In a vacuum, The Catcher in the Rye is a pretty straightforward story– not a whole lot happens. But if you’re at all familiar with American culture, you’re probably well aware that it has taken on an enormously prolific life of its own. Probably you read the book for school as a teen, or even a tween if you grew up here, and you might have noticed that it has a somewhat polarizing effect. If you identified with the book’s hero, a 17-year-old kid named Holden Caulfield, anyone else who shared this affinity was an OK person too. But plenty of people just don’t get Holden’s misanthropic cynicism, and it’s weird, but there seems to be a built-in emotional trigger point here for those who do: clearly the haters must be “phonies” then, too. As time goes on, and teenage angst either subsides or turns into something else, like, playing in a black metal band or four-martini lunch hours, Holden’s frustration with the world’s many, many disappointments seems more like kid stuff. And most people realize that, OK not everyone is such a phony after all. But not everyone lets go of Holden so easily.
Originally staged in 2015 at the Ice Factory Festival, Holden, a play named after the boy anti-hero and written by Anisa George (of George & Co.), returned last week for a short run at the New Ohio Theatre. The focus is Salinger’s book and how, like any immensely popular cultural product really, it can be read (or over-read) as a kind of ideology, romanticized, manipulated, and blindly worshiped.
In search of identification, people who can’t find their reflection so easily will look just about everywhere. Case in point, a guy named Mark David Chapman believed that he was fulfilling some sort of implicit motive for ridding the earth of “phonies” when he killed John Lennon, and reportedly carried a copy of the book with him with the inscription, “This is my statement, from Holden to Holden.” If you’re paying close attention (or maybe read a review in advance of the show), you might recognize the lanky, mutton chopped and bearded guy in ’70s regalia and aviator glasses.
In George’s imagining, Chapman and another Salinger fan, John Hinckley (who was somewhat less successful in his endeavors), have somehow made their way into “the bunker,” their favorite writer’s secluded dwelling for some 40 years. (Hinckley gives himself away when he starts acting out a scene from the film Taxi Driver, and lovingly pets a photo of Jodie Foster.) The pair switch off between worshipping their hero, getting on his nerves, driving him into a complete tizzy, and comforting him between terrifying battlefield hallucinations, apparently brought on by PTSD, what many suspected drove Salinger to become a recluse. The point of all this being, to coax the famously stubborn Salinger into completing another book (when he passed away in 2010, he left behind only a handful of published works). Hinckley and Chapman badger him to the point of abuse, still nothing ever gets finished.
Zev, a newcomer joins what’s already a boy-tastic sausage fest with constant wrestling, imaginary gun play, boasting and (figurative) peen-sizing contests, all of it happening inside the uber-masculine cabin that looks a whole lot like an army base. Of course, Zev’s arrival means hazing rituals. Did somebody say “toxic masculinity”?
There’s sort of a strange relationship between Salinger and all these guys. He never quite acknowledges them fully, and they seem to be moving at the edge of his perception. Zev wonders “How come Jerry never has to say ‘good morning’?” And we’re also kind of curious, is Salinger really that spaced out? Eventually, our suspicions are confirmed. After another one of his freakouts, Salinger sits crossed legged on the floor, closes his eyes, and begins chanting, pausing only to pick up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. Chapman fills in a very confused Zev: “Everything is an illusion. I’m an illusion and you’re an illusion. This coffee here is an illusion. That was hard for me to wrap my head around at first, but then I realized I never had to pee. I drink coffee, but I don’t piss. I don’t shit either. You follow?” Yeah, we follow– y’all are a buncha creepy ghosts.
If you search “The Catcher in the Rye” and “murder,” a ready-made query comes up at the top, the kind that Google outlines in an important-looking box: “Is Catcher in the Rye an Assassination Trigger?” Needless to say, it’s kind of a ridiculous question. (The blog hints at the kind of people who ask it in all seriousness: “Clearly, though Catcher in the Rye probably was not the assassination trigger, it is quite probable that the CIA often does use other means for assassination triggers.”) And yet, Salinger, a Simon & Schuster-published biography released shortly after Salinger’s death, actually entertains this idea, as a review in The New Yorker observed: “[The authors’] own peculiar view of Salinger forces them to insist that Chapman was not just a crazy hallucinant, but in his own misguided way an insightful reader, responding to the ‘huge amount of psychic violence in the book.'” Which is funny, because “Catcher” always read as an exceedingly pacifist book, where Holden understood the military and violence as clearly abhorrent. Once again, Salinger’s work falls prey to projection and distortion. Even if the book glorified violence, J.D. Salinger would not be to blame for assassins finding motivation to commit violent acts against real people.
