The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls and More


In 2013, three of J.D. Salinger’s unpublished stories leaked online. The most well-known of these stories is The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls (1947), set to be published 50 years after Salinger’s death, in 2060. Ocean is understood to be the precursor of The Catcher in the Rye, as all Caulfield children make an appearance in perhaps their original form. Ocean’s Vincent will become Catcher’s D.B., Holden’s screenwriter of an older brother, while Kenneth will become Allie, Holden’s late younger brother with the poem-scrawled baseball mitt.
Ocean alludes to Holden’s early troubles. Lassiter, the owner of a local bar that Vincent and Kenneth visit, calls Holden “the little crazy one.” In a letter that Holden sends to Kenneth from camp, he calls his fellow campers “rats,” and in true Holden fashion despises all of the forced activities, like going on hikes, making things out of leather, and singing in the dining hall. “He’s just a little old kid and he can’t make any compromises,” says Kenneth.
Ocean is a quiet, rhythmic story. The events unfold unassumingly, capturing the natural tempo of everyday life. This has an unnerving effect, as a devastating event is tucked into the folds of a seemingly normal day. In a 1997 column for the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich wrote a piece called “Wear Sunscreen,” later made famous by director Baz Luhrmann. It is a hypothetical commencement speech in which she offers advice that is captured well in Ocean:

“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”


The other leaked stories are Birthday Boy (1946) and Paula (1948). However, unlike Ocean, these stories are clearly unpolished. The blemishes are evidence of a writer’s rough draft, his very personal thought process. I do not think readers should engage in such material. I read a few pages of one story and then stopped, skipped to the next story, and then stopped again, feeling like I had violated Salinger’s privacy.
Soon after I read an interview with Lena Dunham for The New York Times Magazine, and she commented on an incident in which her book proposal was leaked online:
“It felt like such a violation to put my unedited work out into the world. As a writer, there is nothing more violating. I would rather walk down the street naked — no surprise — than to have someone read my unedited work.”
Salinger’s leaked stories were never meant to be read, and I unexpectedly yet wholeheartedly agree. I did admittedly read and enjoy The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls, but based on how much you can learn about the story through secondary sources, it is clear that many people, fans and scholars alike, have read it as well. It is collectively considered to be a fine piece of work. To further rationalize, I like to think that I simply half-accomplished the inevitable. It has been a a long-standing bucket list item of mine to read Ocean at Princeton’s Firestone Library, where a copy is stored in the archives and available for reading under strict supervision. I look forward to one day being in the proper place for re-reading this beautiful piece.


Photo: Always Sometimes Anytime

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  1. I literally read that Lena Dunham quote in an article earlier today, then saw this! I’m almost finished with “Seymour, an Introduction” 🙂

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