That Guy Caulfield
[ As background, I was asked years ago to do a book report on Catcher in the Rye, a now classic coming of age story by J.D. Salinger. I chose to fictionalize the report. ]
It’s not like me to mess up on writing a paper, it’s really not. But what happened was, I was going home after class feeling depressed and I went down Howard Street which is the way I have to go, and I was thinking — am I a phoney? I had to stop at the train tracks and all because the Amtrak was coming by at about a thousand miles an hour. The train was going by, steam was coming up, red lights were blinking, my windshield wipers were squeaking, everybody was cold just sitting in their cars alone. It made me sad. You don’t want to go home if you’re sad and everything.
If you want to know the truth, I went to Bilbo’s. Guess who I saw there — Caulfield, Holden Caulfield. That killed me. Here I was just reading this book Catcher In The Rye, for your class, and I get all depressed like I do sometimes and I go to Bilbo’s and there’s the guy in the book sitting in a booth all by himself. I think about how he wanted to know where the ducks go and all and look at him sitting all alone like that and it bothers me like a bastard. It really does. So I go over there and he let me sit down with him like I was a regular guy or something.
Anyway, we’re sitting there and he asks me why I’m in school, being as old as I am. I don’t like to talk about myself when I don’t have to, so I asked him if there was any connection in his book to Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God? You know, how the dearest women in his life were Janie and Phoebe ? He wouldn’t say really, but he was smiling pretty good. I think he thought JD would have been interested in that. He didn’t ask me any more questions about myself at least.
I realized I had my bookcase along and I thought I would get The Catcher autographed and so I unzipped it real quick. It’s a really good book case if you want to know. It’s a Lowe. Lowe designed packs for the army. I carry it all the time now. Anyway, I get The Catcher out to get his autograph and he autographs it and all. Then he wants to see the Kinko’s packet for the class and I show it to him just as his pizza comes. He likes to read a lot.
He’s reading the stuff starting practically on the first page and I keep telling him to skip ahead to the Poe stuff or Fuller or somebody. I like the Fuller piece about her travels in Michigan and all. It’s goddam good writing. I try to get him to skip up there so I can ask him if he ever found out about the ducks, but he gets all involved in this Ann Bradstreet poem on page114? The Vanity of All Worldly Things. He’s pretty involved in it and all but his pizza is getting cold and that whole wheat crust tastes like wallpaper if you let it get really cold. So, I tell him if he’s so goddam interested in the poem why not let me just read it to him for a while as he eats.
Where is the man can say, “Lo, I have found
On brittle earth a consolation sound”?
What is’t in honour to be set on high?
No, they like beasts and sons of men shall die,
And whilst they live, how oft doth turn their fate;
He’s eating his pizza and listening and some babes at the next table are listening and I feel kind of foolish. Old Holden seems to like it though so I go on. It’s pretty good too, for being so old and everything. I am trying to like it because I think Holden likes it. Bradstreet is saying that there is nothing on earth that makes sense. Everything is phoney. Everyone and everything will let you down. That probably means her too. I know it means me.
What is’t in beauty? No that’s but a snare,
They’re foul enough today, that once were fair.
Even the things that aren’t phony? They die away in the end just when you get used to them being around. So, what’s the use? It’s useless. Maybe you’re beautiful, like that guy Stadlater in The Catcher, or maybe you’re a nose picker like Ackley or something, but it really doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. These are “But vanity, vexations of mind” (Bradstreet 14). What matters is getting to “that living crystal fount” (Bradstreet 15). That is what Bradstreet calls God or something. I don’t think they had New Age back then—old age? It must be God or maybe it’s just purity of thought. Crystals are pure. You can see right through them and see if there’s anything phony in them. Anyway, you drink from this fount and all your troubles are gone. Everything’s swell from then on. Even death can’t touch you.
Just then, after the line “Nor death shall see, but are immortal made” (Bradstreet 15), Holden interrupts me and asks how many more stanzas are in the poem. I count the lines and feel my face getting red. “Six lines,” I tell him. God I hate being interrupted when I’m reading couplets out loud to someone.
“Well, you can read them I guess,” he says and goes back to eating. I look at him and he has sauce on his cheek but I don’t say anything.
This pearl of price, this tree of life, this spring,
Who is possessed of shall reign a king.
Nor change of state nor cares shall ever see,
But wear his crown… (Bradstreet 15)
“How many lines left now,” Holden blurts out. He looks kind of pissed so I stop.
“I can’t keep reading couplets if you interrupt all the time,” I tell him. There is nothing I hate more than being interrupted when I’m reading. “If you want me to read to you, you can’t interrupt me all the time. You interrupted me about 50 times already.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m a goddam atheist. This is the kind of phony stuff I hear about all the time. First Bradstreet talks about what everybody knows already — everybody’s phony. But then, instead of offering some kind of practical advice or something, she blasts off into this crystal thing. What’s the next one like?”
“You won’t like the next poem either,” I say to him kind of angry like. He wouldn’t either. If you don’t believe in God and all, how are you going to relate to Ann Bradstreet?
“Skip a page then,” he says, but I don’t feel like it.
“You’re not an atheist,” I tell him. “Being an atheist takes a lot of concentration. You have to really stick to the point a long time to be an atheist. Besides, you exaggerate about a hundred times every minute. You have some doubt about God and stuff and you’re pissed about the world being phony and all, but you don’t have the focus to be an atheist. I know. I’ve tried it for a long time being a Buddhist and all, and it’s really hard. It’s probably not even worth it. Look at you. You ended up being a phony atheist. God that’s depressing. If you weren’t, how come you believe your brother Allie’s ‘soul’s in Heaven and all’” (Salinger 156).
I could tell I really put him on the spot when I said all that and I might have hurt his feelings. I don’t think of what I am doing sometimes. But what would you do? The guy interrupts all the time.
Another time old Sally called him “a sacrilegious atheist” (Salinger 137) after they watched the Christmas thing at the Radio City Music Hall, and he said he probably was. Probably! I don’t like to push or anything but it takes a lot of concentration to be an atheist.
“I’m feeling a little tired,” Holden says to me. “You want a drink, or some coffee or anything?”
I look at him and I am sorry for what I have said. Really sorry. I am a real phony that way. I think Holden is really compassionate, actually, in some ways. Really. I like him probably as much as this waitress at the Arcadia Cafe. She said Holden is her favorite character. She read the book 15 frigging times. He isn’t my favorite character or anything, but I like him. He wants to look out for the ducks. He wants to catch the kids before they go over the cliff. He loves anything that doesn’t make him accountable.
Why then, am I trying to make him accountable?
I tell him I’m sorry for all that stuff about his brother and everything and I try to change the subject, but I can see it’s too late. He is already digging through his pockets and pulling out quarters and dimes — a few crumpled bills. He looks like I hurt his feelings. It really depresses me to see a guy so famous fumble with change trying pay his pizza bill.
Anyway, he gets up and leaves me sitting there in Bilbo’s all alone thinking about how off-kilter life can be sometimes. What right did I have getting on Holden about anything? JD wrote the thing. Thinking back, I want to cry about it practically if you want to know the truth. It really depresses me.
Salinger did a good job though, except for that didactic section with Mr. Antolini. It’s really didactic as hell, him getting hot like a madman and all, quoting that psychoanalyst Stekel. “The mark of the immature man is yadda yadda, the mark of the mature man is yadda – I can’t even finish it’s so boring.
Hell with it actually, I gotta go.