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Holden Revisited

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Two photographs exist of me reading The Catcher in the Rye. One was taken thirty years ago by my father, on the top bunk bed in a sleeper train bound for Edinburgh. I was 19. The book was the orange Penguin edition, which I’d recently bought in Cambridge market.

The other was taken by my husband in December 2011, at home in London. I was 48, on the sofa with the dog. The book was the very same Cambridge market paperback, my maiden name in neat hand-writing in the top right-hand corner of the pre-title page.

To read that book aged 19 and aged 48 is to read it in two quite different ways. As I reread it last year, moved to tears by its poignancy, I tried to relive the experience of reading it for the first time thirty years ago. What was that chubby-cheeked undergraduate’s reaction as she got to know Holden Caulfield while passing through Doncaster, York and Northallerton?

I think she was thinking how cool it all was. How cool I was to be reading this coolest of books!

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.

So nonchalant and depressive was the narrator’s tone, from the very first sentence, that I think I subconsciously adopted a corresponding gum-chewing facial expression while reading. The very fact that the narrator didn’t ‘feel like going into it’ made me ache to find out. He had refused to proffer any information, and had done so in a bored way, yet I was gripped

My parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

And so flippant about his parents! So immediate, so direct was the narrator’s voice that it felt

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Two photographs exist of me reading The Catcher in the Rye. One was taken thirty years ago by my father, on the top bunk bed in a sleeper train bound for Edinburgh. I was 19. The book was the orange Penguin edition, which I’d recently bought in Cambridge market.

The other was taken by my husband in December 2011, at home in London. I was 48, on the sofa with the dog. The book was the very same Cambridge market paperback, my maiden name in neat hand-writing in the top right-hand corner of the pre-title page. To read that book aged 19 and aged 48 is to read it in two quite different ways. As I reread it last year, moved to tears by its poignancy, I tried to relive the experience of reading it for the first time thirty years ago. What was that chubby-cheeked undergraduate’s reaction as she got to know Holden Caulfield while passing through Doncaster, York and Northallerton? I think she was thinking how cool it all was. How cool I was to be reading this coolest of books!

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.

So nonchalant and depressive was the narrator’s tone, from the very first sentence, that I think I subconsciously adopted a corresponding gum-chewing facial expression while reading. The very fact that the narrator didn’t ‘feel like going into it’ made me ache to find out. He had refused to proffer any information, and had done so in a bored way, yet I was gripped

My parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

And so flippant about his parents! So immediate, so direct was the narrator’s voice that it felt as if Holden Caulfield himself was talking to me. I half-forgot that there was a 32-year-old middleman, namely J. D. Salinger, recreating my generation’s voice and way of thinking. Here was a 17-year-old who just walked out of his private school late one night and took a train to New York. He took cabs, he drank whisky, he chain-smoked, he even called up a prostitute; he was alone against the world, a solitary rebel in New York in the night, spending dollars and dimes. The Edward Hopper exhibition had come to London in 1980, and I was still full of it in 1982. ‘It was so quiet and so lonesome out, even though it was Saturday night. I didn’t see hardly anybody on the street.’ Reading sentences like that, I was in a Hopper painting, and wallowing in it. Bring on the gloom! I lived through Holden’s sleepless three-day adventure, minute by minute, relishing the slow descent into despair. I didn’t cry. The act of reading it without crying was a reinforcement of my maturity; a kind of bravado. ‘Lay it on thick: I can take it!’ Holden’s story seemed hypothetical. Direct though his voice was, I still experienced him as a literary figure rather than a replica of a real one. But, reading the book again aged 48, I went through two handkerchiefs. In those thirty years, I had met or heard about real people who had more than a whiff of Holden Caulfield about them – and not the glamour whiff, the despair whiff. The whole thing seemed appallingly real and possible. And this time, I wasn’t Holden Caulfield. I was his mother. ‘For God’s sake, get some sleep!’ I wanted to yell at Holden. ‘Stop smoking! Stop drinking! You need a square meal. I hope you remembered to bring some condoms, young man. Stop wasting our money on taxis! And when did you last brush your teeth?’ But as well as having this brisk, practical, motherly reaction, I felt raw pain while reading the book – far more pain than I’d felt the first time. Then, Holden had seemed mature, manly and full of ‘street cred’ as I called it, describing things like his double-dating experience in Ed Banky’s car. Now he seemed innocent, guileless, childlike in many ways, hopelessly unready for the pitiless ways of the adult world. Yes, he drinks whiskies; but in some of the bars he goes into he’s seen as a ‘minor’ and is only allowed Coke. When I read that thirty years ago, I thought, ‘God, how petty and authoritarian!’ Now, I saw this as an emblem of Holden’s being in that uncomfortable, awkward period between being a child and being an adult. He never thinks further ahead than the next hour. This teenage short-termism is familiar to me now as a parent; it exasperates me, but it saddens me too. Reading Holden’s narrative, you see just how such a directionless and solitary descent into misery could happen.

The first thing I did when I got off at Penn Station, I went into this phone booth. I felt like giving somebody a buzz. I left mybags right outside the booth so that I could watch them, but as soon as I was inside, I couldn’t think of anybody to call up.

