Meet Holden Caulfield. He's got a lot of attitude and lot of dated profanity, and he wants to tell us all about "this madman stuff" that happened to him "around last Christmas." His story begins on a December Saturday at Pencey Prep School in Pennsylvania, where he's just been given the ax (read: kicked out) for failing all his classes except English. Turns out, getting the ax is a recurring theme in Holden's past.
Back in the dorm, Holden goofs around with Robert Ackley, a pimply and annoying kid. We're introduced to Holden's distinctive red hunting hat, and we meet his roommate, Stradlater, who is a "sexy bastard" getting ready for a date with Jane Gallagher, an old friend (and sort-of romantic interest) of Holden's. Holden is none too happy about this impending date, but agrees anyway to write an English composition for the "moron" Stradlater.
Holden writes about his younger brother Allie, who died three years earlier of leukemia. More specifically, the composition is about Allie's left-handed baseball mitt, which had poems written all over it in green ink (so that Allie would have something to read while out in the field). Holden reveals that on the night Allie died, Holden broke all the windows in the garage with his bare hand. As a result, he still can't make a good fist with his hand.
Stradlater comes back and Holden tries to figure out if anything happened (in the sex sense of "anything") with Jane. Stradlater is evasive, so Holden tackles him and gets the worse end of the scuffle (a bloody nose). He tries to chat with Ackley for company, but ends up so fed up with everyone and everything that he decides to leave Pencey, right then and there. But first, he has to bum around New York for a few days before going home (otherwise his parents will know he's gotten the ax).
In New York, he gets a pretty swank hotel room and then tries to get lucky. And fails. Not to mention that he can't score booze, because he's a minor. Instead, he reminisces about Jane. It's all very innocent: golf, checkers, movies, holding hands, without much sexy stuff.
He then heads off to "Ernie's," where he knows he can drink, but has to leave to avoid an old and annoying acquaintance. Back in his own hotel, he somehow ends up with a prostitute named Sunny in his room. He's more into talking than sex, and Sunny, who's quite young herself, gets confused and leaves his room with a little of Holden's money but no sex. She comes back later with her pimp to get more money, and Holden ends up with a punch in the stomach.
The next day Holden leaves his hotel, makes a date with an old friend named Sally Hayes, and meets two nuns while he's having breakfast. After he leaves, he buys a record for his little sister, Phoebe, and overhears a boy singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." More on this soon.
Holden heads to the park to kill some time before his date with Sally. He chats with a girl in the park and has some Deep Thoughts about childhood before meeting Sally. He shares his fantasy of running away, living in a log cabin, and doing log-cabin-y things for the rest of his life. When Sally is unsurprisingly not too into this, Holden flips out.
Alone yet again for the evening, Holden calls up an old acquaintance from school, Carl Luce, and arranges to meet him for drinks. At the bar, Carl takes the annoying "I'm soooo mature" attitude, so the night ends early. Well, it ends early for Carl. Holden stays alone at the bar and drinks himself into fuzzy oblivion. After trying to make a date with the coat-check girl, he goes to the park to look for the ducks (he's really into ducks). Seeing no ducks, he heads home to visit his sister Phoebe, who we've been told is the greatest girl in the world.
Phoebe does in fact appear to be the greatest girl in the world. They talk about how depressed Holden is, and he says all he wants to do with his life is be the catcher in the rye—if there were a bunch of children playing in a field of rye next to a big cliff, he'd be the guy to catch them before they go off the edge. Phoebe informs him that the "song" he heard about the catcher in the rye is actually a poem by Robert Burns, and it's about bodies meeting bodies, not catching bodies.
Next on Holden's visiting list is Mr. Antolini, an old teacher. This visit ends badly, when Mr. Antolini maybe comes on to him. Holden bolts, and spends a really depressing night in the train station. After this, Holden decides to run away. He tells Phoebe via a note, and she decides she wants to come, too. No way, says Holden. Phoebe gets angry and pulls a "Fine, I'm not talking to you anymore."
Fortunately, being mad at someone doesn't mean you won't go to the zoo with them, which she does. They end up at the carousel, where Holden promises Phoebe that he won't run away after all. As he watches her go around and around on the carousel, he declares he's happy. Hey, that's a first!
At last, we pull out of the narrative and back to the Holden of one year later, the one who was telling us this story. He's clearly in therapy for getting "sick" in some way. He says he's supposed to go back to school in September, but he's not sure whether or not things will be any different (that is, any better) this time around. He concludes that he sort of wishes he hadn't told us this story at all, since relating it makes him miss all the people he'd met.