After leaving the skating rink, Holden goes to a drugstore and has a Swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk. Once again, he thinks about calling Jane, but his mind begins to wander. He remembers the time he saw her at a dance with a boy Holden thought was a show-off, but Jane argued that the boy had an inferiority complex. Holden decides that girls always say that as an excuse to date arrogant boys. Finally, he calls Jane, but no one answers. He then calls a boy named Carl Luce, whom he used to know at the Whooton School, and Luce agrees to meet him for drinks later that night.
To kill time, Holden goes to see a movie at Radio City Music Hall. He finds the Rockettes’ Christmas stage show ridiculous and superficial, but it makes him remember how he and Allie used to love the kettledrum player in the Radio City pit orchestra. The man was an unnoticed, minuscule part of the show, but he seemed to take joy and pride in what he did. After the show, the movie begins, which Holden claims to find boring as well. When it is over, he begins walking to the Wicker Bar, where he is supposed to meet Luce. The movie was about the war, so Holden thinks about the army. Based on what D. B. has told him, Holden decides that he could never be in the military. He would rather, he says, be shot by a firing squad or sit on top of an atom bomb.
At the Wicker Bar, located in the posh Seton Hotel, Holden thinks about Luce. Luce is three years older than Holden and now a student at Columbia University. At the Whooton School, Luce used to tell the younger boys about sex. Holden says that he finds Luce amusing, even though he is effeminate and a phony. When Luce arrives, he treats Holden coolly, and Holden pesters him with questions about sex. Luce refuses to be drawn into the kind of sex discussion that they had had at Whooton, and he suggests that Holden needs psychoanalysis. Holden remembers that Luce’s father is a psychoanalyst, but Luce is evasive when Holden asks whether Luce’s father ever analyzed his own son. Annoyed by Holden’s juvenile comments and questions, Luce departs.
After Luce leaves, Holden stays at the bar and gets very drunk. He stumbles to the phone booth and makes an incoherent late-night call to Sally Hayes, angering both her and her grandmother. He then tries to make a date with the lounge singer, an attractive woman named Valencia. When that fails, he tries, with no more success, to make a date with the hat-check girl.
He decides to walk to the duck pond in Central Park to see if the ducks are still around. Along the way, he becomes quite upset when he drops and breaks the record he had bought for Phoebe. Because he had splashed water in his hair at the hotel in an attempt to sober up, his hair begins to freeze and fill with icicles. At the duck pond, he worries about catching pneumonia and imagines his funeral. He missed Allie’s funeral, he says, because he was in the hospital after breaking the garage windows with his bare hands. He remembers going to Allie’s grave with his parents. He becomes disgusted and sad, because the idea of placing flowers on the grass that covers the stomachs of the dead disturbs him.
Holden wants to talk to Phoebe, and he is running low on money, so he decides to risk going home. He expects his parents to be asleep, which will allow him to sneak in, speak with Phoebe, and then leave without being heard. He leaves the park and begins the long walk home.
Holden’s off-kilter ramblings in Chapter 18 about being killed by an atom bomb sound like the bravado of a frightened, threatened boy. We have seen Holden’s bravado throughout the novel—when he worries that he is a coward, when he screams at Maurice, when he imagines himself as a vengeful movie character seeking justice through extreme force. But bravado is most important in this section because Holden’s interaction with Carl Luce causes him to exhibit a subtle vein of homophobia that will be important later in the novel. Like many teens, Holden is uncomfortable with sexuality and especially uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. Though Luce seems to prefer women, Holden finds him slightly “flitty,” and Luce brings out an unpleasant lewdness in Holden’s behavior.
Holden aggressively questions Luce about sex and seems to feel titillated throughout their conversation. Holden clearly wants Luce to give him some kind of guidance and insight into adult sexuality, but his attempts to raise the subject are clumsy and immature, and Luce refuses to interact with Holden on the same footing that they had at Whooton. When Luce leaves, Holden feels depressed and uncomfortable, and we get the sense that he is disappointed in himself—that despite his protestations that Luce is a phony, he wanted to connect with him and failed. With each successive interaction, Holden loses more faith in himself. He withdraws deeper into his cynicism, while at the same time feeling more and more desperate to break out of his loneliness. After Luce departs, Holden gets extremely drunk and acts completely unhinged. He hits on Valencia and the hat-check girl and then senselessly breaks into tears before walking through the freezing cold to the duck pond.
Though Holden does not acknowledge his imbalances, we again see how little control Holden has over both himself and his worsening situation. Holden’s lack of introspection deepens our sense of the danger in which he finds himself. His thoughts as he walks to the pond reveal what may lie at the root of his manic behavior: he is upset and miserable at the memory of Allie’s death. His memory of leaving flowers on Allie’s grave leads him to another one of his defensive understatements. He was obviously shaken by the trips to the cemetery, but all he says in his narration is that he used to go with his parents, but he stopped accompanying them because he “certainly didn’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery.”
The conjunction of Allie’s memory with the image of the duck pond helps to explain Holden’s preoccupation with the pond and establishes it as one of
Holden’s curiosity about the ducks also demonstrates an appealingly childlike quality: his willingness (shared with his siblings) to pay attention to details that are conventionally ignored. Holden’s interest in the kettledrum player at Radio City is another of these details. Holden associates adulthood with an unwillingness to explore subtle and mysterious questions, but there are many difficult questions that he himself is unwilling to explore. He never ponders what the duck pond means to him, why memories of Allie’s death trouble him so much, or why he is having such difficulty dealing with the world around him.