But George’s play digs deeper, and asks how and why this sort of perversion happens in the first place.
Zev is cleary a modern kind of guy, with a ripped-up t-shirt and an unabashed devotion to slackerdom. He’s a stereotypical Millennial, but red flags go up for Chapman and Hinckley when they realize that he might be an imposter. “What book?” Zev wonders, at Hinckley’s mention. Chapman is aghast: “What book?! You gotta be shittin’ me?” Zev looks dumbfounded, “What? Catcher in the Rye?” The other two yell, in perfect synch: “THE Catcher in the Rye!” The guys find out that he’s a poser in other ways too: Zev admits he hasn’t killed anyone. Yet.
How he imagines himself joining the assassins, places him within his generation in a much more terrifying way. Warning signs show up early, like when Chapman quizzes Zev, “Hey new guy, how true is this statement for you? ‘In his mind fulfillment meant loving a good woman and killing a bad man.'” At first Zev resists, before giving a rather cryptic answer: “Fuck anybody who answers that question with a number.” In the play’s script, Anisa George attributes this quote to Robert Heinlein a sci-fi writer prolific in the mid-2oth century, but it’s actually somewhat difficult to find where exactly Heinlein wrote this. (I was unable to verify that he even did write it.) Instead, what pops up are dozens of references to the quote in books with titles like On Combat and On Killing, and a slew of military memoirs and non-fiction accounts, like one by a Navy Seal “Team Three” vet called The Last Punisher, On Combat.
Admittedly, probably no one is thinking about where the quote comes from, but instead they are wondering what the hell Zev meant by “a number.” We don’t find out until the very end of the play, when the guys once again start grilling him, and he doesn’t seem to have an specific ambitions when it comes to a target. As it turns out, he’s aiming for numbers only. “As many as possible. More than sixty-nine would be good. That’s the current record, if we’re just talking strictly gun-shooting fatalities.” His fantasy grows grossly violent, and eventually Chapman and Hinckley are moved to complete revulsion, and finally rage. “Extermination is renovation,” Zev says.
Curiously, the other two assassins clearly believe that what they did (or tried to to do, in Hinckley’s case) was noble, heroic even. When Zev suggests that Salinger probably killed multiple people in combat, Chapman dismisses the comparison. “War is noble,” he says. Suddenly, Salinger looks up from his work, and starts to laugh uncontrollably. Of course, Chapman’s assertion is ridiculous. War is war. And likewise, there’s nothing more noble and great and genius that grants Salinger a similar halo when it comes to writing.
After seeing Holden, you can’t help but think about how much violence has changed in recent years– indiscriminate mass shootings are almost the norm in the U.S. right now, and some of our cities, especially Chicago, are home to marginalized communities that are wracked by gun violence, and starved of the resources necessary to have any chance of halting it. Meanwhile, the iffy concept of “terrorism” is rarely applied to any of these cases, and is instead reserved for mass killings carried out by hate-espousing militant organizations in various former colonies. Violence is violence.
George’s play highlights just how ridiculous it is to look to our books, the internet, music, movies, and even video games for answers. Any cultural product will reflect the context in which it was made and consumed, not only by way of some implicit message supposedly contained in the work, but in how it’s interpreted and accepted by the society that gobbles it up. But using these things to either justify or explain violence are both ways of dislocating the problem– shifting it outward and away from ourselves. Instead, Holden begs us to search for answers, and to ask how mass murderers and male violence in general, which only seem to be getting worse, especially in the United States, can be so ingrained. Cultural products, if they even do contain an inkling of that violence, are only a reflection of what’s inside of us.
But why male violence? Well, the answer to that should be obvious. There’s a fifth character in Holden, a cute little girl, or Salinger’s daughter Peggy. She wanders in and out only a few times, but is a terrifying presence for the men. While Salinger is up at the house, she sneaks into the bunker and flutters around the room, fiddling with objects and generally snooping around like a curious kid would, but when she picks up the manuscript pages, the guys lose it.
At the end of the play, she finds her way to the shed, and cuddles up with her dad after having a bad dream. In an attempt to calm her he tells her a story: “Did I ever tell you about the blue baby who could hold the whole universe in his mouth … and even swallow big black things as if they were just an afternoon snack?”
Moments like these are the only ones where Salinger seems completely with it, calm, collected, and is actually somewhat able to care for another human being. More importantly for his case, it’s the only time he can actually complete a story. But the guys never seem to recognize this. As Hinckley darkly observes earlier on: “Someone’s always gotta be the destroyer.”