What is it About The Catcher in the Rye? (Here’s to You, J.D. Salinger)

At the age of 91, J.D. Salinger died Wednesday.

I remember being 16 and reading a book with a bizarre carousel horse on the cover, and being completely taken, wooed, left mumbling things about “phonies” and wishing I knew what a hound’s-tooth jacket looked like so I could work on the swift acquisition of one.

But at work yesterday, as I thought about Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye, I stopped dead when I couldn’t remember why: What made the book so good in the first place?

I pondered it on the way home—was it Holden? The writing? The plot, the metaphors, the conclusion? Hell, was it the setting? (For more on the mechanics, I’ve discovered that Write Like the Masters has some solid insights into Salinger’s prose.)

Later, the question surfaced again. It’s been said that the book was merely like a toy or a timepiece, something you were lucky to get a hold of at a specific moment in your life: the right book at the right time.

And now that he’s gone, there’s a lot of talk again about the habits of the author himself, which complicates such wondering. A recluse, rumored to do strange things (a taste for urine?) in his strange home as he wrote off the world in pursuit of strange things we may never know. (Former WD Editor Maria Schneider and I talked about him every so often, deeming him the “holy grail” of writing magazine interviews, something you could aspire to, but never would really get.)

When I finally reached my computer late last night, it occurred to me why I like the book, and Salinger, so much.

Who cares that he did whatever he may have done in his self-imposed exile, or that if I had written to pitch an interview, he never would have written back. Who cares if Catcher was a literary mirror to some for teen angst, the perfect book for the right moment in time—after all, I wonder if hitting that one moment is all most of us can hope for anyway, as writers, and as readers.

At the end of the day, my own love for the book is pretty selfish: Catcher, like all books that strike writer-types, has an energy that can make you want to write.

And back then, just like today, when merely starting to write anything can seem like an impossible task in the face of everything else that’s going on (when I was 16 I believe it was standardized tests, skateboarding and the dissolution of month-long relationships), I think that’s a pretty great thing.

Even if I never did find my own hound’s-tooth jacket.

WRITING PROMPTS: Literary Roadshow—J.D. Salinger Edition
In 500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring, write a story inspired by or including the following (from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). Feel free to take the prompts home or post your responses in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

“You’re sorry. You’re sorry. That’s very funny,” she said. She was still sort of crying, and all of a sudden I did feel sort of sorry I’d said it.
“C’mon, I’ll take ya home. No kidding.”
“I can go home by myself, thank you. If you think I’d let you take me home, you’re mad. No boy ever said that to me in my entire life.”


“Daddy’s going to kill you. He’s going to kill you,” she said.
I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else—something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be?”

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6 thoughts on “What is it About The Catcher in the Rye? (Here’s to You, J.D. Salinger)

  1. Vibram Five Fingers

    I don’t really run barefoot. I wanted to, but the combination of super hot sidewalks and the fear of sharp objects convinced me that Vibram Five Fingers were a good compromise between running shoes and none at all. What I didn’t know was that my reasons were the same as almost everyone else’s and the guys that I looked up to were the same Vibram Fivefingers that everyone else did.
    Though I don’t call myself Barefoot Tyler (mostly because I DON’T RUN BAREFOOT), this video is absolutely hilarious. The insults are far better than the random crap the Vibram Five Fingers guy is spewing. http://www.2vibramfivefingers.com/

  2. nizhuce

    tampa bay buccaneers

  3. George Hoerner

    I was slow growing up if I have. I didn’t read Catcher until I was 19 and in England in the air force. What amazes me is brought out in your comment regarding the writer’s habits. So many people love Van Gogh just because he cut off his ear, or they hate Picasso because he was a Communist, or love Hemmingway because he lived in Cuba, traveled to Spain, committed suicide etc. We have a hard time separating the artist from the creation. I suspect the relationship between artist and art is more, though not always, about the relationship between the artist and the time in which he wrote and his reaction to it. Most of us don’t take the time to try to consider that. What would Dostoevsky be writing now?

  4. Martha W

    Great post, Zac.

    Yup, Mark. Pandemic on the brain…


    “You’re sorry?"

    The watery reply brought me back to her. I was leaving. She could find someone else to hang out with, I thought. "Yeah. I said so, didn’t I?"

    "You’re sorry. That’s very funny." She continued on like I hadn’t answered her, kinda far off sounding.

    All of a sudden, I actually started to feel sorry. "C’mon. I’ll take ya home."

    "I can go home by myself, thank you very much." She sniffed, wiped her nose on her sleeve-covered hand. "If you think I’d let you take me home, you’re mad."

