By Nick Sweeney
It was a re-read of J D Salinger’s milestone classic novel The Catcher in the Rye that reminded me that I was a phony. I read it at sixteen, of course, like all wannabe literate boys, and it revealed to me back then that the world was a phony place full of phony people. At sixteen I knew what I had to do about the phonies: not avoid them, but at least laugh at them, spurn them to their faces, or not, punch them on their noses, even, if I had the guts.
At forty, I realized that, in some way, whether by my own hand or manipulated by others, I had joined them. I dealt with this initially by avoiding myself, I think. You can only do that for so long. You have to look in mirrors, at least once a day, unless you want to grow a beard. There was the form of a particular kind of worthlessness hanging over me, though, in which nothing I said or did seemed as if it made any impact on anybody. Others might call it depression, neurosis, even a form of psychosis. Some would put it down to childish petulance not to be permitted in a man of my age. Whatever it was, it was mine, and it cut me off from the things and people that had anchored me. It became a kind of limbo, not a million miles away from the dance of the same name. To do that, you have to keep your body nominally upright as you walk under a bar. You have to do the normal thing, that is, walk forward through air and space, on your feet, as a higher primate, when the space to do that has had its parameters altered. I felt that was how life had become, and was convinced that what I could do to save myself was cultivate the true, non-phony self that sat patiently within, while recognising that the world built around me had changed.
A pub up the road from me in North London was called The Catcher in the Rye. Like most pubs, it had a sign to tell you its name. The sign had a picture of the Catcher in the Rye on it. This was a guy dressed in a sort of Dark Ages livery, sort of Hollywood Robin Hood. He was perched on a horse, on a green background of some kind of foliage. No rye. Who or what was he going to catch? Salinger’s book title comes from when anti-hero Holden tells Phoebe, his little sister, that all he’d really like to be is the catcher in the rye; a field of rye would grow to the edge of a cliff, and kids would play there: if they strayed too near the edge of the cliff he’d catch them, and pull them back to safety. It’s a warm ambition from an age of innocence, and it’s almost totally at odds with the world, full of phonies, that has been rolled out to Holden when the clouds lift from his eyes. This is a call from within Holden, maybe the corny child within trying to arrest his development. In any case, Phoebe soon sets him straight on one point. He has made the mistake of telling her, “It’s from that song, you know: If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Smart Phoebe tells him, “It’s not catch. It’s meet. If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” Phoebe, the child without, sees off Holden’s child within in this way.
Well, it’s only a pub sign. Nobody goes to a pub because they like the sign, and nobody avoids one because they see the absurdity in it. Except me.
Signs are important, though. Signs are life. They are ignored at your peril.
My first sign around that time was one I ignored. It was a red traffic light. I carried on across a busy intersection on my bicycle. A guy in a car had a similar idea, except that he wanted to turn left. We two sign-ignorers were brought sharply together. I sprained my front forks and my wrist.
But then, if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been on an underground train to see the second sign. That sign was Salinger himself. He got on a train going north on London’s underground system, a few days before Christmas 1999. He was wearing a long off-white mac and cheap-looking sneakers. Aside from his calm facial expression, he looked just like he did in those photos of him in the late phase of his hermitage, of the angry recluse fending off photographers. On the train, somebody asked if he wanted a seat, and he was the true American abroad, forceful and laconic, as he established eye contact for a second and drawled out that he didn’t, thanks.
There was a party of office workers nearby, singing the few lines they could remember of some dreary Christmas song. Aren’t people at their most phony after office parties? And there we all were, a carriage full of people headed towards a millennium that was phony when looked at from any number of directions: a year early, four years out, meaningless to non-Christians.
Salinger got off at what was then London’s alternative shopping Mecca, Camden Town. I digress here to say that Camden Town has got to be the home of the phonies – you can buy your weekend teenage rebellion straight off the peg, whatever age you are, and take it off in time for work on Monday morning. I checked a website soon after, and found that Salinger did indeed leave his seclusion in Cornish New Hampshire, and often, and sometimes traveled to London.
It was him; it was Salinger out incognito among the phonies, like those kings that disguised themselves as peasants and went among the unwashed to hear the real deal on what was being said about them. I had lost my chance to talk to him, but I never kicked myself. What would I have said? I could have asked him, “Are you Thomas Pynchon?” but he may have punched me on the snout. I guess, What did you do about the phonies? was a question that came to mind, but I knew the answer to that: he built his wall, sneaked out from behind it in his mac and got on a plane sometimes to stand among the phonies and assure them he didn’t want to sit among them.
That was fine for him. What was I going to do?
I’ll never go to The Catcher in the Rye for a drink: somebody burned it down the day after I saw Salinger. The only sign there now says, keep out, and I guess that’s a sign that doesn’t realise its own absurdity either: keep out of what, exactly? It’s much closer to the one on Salinger’s own door than it ever was to the catcher he dreamed up sometime in the 1940s when the phonies were much harder to spot.