I first met Holden Caulfield at a speed reading class. He was lying there among a selection of 19th century novels and a few history text books, a battered paperback on a side table. I was 15. I had never heard of J.D. Salinger or his most famous character, but I knew for sure that I didn't want to practice my fast-paced comprehension drills on Middlemarch or Jude the Obscure.
The goal of the class was to inhale chapters and then spew back information on hourly quizzes. Two pages into Catcher in the Rye, I stopped speeding and slowed way down. I didn't want to stop for the quiz. I didn't want to stop, period. I knew this voice. I knew this kid. Already more than a decade old when I discovered it, Catcher sounded like it was written yesterday. In many ways, it still does.
In the 1960s, every prep school boy I knew was a Holden Caulfield wannabe. Who could resist that blend of cynicism and sensitivity? At once fiercely judgmental and vulnerable, he was the original Cool Guy with frayed edges. His landscape was metro New York, home turf to me and my circle of friends. His odyssey through Manhattan hit familiar landmarks: the railway stations and museums and the Biltmore Clock, still a favorite city meeting place when I read the book for the first time.
But even more familiar than the geography was the voice. That wise-cracking, profane, pitch-perfect interior monologue spoke to anyone who ever felt at odds with the established order, anyone who ever wanted to clear away the dreck and break through to that innocent field-of-rye place that we inhabit for the short interval before real life kicks in.
I used to re-read the book every few years, always marveling at Salinger's creation of a character who seemed to change with each encounter. The Holden of my 20s was different from the Holden of my teens, ever so slightly sadder and less glamorous. When my own teenage sons discovered Catcher, I read it again, trying to see and hear it through their eyes. Amazingly, they knew Holden, too—not as some dated figure in a period piece who happened to swear a lot, but as a fellow traveler on the perilous road of adolescence.
Salinger's recent passing prompted a deluge of literary post-mortems. Among the items on view was a letter from the author to a Hollywood producer seeking the film rights for Catcher in the Rye. Considering Salinger's recluse reputation, it's amazing that he even acknowledged the request. His reply was an emphatic "no," and the reason he gave is an unassailable truth. "Holden is unactable," Salinger wrote.
Amen to that. Revisiting the book now, I am struck by Holden's understanding of detail, and how we come to know him by what he notices. There is a poignancy to these observations that still moves me—his passing reflection on the nuns in Grand Central eating their meager toast-and-coffee breakfast; the recollection of Jane, his summer checkers partner, who kept all her kings in the back row and the single tear that fell on the board as her alcoholic stepfather racketed through the house. To see such small things, to carry them and feel their weight, marks a soul who defies easy definition.
Nearly 60 years after his debut, Holden Caulfield remains an unsullied original. He belongs to the ages, to the printed page, and to the eye of each new beholder.