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The Daily Tar Heel

Cheers to `Over the Hill' Holden

You ever feel the same? Meet people so phony you can't believe they're real?

Me too.

That's why Salinger's characters are so believable. They're real. Or better -- they're phony. Holden merely points out things we all know intuitively.

Still it's always amazed me how I and just about everyone else relate to Holden on such a personal level. The kid's insane -- at least that seems to be what the other characters in the book think of him.

He is in a mental hospital after all.

But maybe that tells us something about the phoniness in all of us.

Maybe Holden expresses for us something we all feel but don't say because we fear other people will make fun of us -- or worse, that we'll end up in mental hospitals.

Does that make us phony and Holden real?

Are the only real people characters like Holden who aren't afraid of pointing out the obvious, aren't afraid of bucking a path laid out for them, risking insanity?

Holden's book was published 50 years ago.

Here is a creature trapped between the brusque thousands passing in their frowning black suits and the massive, sky-scraping buildings of New York City that all look the same, the sprawl, the gas, the noise.

Here is a world so immense and indifferent this creature feels alone in it, as though he is standing outside of it, detached from the machinery of existence.

Has anything changed?

Naught but the speed -- we're faster, more efficient beings. We compact energy, information, the days of our lives.

We hurry, and we wait.

We climb toward the lost lane end, frowning not at the toil of reaching it but at the path disappearing before us.

When I first read Holden's book, it made me think about the clothes I wore, the sports I played, things I said to people. It was all an effort to fit into this machine, to be some little nut or bolt, to find my niche in the armory.

But what was it worth?

It seemed like everybody was fooling me into wanting things I didn't really want, living a way I didn't want to live.

Was everything I knew wrong?

Should one walk away from the machine rather than find a place in it?

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I'm sure I'd felt this way before, but Holden said it. He said it for me then, he says it now: Am I truly me? Am I a phony? If I am a phony, what can I do to become real?

At one point, as he is sitting in the Biltmore waiting for Sally Hayes, Holden seems to suggest that people are one thing or another.

The one thing is you and me and Holden.

The other is smart girls with unbelievable legs who marry dopey guys, he says, mean guys who never read books and talk about how many miles to a gallon they get in their cars.

Some people live in that moment, and others live outside in the cold watching, wondering what it's worth being warm anyway.

It's easy being a dope, being on the inside.

You don't have to think much, or say anything more than repeats.

All you got to do, it seems, is sell your soul.

It's harder being like Holden, wondering what it would be like to be a dope, wondering if people are really dopes or if they're fooling you, wondering if everyone is in on it except for you.

It's a tough fix, but Holden is a tough kid.

He makes you crazy because he makes you feel like the world's got nothing to do with you, even while you're in it, and the only time it's real is when you're by yourself and you're not pretending.

Who's the real phony? Who's pretending, and who's not?

Each of us, one might say, is a product of the world in which we're raised. Maybe people act what they know, talk what they're taught, and I'm just spitting Caulfield philosophy because it was taught to me well and it's what I know.

Maybe we're all phonies, even those of us who wish everyone else would be real.

But surely this can't be.

Surely there must be some part of ourselves that is real, that is purely us.

But where is it? Of what does it consist?

Toward the end of "The Catcher in the Rye," Holden says he doesn't know what to make of the thing. The thing of which he is speaking, I think, is a personal identity, one within and without the outer world, both a part and apart.

It's a strange proposition, but it could be the one thing humans know they have is the one thing they'll never understand.

Maybe the searching, Holden seems to say, is the only part of us that is real, because there is no stopping point, no arrival, just steps.

The whole thing, being, moves forward even when you wish it to stop. In the end all you can do is keep on searching for yourself.

It may be the only thing you can do.

Holden Caulfield turns 50 on July 16, 2001. Paul Tharp is a first-year law student. Reach him at ptharp@email.unc.edu.

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