Archive for February, 2010

Gourmet Rhapsody, by Muriel Barbery

February 20, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Having already confessed a fondness for “school” novels (see here), the time has also now come to admit an equal KfC weakness for “foodie” fiction books that take an ominous turn (not surprising for KfC, I guess — please visit my chicken franchise if you get the chance). John Lanchester’s A Debt to Pleasure has been a favorite for a while. Even better for me (and far less well known) is Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park, where a brilliant young chef plays a marvelous hoax. And yes, the Stanley Park of the title is the same one that you have been seeing on your television screens from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver if you have been watching that. I obviously have, given the lack of posts here, and may well revisit Taylor’s novel once the Games are over.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to why Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody hit my reading list, despite some of the grumpy professional reviews it received when the translation appeared last summer. Pierre Arthens, the world’s greatest food critic, has been told that he has 48 hours or less to live and, as he faces his demise, he discovers a challenge:

I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it. I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced. I know that it is a flavor from childhood or adolesence, an original, marvelous dish that predates my vocation as a critic, before I had any desire or pretension to expound on my pleasure in eating. A forgotten flavor, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told — or realized. I search, and cannot find.

Gourmet Rhapsody is structured with two story lines, told in alternating chapters. The critic’s search for his forgotten flavor is one of them and it provides a very useful device that allows Barbery to describe food, eating and tasting of an incredible range. There is a fair bit of fancy stuff described but don’t let that put you off because many of the memories come from childhood. Consider this introduction of one of his first foodie memories:

I cannot pinpoint exactly my first gastronomic ecstasies but there is no doubt as to the identity of my first preferred cook: my own grandmother. On the menu for celebrations there was meat in gravy, potatoes in gravy, and the wherewithal to mop up all that gravy. I never knew, subsequently, whether it was my childhood or the stews themselves that I was unable to re-experience, but never again have I sampled as fervently (I am the specialist of such oxymorons) as at my grandmother’s table the like of those potates: bursting with gravy, delectable little sponges. Might the forgotten taste throbbing in my breast be hidden somewhere in there? Might it suffice to ask Anne [his wife] to let a few tubers marinate in the juices of a traditional coq au vin?

The second narrative stream is not about food at all. We learn immediately that the critic is a complete and utter cad and has been for all of his adult life. Totally obsessed with his reputation and his interest in food, he mistreats his wife, regards his children as “imbeciles” and treats everyone around him (save a sycophant nephew) with contempt. The narrators for this stream are a succession of characters he has abused (wife, children, grandchildren, beggars) who respond in kind and a couple he has not (a dog and a cat). Wife Anna pretty much sums up this side of his character:

I have always known what sort of life we would lead together. From the very first day, I could see that for him, far away from me, there would be banquets, and other women, and the career of a charmer with insane, miraculous talent; a prince, a lord constantly hunting outside his own walls, a man who, from one year to the next, would become ever more distant, would no longer even see me, would pierce my haunted soul with his falcon’s eyes in order to embrace a view that was beyond my sight. I always knew this and it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered were the times when he came back, and he always came back, and that was enough for me, I would be the woman to whom one returns unfailingly, however absentmindedly and vaguely.

So how does all of this land? For me — and remember I confess my foodie bias — that stream works quite well. In addition to childhood memories, there are a couple of wonderful descriptions of simple picnics, the narrator’s first experience with Scotch whisky and even persuasive dramatic tension as the narrator begins to come closer and closer to remembering that “forgotten flavor”.

The other narrative stream is far less successful. The narrator is such a complete bastard in the way that he treats other people that their memory of him becomes quite predictable and, frankly, not very interesting. While Barbery manages to successfully develop the search for a flavor, there is no tension at all in this side of the story. I found myself almost skimming those chapters as the novel approached its conclusion.

Barbery’s first book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, (which I have not read) was a bestseller that attracted substantial critical acclaim — three pages of review excerpts of it introduce my volume of Gourmet Rhapsody. This slim volume (156 pages of smallish, well-spaced type) certainly does not seem to meet that standard. (EDIT: Thanks to a comment from Claire, I now realize that this book is Barbery’s first, although her second in English translation. If you check the comments, I think you will agree that that makes a difference in evaluating it.)

Yet, for a foodie reader, it was still a worthwhile experience and, unusually for a not-very-good book, does get much better as it approaches its end. Barbery has a very nice touch of humor in many of those late sections (I haven’t quoted an example because any would be a spoiler). If you don’t like reading about food, give the book a miss. Even if you do, I’d still say both A Debt to Pleasure and Stanley Park are better reads. On the other hand, given the limited number of “foodie” novels that are available, Gourmet Rhapsody is an entertaining diversion. Alas, it is not much more.

