“… I hope the hell when I do die, somebody has sense enough to just
dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me
in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on
Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”
– "The Catcher in the Rye"
Except for kids and carousels, about everything annoyed the hell out of Holden Caulfield. Made him want to puke. Killed him. The only life worth living for the 16-year-old flunk-out, the voice of generations, was to catch kids before the morons, perverts and phonys ran them off some crazy cliff.
Last week, the boy’s 91-year-old creator, J.D. Salinger, went off the cliff without bidding his readers goodbye. His second wife (Colleen, 51) and two children (Margaret, 50, and Matthew, 44) have honored his wishes: no funeral, no flowers or any of that crap.
Not even a tombstone. Holden had made himself clear about that, too. If he “sat right the hell on top of an atom bomb,” he didn’t want some stupid tombstone with his name and dates on it. Because “right under that it’ll say, ‘F— you.’”
Every time he stumbled on someplace that seemed “nice and peaceful,” the teenager found that some pervert had already left him this Hallmark greeting. Which is what made him want to ride an atom bomb to begin with.
After the novel became an overnight sensation in 1951, Salinger retreated to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In a rare interview with the New York Times in ’74, he said he continued to write here “for my own pleasure” but found “a marvelous peace in not publishing.”
At the time of the interview, another historic artist was living in the gothic Dakota apartments, a stone’s throw from Holden’s Central Park haunt at the duck pond. Like Salinger, this star would tire of fame (“where things are hollow”), and get off the merry-go-round, singing, “I just had to let it go.”
And like Holden’s reclusive creator, ex-Beatle John Lennon had just wanted peace, too.
"We’re only trying to get us some peace,” he sang. “Christ you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be. The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.”
John was J.D.’s soulmate in other ways, as well. He dug Jesus, but called the Disciples “thick and ordinary.” He mourned the loss of his youth, singing, “When I was a boy, everything was alright.” And phonies drove him crazy, too.
But the musical prophet and the literary prophet parted ways on deliverance from the craziness. The first sang about love and peace; the second wrote about catching innocents.
But how? Salinger never bothered to say. His love life had been even more purgatorial than Lennon’s, providing little hope of a universal version. Fittingly, his suicidal young hero wrote his manifesto from the loony bin.
Holden went crazy in a crazy world. It was only normal. In fact, he liked crazies. “The guy I like most in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him 10 times as much as the Disciples.”
The words were heavensent for another suicidal psychiatric patient, this one real: Mark David Chapman. "The Catcher in the Rye" was gospel for the former YMCA youth counselor and reborn Christian. Holden Caulfield became his new idol, replacing John Lennon.
At first the two had seemed like the same person to Chapman. Then he decided that the Workingman’s Hero was a bigger phony than anybody else.
"He told us to imagine no possessions,” the assassin later explained, “and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates, laughing at people like me who had believed the lies and bought the records and built a big part of their lives around his music.”
Days before Lennon’s fateful meeting with Salinger’s incarnated hero, he discussed in a last interview his “guilt for being rich, and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace isn’t enough and you have to go and get shot or something."
Now he is in Strawberry Fields, under flowers and a stone Imagine star.
From his peaceful New England retreat, Salinger himself never spoke of the assassination. And now that he has gone over the cliff without so much as a marker or parting revelation, we are left to wonder if there will ever be another "Catcher in the Rye," much less answers to his goddamn crazy questions.