U2 has a song at the end of the Pop album in which Bono sings, “Jesus, Jesus help me. I’m alone in this world, and a f***ed up world it is too.” It is a sentiment that I think pretty much everyone has thought at one point or another, though you might have chosen cleaner language to express it. To me, this line captures the essence of Holden’s predicament, the only difference being that Holden doesn’t know who to ask to help him escape his loneliness. Holden’s quest is a quest for love, the kind that is reciprocated, but he doesn’t know what such a thing looks like.
The root of Holden’s problems is pretty clear: he slept in the garage the night Allie died, and he broke his hand punching the glass. Holden’s angry response to his brother’s death isn’t what strikes me as alarming; what alarms me is the fact that he was alone the entire night, free to break the windows, break his hand and fall asleep, without the encumbrance of a comforting hug or commiserating tears to thwart his rage. He’s alone in the world that night, and given the absence of any figure who might give him comfort, a f—ed up world that is too.
Holden’s grief is the part of him I connect with the most. It is unresolved, displaced, projected and long-lasting, just as genuine grief is. Now everyone needs their alone time to deal with their grief. You have to feel it, you have to let it work its purgative, cathartic power on you, or else it never ebbs. I remember vividly the walk I went on the morning my father died. I think I was supposed to go to the neighbor’s house, and I have no idea where any of my four siblings went. I was eleven years old, it was a little after 7:00 and raining. Rick Waters was out walking his dog, and didn’t believe me when I told him my father had died. I hated him even more in that moment. I turned and went to St. Bernard’s Church, where I was an altar boy, and talked to Father Dan for a long time. I don’t remember what he said, but I knew he could give me what I needed to get through that morning.
For months, even years afterward, I used to find a little spot in the basement where I could be alone and cry, for what I’m not exactly sure. Sometimes my mother would come and sit with me, most times she wouldn’t, but I had always the sense that she knew where I was, so while I dealt with my sadness by myself, I never felt like I was dealing with it alone.
Outside the house, life was going on. Little league baseball games were being played, spelling quizzes were being given, the Yankees and Mets were continuing their seasons. That summer, Mr. Longo, my best friend Frank’s father, took my brother and me to the All-Star game at Yankee Stadium. He also took me to Long Beach Island for a week. In July, I had walked up to Highlands school with Frank one morning for the start of his basketball camp, and Mr. Eaton made sure I was a camper for a week, even though I hadn’t registered or paid.
In other words, my experience with grief was 180 degrees different from Holden’s. You couldn’t swing a dead alligator around my neighborhood without hitting some adult who was a father figure to me, without hitting an adult I could trust. Twenty-one years later, as I was writing a poem about my father’s death, I asked my brother why I couldn’t find a poem that struck an appropriately depressing tone. He answered that a sad thing had happened to us, but that we didn’t have sad lives.
Holden’s life is sad, however, but sadness is not an emotion available to him. It hovers over him, seeps into his pores, takes him by the hand and guides him all around New York City, yet he never knows, or at least admits to himself, that it is there. Much is made of the connections Holden makes and severs through the story. Whether it’s Mrs. Morrow, the three witches, Horwitz, Sunny, the nuns, Sally, Luce, Holden makes sure his conversations are with essentially “disposable” people. The three people of whom he speaks with great fondness – Jane, Allie and Phoebe – are people he tries to maintain as abstractions. Jane is there, but he doesn’t reach out for her; Allie isn’t there, but he consistently reaches out to him. Phoebe is the only person in the story who has the ability to reach him, but only if Holden sees her as a person. Finally, with the magic words “Shut up,” she breaks the spell surrounding him. Those are the words that shatter the sense of invulnerability that Holden tries to effect throughout the story. Those are the words that bring him home and start him on the path of accepting and dealing with his experience.
While Phoebe is the catalyst for his cathartic moment in the rain, damn near bawling, Allie remains the most meaningful person to him throughout the story, and adds such great depth to the story. The moments when Holden recalls or expects an action of Allie’s are the moments that hold the story together. The three most telling of these moments are the composition scene, in which Holden reveals in both content and tone the profundity of his admiration for Allie; the bicycle scene from Lake Sedebago; and the “don’t let me disappear” scene after his night at Grand Central. Forgive me for finding Christian imagery in pretty much everything, but Holden’s view of Allie raises compelling themes of betrayal and redemption that find their ways into the fabric of every other scene in the novel.
The initial Allie scene is designed to jump out at the reader through the gentleness in Holden’s tone, and the rhythm – long sentence, short sentence, long sentence, short sentence, long sentence, He’s dead now – of Salinger’s prose. I’m most interested in the Bobby Fallon’s house scene, because it is here that Holden reveals a feeling that he betrayed Allie. After reliving the memory of leaving Allie behind when the older boys went to shoot BB guns, Holden tries to change things and tells Allie to go get his bike. In the next paragraph, Holden is motivated to reflect on whether or not Jesus would have sent Judas to Hell. Holden argues that everyone else would have sent Judas to Hell, but not Jesus. Is he indicting himself for his betrayal of Allie, casting himself as Judas to Allie’s Jesus for surviving? Is he telling his listener that he needs Allie to forgive him if he is to go on living his own life?
And then come the moments when Holden steps off the curb and prays that Allie will save him from falling. Boy, there’s a lot of falling in the book. Tripping on the staircase at Pencey, stumbling over his suitcase at Sunny’s knock, passing out in the bathroom at the museum, these are among the literal falls in the story. Put them next to the figurative falls – the children running in the field of rye, the “horrible” kind of fall that Mr. Antolini describes – and you have to consider the first fall of all: the fall from grace suffered by Adam and Eve. When Holden imagines all the little kids in his elysian field, he imagines them not as children in a state of innocence but as children in a state of grace. You can bet that the kids Holden watches over aren’t forming cliques to prevent Cindy from playing tag, that they’re not picking on the slow kid. No, these children know nothing of the unpleasantness that exists in all our natures. He will save them from a fall from this state of grace. His catcher? Allie. But not really.
Holden has convicted himself of betrayal, but the only redemption he can consider prior to his figurative death and rebirth in the bathroom, is a fantasy. The beauty of the book is that Salinger holds out the promise of redemption for Holden, but doesn’t allow him to achieve it in the pages of the novel. In the end, you realize that Holden is telling this story from his hospital in California (what, they don’t have psychiatric hospitals in New York?), and that the hands that didn’t hold his – mommy’s and daddy’s – still aren’t extended in his direction. Somehow, however, Salinger gives us the impression that, over time, everything will be ok.
All you need is love. The lyrics are true. We all find redemption in a connection with a person who accepts us without judging us, whether that person is a friend, a family member or a lover. The tricky part is reciprocity. At some points, there’s no avoiding feeling alone in the world. It takes a certain amount of wisdom and courage to find the means to lift oneself out of that loneliness.