Of Ducks And Men: Holden Caulfield’s Hard Questions

By Jessica Shattuck

NPR.org, January 29, 2010 · I had seriously low expectations of The Catcher in the Rye. I was 15 when I read it. My father had given it to me for Christmas; the cover was as plain and uninteresting as an instruction manual; the title smacked of inscrutable, Greatest Generation hang-ups. But once I began to read, I was completely transported.

I don’t know if it was Holden Caulfield’s alienated teenage voice that held me so rapt, or his sense of humor and morality, or the understated pathos of the story. But I know what sticks with me from that first reading experience was my unlikely sense of kinship with him (I was a girl in a big public high school, with an almost straight-A average and a mortal fear of getting into trouble) … and his preoccupation with the ducks in Central Park.

Where do they go in the winter when the lagoon freezes? is a question Holden comes back to throughout the book when he should be thinking or talking about something else — getting kicked out of school, for instance, or his younger brother’s death. As a teenager going through my own mourning (I read the book after my mother died) I got this. As a partial product of the often-repressed, ever-indirect northeastern society Salinger wrote about, I delighted in the truth of seeing its mental tics laid out on the page.

Salinger was a master at representing dissociation: that eerie, but highly adaptive, ability we have as human beings to talk about one thing and think another, to do one thing and feel another. It is a huge part of living in society, of navigating the demands of public life and private emotion. And it’s something you can really only explore fully in a novel.

Reading Salinger today, in this time of faltering publishing and constant talk of the death of the literary novel, feels reassuring. What else but a good novel can chronicle — or expose, really — the dual currents that animate our daily lives? The comedy of our private mental evasions? The ducks whose disappearance we think about when, actually, we’re wondering where we go after we die?

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