    "We’re a long way from your house, Kari. Let me take you." My mom would skin me alive if I really left her alone. That got me irritated. All this because of one little comment.

    "No boy ever said that to me in my entire life." Her grey eyes flashed anger even as her bottom lip quivered with unshed tears.

    "I’m sorry. It didn’t come out like I meant it."

    She looked me over and I knew I didn’t make a nice picture. Wavy, dirt brown hair, same color eyes, scrawny my daddy called me. My clothes were clean but I had holes in the knees of my jeans and my shirt had seen better days when it was my brother’s.

    Why she hung out with me, I’ll never know. She always had on fluffy dresses and shiny shoes. Bows in her hair. Always in pigtails. Her daddy would have a fit if he knew she talked to me. Which is why we always met at the playground.

    I sighed. "Give me another chance. I won’t be mean again."

    She nodded quickly and held out her hand. "Okay, Tommy. But next time I’m gonna push you in the mud."

    I clasped her hand and looked away as I rolled my eyes. One little comment about those pigtails being crooked and you’d have thought I broke her favorite doll.


    I remembered that day like it was yesterday. Sitting in this cold hospital, I could smell the grass, hear the clanks and clangs of the merry-go-round ringing through the air. That was the beginning.

    Here I sat now, looking at her hair to match her eyes, the knowledge that this was our ending echoed in my old head. Feeble hands clasped together, much like that day so long ago, I climbed slowly onto the bed next to her.

    She opened her eyes and smiled weakly. "What are you doing, Tom?"

    "Taking you home."

    One last kiss and we closed our eyes and faded off to sleep.

  5. Mark James

    Zac, thanks for this one. It made me remember high school, when I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time and thought, ‘What’s up with the ducks in Central Park?’ Of course, years later, I got it.

    I knew Rissa was the valuable one. They had enough of me on ice to get her pregnant a hundred times over.

    “Daddy’s going to kill you. He’s going to kill you,” she said.

    I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else—something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. "You know what I’d like to be?”

    “No,” she said, “but you’re going to be dead if you don’t stop.”

    Rissa had been my Bond Mate since we were born. As soon as we got old enough to notice the boy-girl thing, she’d guarded her virginity like a Roman soldier on campaign.

    I heard the back door in the kitchen, heard Clarissa’s dad hang up his gun belt.

    She let me steal one more kiss, then she buttoned her sweater, slid to the far side of the couch.

    Her father eyed the two of us, seemed to calculate the distance. “How’s homework going?” he said.

    “Taking a break, Sheriff Parker.”

    “I wish you wouldn’t call me that Derrick, you’re practically my son-in-law.”

    “Thanks, sir.” I ignored how he rolled his eyes. “Could I borrow your gun?”

    “Help yourself,” he said, going through the door that led to his bedroom. “Running low on bullets. No re-supply till the next drop. Hit whatever you aim at.”

    Clarissa stifled a groan. “Hunting? Again? We did that last Open Night.”

    I got to my feet, pulled her into my arms, whispered, “You didn’t hear what I’d like to be.”

    With my fingers undoing her pink sweater, I didn’t think she’d be interested, but she asked. “What?”

    “Prize Winner.”

    She pulled away, doing up buttons. “No.”

    “We’re like cattle in here, Rissa.” I took her hand. “We’d get a week. No Watchers, no – – ”

    “They’d still be watching,” she said.

    I waved away her common sense. “Don’t you see? We’d be off the Preserve.”

    “If they don’t kill you.”

    The flu pandemic had swept across the world as if the Black Plague had been a dress rehearsal. In 2012, Death and his scythe took the stage—a vicious mass murderer on a tireless rampage.

    Most survivors were missing the one thing that could give humanity a fighting chance: the ability to carry on the race. Outside the Preserves, they starved.

    I went to the window. The Sheriff’s house was on the highest hill in the Preserve. I saw the electric fence. It went around the compound that was dressed up like a town. “Just this once, Rissa. Let me try.”

    “You’re not going outside the fence.”

    As my Bond Mate, she could deny me. “One time,” I said.

    “They’ll eat you, just like we eat them.” Her voice dropped. “Stay.”

    Something in the way her voice caught on the last word made me turn around. She was stark naked. And oh God, I wanted her.

    “I can’t,” I said quietly. “I can’t just stay here and wait to have children, then wait to die. I have to see something else.”

    “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce – – ”

    One more syllable, and I’d be on the other side of the fence, locked out, just flesh on a stick for Preserve Hunters.

    I waited to hear the sound of my freedom ring.