Deloume Road, by Matthew Hooton

February 11, 2010

ARC courtesy Knopf Canada -- click cover for more info

This spring marks the 15th anniversary of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction program, a commitment to publish first novels (one to four a year — 2010 has four titles and I hope to get to all of them eventually). The New Face of Fiction got off to a stunning start: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s highly-acclaimed Fall on Your Knees (one of my favorite novels) was part of the inaugural 1996 program. While first novels are a tricky proposition at best, Knopf has introduced Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Dionne Brand and David Macfarlane amongst others, so you would have to say they have a track record.

Matthew Hooton’s Deloume Road is the first of this year’s titles and, for a first novel, it comes with a bit of a reputation. Hooton grew up on Vancouver Island, where the novel is set, but headed off to Bath Spa University for an MA in Creative Writing — the draft of Deloume Road won the inaugural Greene and Heaton prize there for best novel.

The Deloume Road of the title is a dead-end track just north of the Malahat Pass on the interior of the island. A handful of houses and a single stop sign (with the O shot out — the kids amuse themselves by throwing rocks through it) are pretty much all there is to it. Hooton has chosen to tell his story by exploring several parallel tracks.

The first is set in the present with an unnamed narrator who has returned to Deloume Road. From the start, this thread comes with foreboding of past tragedy:

It’s easiest if you sit with me on the road. If you watch the breeze weave through the tops of the Scotch broom. If you ignore the dusty gravel and tar and instead focus on the tangle of wild blackberry vines at your feet. There’s only one berry on the vine and it’s covered with dust from the occasional passing car. In the distance a wookpecker rattles off Morse code.

The dominant narrative theme is set some years in the past and centres on two sub-teen youngsters, Matthew and Josh — with subthemes concerning Matthew’s younger brother, Andy, who is “retarded”. That’s a politically incorrect term but Hooton uses it and there is no way to avoid it. Matthew and Josh carry all the baggage of “friendship” at that age:

Some best friend. He was bigger and stronger than Matthew. He could have fought back but he didn’t want to. Not against Matthew. Or Andy. He wondered if he’d have to walk home without his bike later. He would if had to, but he was pretty sure they’d give it back soon. Matthew needed him. After all, his friend was awfully skinny.

That paragraph is representative of Hooton’s prose in the thread with the young boys — economical and to the point. He may get lyrical when it comes to the surroundings (see the previous excerpt) but he can move his story along.

Another thread concerns Irene, a South Korean who married a Korean Canadian soldier who has recently died in combat. She is pregnant, without a friend in the world and has a mother who wants her to return home. All of Deloume Road is isolated — for Irene (who would prefer to return to her real name of Sue Hwa), the isolation is even more profound.

Another thread concerns the Butcher, a Ukrainian imigrant who tends a pig farm with attached deli. He is trying to save money so that his wife and child can join him (they live near Chernobyl) but his isolation is every bit as profound as Irene/Sue Hwa’s.

Hooton also develops narrative themes around an artist, a dairy farmer, Matthew and Josh’s parents and the family that runs the local junkyard (who also have a son, Miles, but he is excluded from the friendship of the other boys).

And finally there is yet another stream concerning the original Deloume, a surveyor at the end of the nineteenth century when the area was little more than virgin forest and the man responsible for creating this “community”.

You have probably guessed that there is an “event” that ties some of these streams together. It is no spoiler to say there is, but I’ll provide no more indication than that (unless you demand it in comments).

Hooton deserves credit for ambition, if nothing more, in the structure he has chosen. He keeps the sections for each thread relatively short and moves with some ease from one to the other. Still, for this reader at least, eliminating a few of them would have been a wise editing decision — as the novel goes on the author spends more time story-juggling than he does story-telling.

I was reminded often while reading this book of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (reviewed here) another Canadian novel set in a similar kind of remote community, strung out on an otherwise deserted road. Alas, Deloume Road does suffer in the comparison — although it should be acknowledged that Watson’s novel is a classic in the Canadian canon.

Deloume Road is a worthwhile first novel, but not much more. Hooton does manage to keep his story together, but the complexity does wear. There is every reason to expect better in future work from this novelist — and every author does have to start somewhere.

War Horse

February 10, 2010

I’ve never done this before and it will probably be a long time before I do it again. One of my favorite co-bloggers, Will Rycroft of Just William’s Luck is an actor currently appearing in War Horse, a National Theatre production that has moved to the West End. It is also on the short list for the Olivier Audience award — the only non-musical — and I’d love you to cast a vote (do it here.) I love theatre (as you probably know) and asked Will to tell us what it was like being in the cast of a West End show that has attracted the Queen and others. Will did a post on his experience (click here for more pictures ) and I, without shame, repeat it here. It is a wonderful summary of what it is like to be an actor in a truly great production. And it deserves to win that Olivier award, so please (cheat) and cast your vote.

