I finished reading the book last night. It took me three nights; I couldn’t just skim it. I started reading the words, looking for clues.
I last read Catcher in the Rye in the early sixties, early on in college. I was so naïve in those days whole concepts were explained to me. “Stoned,” for instance, on the release of one of Bob Dylan’s songs. Holden Caulfield’s ideas are straightforwardly complex; I know I didn’t need any code words explained. I read the book, probably wrote a required composition on adolescent issues, probably concluding Holden would join the adult world and be no different than the rest of us.
Remembering only a kid who was affluent enough to live on his own in New York City for two days, I started in again. I ploughed two thirds through before I could begin to engage with the book. An alert here; Holden had a brother who died at a young age, and I also have a brother who died too young. Holden’s Allie died of leukemia around eleven years of age, I believe. My brother Melvin took his own life at age twenty nine. The book began having parallels for me.
Holden was troubled about Allie almost from the beginning, and as his state of mind became more obvious, I thought about my brother troubled over his beautiful daughter becoming deaf at six months. One of Holden’s escapes was alcohol, my brother’s was street drugs. Probably a drug added to marijuana, PCP, triggered my brother’s paranoia and mania.
When Holden walked from the bar, too drunk to be functioning, asking Allie to get him across the streets and down the blocks, the book finally engaged me as a treatise on mental illness. I remembered my brother’s despair at the treatment of bi-polar disorder in the 1970’s. The drugs that made him “sane” kept him asleep day and night. Without them he could be violent. And, he was a big man, over six feet, broad shoulders, curly blond hair, cornflower blue eyes that twinkled, an impish smile.
Mel sat at my kitchen table one day that spring of 1976. We were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking about his illness. “I’ll never be Melvin again, will I?” he asked. I knew he wouldn’t, but, of course, I lied. I figured he’d be someone, and Mel trying to be Mel was OK with me
It didn’t work out any way. He closed his garage door, started the car, put all his music on and laid back and listened to the end.
I was grateful Holden’s planned withdrawal from the world would be as a deaf mute, a plan so unworkable I had to smile at teen age angst. And that Holden felt enough responsibility for Phoebe not to draw her into his eight dollar plan of running away. We still end with Holden sitting in the California sanitarium finishing out J.D. Salinger’s cliff hanger: will he go over the edge or not? All these years later, I don’t know. I’ll be interested in my grandson’s take on this one.