So he gets into a cab and goes to a hotel, and calls up a girl he’s never met who doesn’t want to see him, and goes down to the bar and tries to make friends with three girls who dance with him but don’t talk to him. Then he goes on to a nightclub, packed ‘mostly with prep-school jerks and college jerks’, where he drinks a Scotch and soda on his own, then walks 42 blocks back to the hotel, and then the elevator man offers to bring a call-girl up to his room, ‘five bucks a throw, fifteen bucks till noon’. Holden says yes, and the girl arrives in his room, but he just can’t go through with the sex, he just doesn’t feel like it, and the girl gets furious with him, and demands ten bucks, but he pays her five, as agreed, and then the elevator man comes back into the room, demands another five bucks, and beats Holden up. This is the adult world at its most pitiless. The linear narrative reflects with terrifying precision the blind alleys of instant gratification. Holden has no idea what he really wants, all he feels is a vague disgust for the phoniness of everything around him, coupled with profound loneliness and undirected sexual longing. Far from wallowing in the bleakness as I did the first time, this time I searched desperately for shafts of light. Is there no kindred spirit in the world for Holden? As in an Evelyn Waugh novel, the central character seems too fine for the coarse world around him.Cruelly, such fineness is a magnet for horrible experiences: the coarse can’t resist preying on the fine. Holden’s school room-mate at Pencey, the brutish Stradlater, asks him to write his descriptive essay for him while he goes out on a date. Holden obliges him, writing an essay about the baseball mitt which belonged to his brother Allie, who died. Stradlater returns from the date. ‘For Chrissake, Holden. This is about a goddam baseball glove.’ After a few more ‘goddams’ (someone has counted; there are 238 ‘goddams’ in the book), Holden snatches the essay out of Stradlater’s hand and tears it into pieces. And who has Stradlater been having a date with? (Or ‘giving the time to’, as Holden puts it.) With one of the book’s two shafts of light. That is, with one of the two characters with some of Holden’s sweetness and fineness about them. We never meet Jane Gallagher, but Holden describes her charm and prettiness with his typical outpouring of seemingly un-thought-out words which actually say it all. The thought that Stradlater has been ‘giving the time to’ Jane is part of what drives Holden’s raging, mindless, self-destructive actions over the next 72 hours. It’s partly jealousy, partly horror at the thought of Stradlater having his wicked way with this good and sensitive girl. But at least the 48-year-old reading mother knows that, in this world of phoneys and aliens who respond to Holden’s questions by saying ‘Whatdja mean?’ there is someone in the world whom Holden likes and connects with, and who likes him back, even though she might choose to go on a date with boorish Stradlater instead. The other shaft of light is Holden’s kid sister Phoebe. We meet her when Holden at last goes home (thank God), stealing into the apartment in the middle of the night hoping not to be overheard by his parents or by the maid.

I even held my breath, for God’s sake. You can hit my father over the head with a chair and he won’t wake up, but my mother, all you have to do to my mother is cough somewhere in Siberia and she’ll hear you. She’s nervous as hell. Half the time she’s up all night smoking cigarettes.

Holden finds Phoebe asleep in their absent big brother’s bed; and again, with a few verbal brushstrokes he makes us care about her.

She likes to sleep in D. B.’s room when he’s away, and he lets her. You ought to see her doing her homework or something at that crazy desk of his. It’s almost as big as the bed. You can hardly see her when she’s doing her homework. That’s the kind of stuff she likes, though. She doesn’t like her own room because it’s too little, she says. She says she likes to spread out. That kills me. What’s old Phoebe got to spread out? Nothing.

Phoebe rightly guesses that Holden has been kicked out of Pencey, and her reaction is, ‘Daddy’ll kill you. Daddy’s gonna kill you.’ They have a sotto voce argument there and then, but it’s shot through with love and mutual understanding. Phoebe turns away in fury, but ‘I knew from the back of her neck that she was listening to me.’

And when Holden decides to run away from New York and start a new life and never come back, Phoebe tries to come with him, lugging her suitcases, and he decides not to go after all, because he doesn’t want her to miss her school play. The book ends with him watching her on a merry-go-round at the zoo.

I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round and round.

Actually, there’s one more extremely short chapter written the following year from a psychiatric institution. But that doesn’t blot out the shaft of light.

I now see that Salinger’s craft in recreating Holden’s way of thinking and talking is superb – an astonishingly accurate concoction of a 17-year-old’s haphazard thoughts and actions. More aware of the adult author’s reconstructive craft, I found the book much funnier this time. At the end of a paragraph about a schoolmate’s filthy, mossy teeth, his revolting way of eating mashed potatoes, his pimples and his terrible personality, comes the short sentence, ‘I wasn’t too crazy about him, to be honest.’ Salinger is good at bathetic last sentences.

So, what about that mother of Holden’s who’s ‘up all night smoking cigarettes’? What can we find out about her, or about Holden’s father? Nothing much, except that he is some kind of ‘hot-shot lawyer’ and she is ‘nervous as hell’. Reading The Catcher in the Rye aged 19, I was quite unmoved by the sense of alienation between Holden and his parents, and by the fact that he hardly mentioned them. On this latest reading my antennae were up for any data on the parents and where it had all gone wrong.

Does this mean that we need our relationship with our children more than they need their relationship with us? I fear that it does.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Ysenda Maxtone Graham 2013


About the contributor

Though not a nervous wreck like Holden Caulfield’s mother, who’s ‘up all night smoking cigarettes’, Ysenda Maxtone Graham does suffer from bouts of sleeplessness. Her short hymn to this condition, An Insomniac’s Guide to the Small Hours, was published last year.

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