Fellow blogger Kevin From Canada asked if I would write a post about the production I am currently appearing in, War Horse. He was intrigued to know what it is like to be a part of such a successful show. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, a little background first. War Horse is a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, former children’s Laureate. Written from the point of view of the horse, Joey, it tells the story of how he becomes part of the cavalry in the First World War and the lengths to which the boy who helped to raise him will go to to be reunited with him. The National Theatre in conjunction with Handspring Puppet Company adapted the book into a play which was successful enough to be revived the following Christmas and then transfer into the West End where it continues to run at the New London Theatre. The show has become famous because of its extraordinary puppets, most notably the life-size horses which are controlled by three actors. I’ll tell you first a little bit about the machinations behind the show and then what it’s actually like to do each night.

As I mentioned, each horse puppet requires three actors to operate it, called the Head, Heart and Hind. The head operator is outside the horse, supporting the head and controlling its movement and that of the ears too. The Heart is inside the horse operating the front legs and creating the breathing of the animal with the rise and fall of the body which they are helping to support. Finally, the Hind, controls the back legs and movement of the tail, working together with the Heart to support the weight of anyone that happens to ride the horse (that’s right, at the end of the day if someone’s rides that horse they’re sitting on the shoulders of two actors). With two horses in the show and the physical demands placed on the actors who make them live there are actually four horse teams in the cast who rotate through the weeks of the run to help stave off injury. In theory that is. With the inevitable injuries that crop up and the days of holiday that have to be taken during the long run, horse teams inevitably end up getting a bit mixed up and having to swap in and out of various configurations. One of the wonders of the show is the way the horse teams work together to create a convincing experience for the audience. Part of this is also due to the latitude that exists for them within performance. This isn’t choreography; with the same kind of intentions and actions as any other actor on stage they are acting and reacting to what they receive from others. For those of us working with them onstage it really can be as unpredictable as breaking that old maxim and working with animals.

The horses are like a microcosm of the show as a whole as holiday and illness mean that at any one time there will be at least two or three members of the cast off. Before each show begins the cast will assemble and a list of ‘knock-ons’ will be read out in which parts and the minutiae of the show will be allocated. Now, I’ve said parts there, but I don’t want you to think that this is some kind of theatre collective where we all know everything and just swap them around. Every part has a first and second cover so that no matter what the disaster, the show will go on (just last week we had three people away on holiday and two off sick for one show and yet we managed to make it all happen), but for those little elements of movement work or prop and scenery moving performed by the cast there is definitely an all hands to the pump kind of feel. The constant changes in this vein mean that there are hardly ever two shows that are the same, which of course helps to keep it interesting, and to keep the cast focused of course.

Genuine West End feet during the pre-show meeting.

Much is made of the word ‘ensemble’ with some shows but I can proudly say that in no other show I’ve worked on has the word been so appropriately used. A cast of 31 actors helps to make that show happen each night, everyone an absolutely integral part of the story, no big names amongst the cast and everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, playing multiple roles and getting their hands dirty (I mean this literally as we have to slather ourselves in ‘mud’ for those battle scenes and I still haven’t managed to find a really effective way of getting rid of it from all the nooks and crannies). I mention this only because a quick look at a few other shows in the West End might lead you to believe that the only chance of commercial success is to place a few well-known TV faces in the cast, they don’t even have to be actors necessarily, and watch the bookings come in. We may have strength in numbers but there is something very encouraging about the extended runs, the full houses, and the rapturous reception which accompanies a show which focuses on the story and the creativity required to tell it rather than any celebrity.

So what’s it like to be in a 5-star West End smash-hit (he asked himself smugly)? There are several things that are remarkable. A show that is selling well is obviously a joy to be in. Performing in front of a half-empty theatre can be demoralising, not to mention much harder work. The New London holds around 1100 people and to see that theatre full, night after night, is something I’m trying not to take for granted. The response from an audience that size to a show that is as emotional as ours can be quite overwhelming. To see members of the audience standing at the end is not a very English thing and yet we had a week of shows last week when people stood every night, tears coursing down faces, smiles stretching from ear to ear. The tears. With a stage that bulges out into the audience so much and lighting that illuminates the first seven or eight rows I can see perfectly well the reactions of people to the play’s final few scenes. It’s quite hard to keep focus actually when you can see people grabbing onto partners arms or hiding behind tear-stained hankies. I’ve even seen people start crying in the plays opening moments leading me to worry about the risk of dehydration by the end of the play’s two-and-a-half hour running time.

