What we have here, Shmoopers, is a frame narrative: Present-Holden is telling us a story about Past-Holden. Present-Holden's initial situation is … well, we don't really know, but it sounds like someone (us?) is asking to hear about "it," and he's getting ready to lay a story on us—a story about some "madman" stuff (1.1).
In that story, we meet Past-Holden right when he's been kicked out of Pencey Prep, his posh boarding school in Pennsylvania. Problem? He can't go home for a few more days (until Christmas break starts), because he doesn't want his parents to know that he's been expelled again. So, instead, he decides to spend the next the days gallivanting around Manhattan. (Where, by the way, his parents live.)
Well, this should be fun.
A fancy private school boy puts up a fancy hotel in the middle of Manhattan and proceeds to try to get (1) drunk and (2) lucky. What could go wrong?
Holden goes wrong. He literally hates every person he meets who's over the age of 12 years old. No matter how desperate he is to actually bond with someone over anything, he can't. He stands in phone booth after phone booth unable to think of a single person he wants to talk to.
You don't even want to see his Facebook page.
Hm. Contrary to all of our expectations (sike), Holden isn't doing too well. Sally repeatedly asks him to not scream at her, though he insists he's not. He gets smashingly drunk and walks around the park in the middle of the night looking for some ducks. He breaks the record he bought for his kid sister. He basically breaks into his parents' house to see her. And he cries. A lot.
Oh boy. It started off tricky, and it's not getting any easier. We have a few options here, Shmoopers:
(1) There's no real climax. Think about it: Holden never actually does anything. He's constantly about to do something without every really doing it. So, maybe there never really is a climax, and that's the problem. (Think about how he keeps trying to have sex and then changing his mind.)
(2) The climax happens off stage. We know that some "madmam" stuff happened around "Christmas" (1.1), but do we actually see it happen? Is "it" the climax, like some psychotic break that happens off stage?
(3) The climax happens when Holden wanders the streets after leaving Mr. Antolini's. After convincing himself that he has cancer, he walks down Fifth Avenue (without a tie! shock!) and thinks that he's just going to go "down, down, down, and nobody'd ever see [him] again" (25.8).
Holden is so fed up with the city (and adults) that he decides to run off to a cabin in the woods. We get the feeling that Holden would panic the first time he had to remove a spider, but whatevs. We all have these fantasies, right?
This is technically the suspense part, since we're wondering if he's actually going to do it. To be honest, though, we're not that nervous. We know from the intro that Holden ends up "resting up" somewhere. (Of course, there is the teeny question of whether he'll end up getting himself into more trouble.)
What! Holden doesn't run away after all?! Shocking!
Oh wait. Not shocking at all. The denouement starts when Phoebe drags a big suitcase up to the Natural History Museum and declares she's running away, too. Phoebe's adamant decision (and her Girl Scout preparation) shows us—and Holden—how dumb his plan was. We all realize it was a silly fantasy, have a good denouement-y laugh, and head on to the conclusion.
After watching Phoebe try to grab a brass ring on a carousel, Holden suddenly decides that maybe there's some hope for the world after all.
But is he better? Unclear. Holden sure doesn't tell us, and many people would say there is no "better" anyway; he just has to grow up and learn to deal like everyone else.
Then again, there's the last line of the conclusion: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." Hmm. Maybe Holden actually was connecting with people all along.