That’s why he's holed himself up in that crazy cabin in New Hampshire. He chases people away and everything. It’s funny, though. Holden says pretty early on in the book that sometimes when he’s reading, he wishes that the author was a friend of his and he could call him up whenever he felt like it. I’ll bet Salinger’s pretty sorry he wrote that, because people have been trying to track him down for years to talk about Holden. It seems like everybody and their brother has an "I met the old man" story. It’s really too bad. For a private guy, he sure gets a lot of visitors.)
(Actually, not too long ago, a woman named Joyce Maynard wrote a book, At Home in the World, about the time that she fell in love with Salinger, suggesting that he loved her back. Everybody thought it was a pretty rotten thing for her to do, publishing that book about him and all, but you could tell that she really did love him, once. Then, just last year, Salinger’s daughter Peggy wrote another book, Dream Catcher: A Memoir, in which he came out looking like a headcase. But ever since the Maynard thing, he’s pretty much kept people away entirely. And because he doesn’t go on the Late Show and tell people everything they want to know, they usually end up roaming around Manhattan with his book in hand.)
Anyway, once you start wandering around those places, you’ll probably decide that you can’t blame the guy for running home, especially when that home is New York City. His journey is insane, really. He books into a hotel that’s just lousy with perverts and spends the next couple of days wandering around New York, getting himself involved with hookers, old girlfriends, bartenders and would-be molesters. In between times, he’s helping out nuns and telling stories to people's mothers and dancing with his little sister in the middle of the night and watching carousels. And every time he wants to go somewhere, he just jumps into a cab. And then he starts asking questions. (Everybody knows that if you want to know something in New York, you gotta ask a cabbie.) Where do the ducks in Central Park go in the winter? he wants to know.
It’s an honest question. Manhattan is a dangerous place for birds. Ducks, especially. Ducks can’t be too careful in Manhattan, what with all those tall buildings and moving buses and bird haters and everything. It seems impossible that they’re able to make it in the summertime, but the winter? Forget it. Spend enough time down there by the pond and you can’t stop thinking about the ducks. You want to ask people about them all the time, just to put your mind at ease. Cabbies, mostly. But sooner or later you discover that you just can’t worry about the ducks. The world doesn’t need a catcher in the rye. If they fall off, they fall off.
(Cecilia Baader is a short story writer from Chicago, USA. She is currently working on her first novel)