“Half of the time, we’re gone…”

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is that it was in The New York Times, and what the lousy novel sounds like, and how the author was occupied and all before he wrote it, and all that J.D. Salinger kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth:

On Wednesday, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order forbidding publication in the United States of “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye,” a takeoff on — J. D. Salinger’s lawyers say rip-off of — “The Catcher in the Rye,” written by a young Swedish writer styling himself J. D. California.

Until the judge makes her final ruling, Mr. Salinger’s fans will be spared the prospect of encountering Holden Caulfield, the ultimate alienated teenager, as a lonely old codger who escapes from a retirement home and his beloved younger sister, Phoebe, as a drug addict sinking into dementia.

The Times adds that Catcher is showing its age: “Teachers say young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as ‘weird,’ ‘whiny’ and ‘immature.'”

Of course: In a culture overripe with Facebook confessionals and reality TV, a million Holdens and Holdenettes have made the novel obsolete, and distance obscures what made it distinctive in 1951. Certainly no kid in 2009 gets the goofiness of Holden Caulfield’s name, the equivalent of “Affleck Paltrow” today. I’m surprised Salinger fans took it as earnestly as they did.

The debate over Holden Caulfield’s dwindling relevance is boring, but the plot of 60 Years Later is intriguing: It suggests that “J.D. California” left good ideas untapped.

Fifteen years ago, I found a photocopy of the pirated edition of Salinger’s other magazine stories, the ones that have never been legally republished (but which are now all over the Web). I read the thing in three sittings; I closed it enlightened and disappointed. With few exceptions, Salinger put his best material to better use in his tiny canon of “authorized” works; fans should be especially relieved that the dreadful 1965 novella Hapworth 16, 1924 was never republished.

But angstkind Holden earned my pity. In the early stories that became The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield never grows old; he vanishes in the Pacific during World War II.

Now, suppose Holden’s alternate fate explains his aimlessness and moping. He’s a smart enough kid, so he senses that something’s not right. And maybe one afternoon in the early ’50s, in a doctor’s office or a friend’s apartment or some other suitably phony place, a bored Holden picks up a chipped, battered copy of The Saturday Evening Post. He flips through its pages. He rolls his eyes at the goddamn fashion illustrations. He mentally draws mustaches on Jon Whitcomb’s elegant women.

But toward the back of the magazine, he freezes. There, somehow, is his name—no, not just his name, an entire story about some brother he didn’t know he had, and things he was certain were private.

He’s horrified—and baffled beyond cynicism. As night falls, he goes outside, and on the loneliest walk of his life, through a Manhattan that no longer makes any sense, he searches his soul, and he starts to understand what he is. In a flash of maturity no novelist could make plausible, the shaken young man knows what comes next. He’s forced to agree with the judgment of generations: despite the support of the people who love him and the universality of his youthful emotions, Holden Caulfield is living on borrowed time.

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