The link above the rest of the page was fresh and in red. It was urgent, it seemed. “J.D. Salinger, reclusive author of _The Catcher in the Rye_, dies at 91.”
A few weeks ago, coming back from winter break, I had scooped that very book into my bag for the train ride back to campus, from New Haven, through New York and the several New Jersey stops before Princeton. My ride had begun with myself alone, my bag on the seat beside me, my body pressed into a nook formed by the train and the armrest of my chair. I hadn’t read it in a very long time, since the eighth grade, and I hardly remembered it having much of an effect on me. I had since read both _Nine Stories_ and _Franny and Zooey_, and liked them very much, the former in particular, but there was something compelling about my tattered copy of Catcher that had managed to peak out from my cluttered bookcase at home and urged itself through its torn-up cover to hitch a ride with me back to school.
There are books that seem to go well with traveling. Books about going and being gone: _On the Road_, _Huckleberry Finn_—they have the right sort of dynamic to address the dual restlessness and eagerness that comes with sitting in a bus going from town to town, or squashed into an airplane somewhere over Omaha. Some breathlessness about the writing, like the author was going along on the journey too, and stopping here and there to catch his breath and pen a few phrases. That’s not to say that all such books come out sounding the same way, indeed Kerouac was quite different than Twain or Salinger. But there is a lot of self, a lot of character in the writing, and a lot of open-minded wonder. My window on the train was streaked with rain recently frozen, and the sights I could see out of it were blurred and sparkling, like a Polaroid photograph. I boarded the train some twenty minutes before it was to go, and read those first, sardonic words as a dare to continue: “if you really want to hear about it,” Salinger had written. Before long though, he had me, because he knew what I was up to. This is a travel book after all: “I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.” I texted my mother and told her I’d call when I got in.
The route from New Haven’s Union Station to Grand Central, for the uninitiated, is a decent one by my less than authoritative standards. It has some marshes and some bridges to span, and some assorted industrial sites that could probably be photographed at some point and made into art. Not all places are like that. I’ve always liked that about my trips to and from home. They offer something, without being too forward about it.
_Catcher_ isn’t a particularly challenging book, and before long I was quite far in. Holden was restless but strangely content. It was a hard to place sensation. He was drifting from school to school, everyone around him was a ‘phony’ and he had nothing that really got him going, although he was good at original compositions. When he talked about his family though, it was clear he had some real sentiments, emotions that meant something to him. He does a description assignment for his roommate in which he tells about the outfield mitt his brother Allie had scribbled poetry all over. In green ink. “You’d have liked him,” Holden writes. I bet I would have. I barely have any sense of where we are anymore. The train’s been going for less than an hour, and I’ve forgotten my own travels and become absorbed entirely in Holden’s. It’s okay though, because Grand Central is the last stop, so there’s no chance I’ll miss it.
I was pretty sure I’d finish _Catcher_ before I got to the city, until all of a sudden with the last string of stops came a flood of people, and I had a middle-aged man and his Blackberry as my seatmate. I looked him over a few times and dog-eared my page. He was checking his email. I wondered when the last time he had done that was. Twenty minutes ago, I figured. I wondered if Holden would think him a phony, or talk to him, like he does with that boy’s mother on the train, lying about her son’s political prowess and many friends.
It turns out though, that I had never spoken with anyone on a train in a significant manner until this man came and sat next to me. He put his Blackberry away and reached into his bag and pulled out some P.D. James novel. He didn’t open it though. He just sort of held it on his lap, drumming the cover with his fingers. I don’t know if he could see my eyes watching his fingers, but after a while he stopped and opened the book.
“Holden Caulfield, huh?” He said then. I pulled the headphones from my ears.
“Yeah,” I stammered back, “I haven’t read it in a while.”
“Neither have I,” he said, and I wanted to smirk but I wasn’t sure it was humor or a bit of nostalgia, so I didn’t do anything. “What was it he said? ‘Don’t ever tell anybody anything’—or something like that?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“It’s a good line.”
It took me about a week and three more days to get to that line. The man and I talked about college until Grand Central, he had gone to Columbia, and when I switched to New Jersey Transit at Penn Station I didn’t feel like reading much. The windows were cleaner and so I just watched the country go by. When I got back to school, I had papers to write and people to see. When I finally got to the last page, Dean’s Date had passed. I was sitting in my bed having just awoken in the late afternoon. I had a few unanswered texts wondering what I was up to. I didn’t answer them. I read Salinger instead, about how Holden saw his sister, got involved with a prostitute but didn’t do anything, lied to some girls in a bar about seeing someone famous, told everybody about his troubles. He said telling everybody these things made him miss them, or at least he implied so.
The obituary in the _New York Times_ talked a lot about Salinger’s reclusiveness. Recounted a bunch of episodes with ex-wives, old lovers and local children that left him feeling abused. It’s hard to know what he really wanted in the end. He had told everybody everything already, in his books. He didn’t much like the world he lived in, it seemed. He cocooned himself away in New Hampshire for most of it, sued people who sought to make profits off his name and supposedly kept unpublished novels in a safe that only he knew the combination to. Firestone has a copy of a story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” which is about Holden’s brother Allie, and which is to be published fifty years from today, as the author stipulated its introduction to the rest of the world was to come that amount of time after his death. It’s funny though. With him dead now, actually gone, we’re going to hear a lot more about him. We’re going to talk about his books, his loves, his failures. And in fifty years he’s going to publish a story, something he hasn’t done since 1965. I’ll miss him, because I told him things while on a train back to school, as casual asides in the middle of a conversation with another. I think he was wrong though. We should tell people things. Even Holden, even Salinger, must have thought that ultimately. He gave us himself and we read it and loved it. We talked about it on trains, on buses, on airplanes. Mr. Antolini tells Holden: “Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” Tell people things, is what I get from _Catcher_. Missing people is a part of living, and it’s how we keep ourselves alive, in others, long after we’re gone.