I remember it as if it were yesterday. On my 13th birthday, our neighbour from across the street, a French, and in my mind, surly school teacher walked across the street with a package for me. It was odd; I didn’t know her very well and frankly I thought she was just a tad weird. I liked her husband a little more, a tech geek who introduced me to Blade Runner and the concept that anarchy was more than just a big A on the back of some punk’s leather jacket. Later on, we would learn that he was born with both sexes and his father happened to choose the wrong one for him. He became a woman and they remained married.
But I digress.(Remember that part in the book when he’s describing one of his classes and if anybody got off subject the teacher would yell, “digression! digression!”?) I ‘m not sure what this woman’s relationship was with my mother, but I have a feeling my mother was helping her through a difficult time and, as a token of appreciation, she came over with a gift of two books for me: the first one was Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, the first murder mystery I ever read, and the second, a plain burgundy book with Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger written in mustard coloured letters.
Of course, I thanked her politely, and proceeded to place them on my shelf where they remained untouched for several months. You see, the books had many things against them. First of all, they were given to me by an adult that, in my pea-brained adolescent mind had not a modicum of coolness and furthermore was giving me books in a language she had not yet mastered. What could she know?
Second of all, I had not heard of these writers and the covers, well, they were plain (I could not find a good image of the Sayers’ book, but I remember it being almost as plain as the unassuming Catcher in the Rye book) and didn’t give anything away. Let’s just say they were less than enticing.
But I was an avid reader, and there came a day when I had plowed through my stack of library books and needed a literary fix right away. I picked up the Sayers book and loved it. It got me to thinking that the other one must be equally as good. So I picked it up, started reading it, and fell in head over heels, life changing, milestone-making love with Holden Caulfield.
And it was only until Mr. Salinger died that I realised that I never once was curious about his creator. Or maybe it was because I just transposed Holden so thoroughly onto J.D. that I just figured he finally did what Holden was always threatening to do: move to the west, pretend to be a deaf-mute and work in a gas station. And who was I to intrude by looking up information on him?
Actually, now that I think about it, I think I just thought that J.D. Salinger was dead. In fact, I remember being surprised when, as an adult, I heard about his daughter’s biography of him and found out he was still alive. Once again, the small, small world of my adolescent brain- it was inconceivable that an author of a book written almost, like fifty years ago (?!) could still be alive. Like, he must be so old...
But in all the tributes and discussions I have read about and heard in the last few days, nobody has come close to broaching the reasons why I loved Holden so. It wasn’t his whole disenchantment with the world, and his over-sensitive bullshit meter, although that had something to do with it, I’m sure. Nor was it his devil-may-care attitude towards his schooling.
No. It was his red hunting hat. It was his musings and anxiety over the ducks in central park during winter. It was the way he could be emotionally struck down by a kid walking on the edge of a sidewalk while her parents were walking ahead. It was his love of his little sister, Phoebe. In short, it was the counterpoint to his disenchantment, the fact that he saw things that were painfully beautiful amidst all the bullshit. The stuff that makes you keep going, that makes you doubt your own cynicism.
I also suspect that my love of Holden Caulfield was born out of a certain kind of relief. I was a shy girl and at the age of 13 scared stiff of boys. I remember once in Grade 7 having a boy telephone me at my house to ask me if I would go to a dance with him. I think I didn’t say anything for about 5 minutes (at least it felt like that) until I managed to croak out a “No thanks” and hung up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go out with him. It was just that I was too terrified at the prospect. Knowing that boys could observe little moments like the ones Holden notices and be moved by them was really comforting. It made them less scary.
I read the book at least once a year for 10 years from the age of 13. I think I stopped right around the time I got married and had children- there just being no afternoons available to sit and read it right through (because that is the only way to read it- in one sitting, on a gray afternoon laying prostrate on the couch). So the details might be fuzzy and/or downright wrong. But these are the scenes that come to mind after all these years. I am one of those millions of people whose youth was deeply influenced by this man’s small body of work and I am proud to admit it.
So how does one commemorate a man who did not wish to be commemorated? A Robbie Burns’ like dinner seems out of the question- for one, they died in the same week and I think it might cause a literary overload (besides, what would the J.D. Salinger traditional dish be? All I can think of is stirring a big pitcher of Tom Collins). Besides the man did not want to be fêted. He wanted to be left alone. He succeeded so well, at least for me, that I never once gave much of a thought to the author, but was completely satisfied with his characters. So maybe a Holdenday would be more appropriate, sort of like a New York Bloomsday…
Or maybe we should just find some time around the middle of January to dust off our copies of Catcher in the Rye, or Franny and Zooey,or that lovely yellow-teethed Seymour and sit down on the couch, read it through and remember how it was once upon a time when we saw the world as enragingly unfair and phony and yet heartbreakingly beautiful as Holden.
Raise your glasses, folks. I would like to make a toast to my first love, Holden Caulfield. May you never rest in peace, but live on to remind us of the coin-like nature of reality: with the ugly and the stupid comes the flip side of the beautiful and the meaningful. To the ducks in Central Park; to little sisters and oblivious children; to holding hands with that person who knows the exact pressure to apply; to wishing we were all deaf-mutes, to red hunting hats. To you, Holden Caulfield.