You may well have heard about the Queen’s recent visit to the show. To have an unofficial visit like that was extraordinary. We knew on the day that she would be coming but the audience did not of course and it wasn’t until the end of the first half that many of them twigged who exactly it was sitting in row K next to someone who looked remarkably like Prince Philip. I happened to be playing Captain Stewart that night which meant that I finished the first half mounted on horseback, sword in hand, charging right at her. Now that doesn’t happen every day. Her daughter Princess Anne has already been to see the show and we have since been visited by Prince William so if The Prince Of Wales is reading, we just need you for a Royal Flush. This has helped to increase interest in the show even further of course and that is why the run has recently been extended into 2011. I mentioned the lack of celebrities on stage; the fact is that the celebrities tend to be in the audience and we have a list on the wall of some of the famous faces to have been spotted. A list like that often has some comedy amendments made to it, ridiculously famous people who haven’t really seen the show, but recently it’s been difficult to know for sure which is which. Just last week we were visited by Morgan Freeman no less and last night we had a visit which turned one of the long standing jokes amongst actors all over the country into reality. Many times on a show it has been joked amongst a cast that ‘Spielberg is in tonight.’ Well, last night he was. I know. Ridiculous. And do you want to know the punchline? I’m away on holiday this week. My moment with Spielberg will have to wait (He’s here as part of preparations for his film version of War Horse).

So, a show that keeps packing audiences in, celebrities and all, for the foreseeable future, a show that keeps everyone honest and doing something a little different every night, a show that manages to make audiences laugh, cry, gasp and applaud; that’s the kind of show you always dream being a part of, so I’m a very lucky chap, no doubt about it, and very pleased to be remaining with the company as the show extends its run. I hope this has given you an idea of what it’s like to be a part of it but please feel free to ask any questions you want in the comment section below. I’m off now to find out Morgan Freeman’s number. He needs to explain to Spielberg what, or rather who, was missing from the show last night.

A J.D. Salinger Tribute, Part Two: Franny and Zooey; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction

February 6, 2010

And so we come to J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, or at least the two major published works featuring them. As noted in my previous post, Salinger introduces some members of the family (most notably Seymour in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”) in Nine Stories but it is in these two volumes — a longish short story and three novellas — that they are most fully developed.

Les and Bessie Glass were a well-travelled vaudeville team (song, dance and patter) who retired in Manhattan in the 1920s when Bessie figured out that two-a-day performances were being replaced by four-a-days that were little more than bridges between films. Les went into “ministration” for the rest of his life; Bessie concentrated on raising (some would argue “disrupting”) the family. There were seven Glass children — Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, twins Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny (born 18 years after Seymour). One of their claims to fame is that for the better part of two decades, starting with Seymour, at least one of the Glass offspring (and often two) was featured prominently on the national radio show “It’s A Wise Child”, a precursor to the awful reality television of today. This exposure played both to the considerable intelligence of all seven and, perhaps even more, their annoying egos. If you don’t like one or all of the Glass offspring (and many don’t), it is safe to assume that “It’s A Wise Child” helped develop that dislike.

“Franny” is the short story of these four works (43 pages). Salinger is rightly noted for his realistic dialogue, but this work is the other side of the conversational coin — while it is effectively an extended exchange between college student Franny and her boyfriend Lane at lunch before the Yale football game, it is really an example of two monologues that never once manage to actually intersect with each other.

Franny has arrived by train for the big weekend (Salinger never says at which university — Dartmouth would be my choice) and the two head off to Sickler’s, the local seafood emporium, for a garlicky pre-game lunch (“Sickler’s was where a student and his date either both ordered salad or, usually, neither of them did, because of the garlic seasoning”). It does not start out well:

“I’m lousy today,” she said. “I’m just way off today.” She found herself looking at Lane as if he were a stranger, or a poster advertising a brand of linoleum, across the aisle of a subway car. Again she felt the trickle of disloyalty and guilt, which seemed to be the order of the day, and reacted to it by covering Lane’s hand with her own. She withdrew her hand almost immediately and used it to pick up her cigarette out of the ashtray. “I’ll snap out of this in a minute,” she said. “I absolutely promise.”

She not only does not snap out of it, things get much worse. Franny is preoccupied — and has been for some time — with a tract, “The Way of a Pilgrim”, about a Russian peasant who “starts out walking all over Russia, looking for someone who can tell him how to pray incessantly.” He eventually finds someone and his purpose then changes to getting others to pray incessantly. It is readily apparent that Franny is a practising convert to the cause.

None of this matters to Lane, whose own preoccupation is with a paper he has just completed attacking Flaubert, which scored an A and which he is now contemplating publishing. Franny makes half-hearted, unsuccessful efforts to pay attention and comment; Lane’s attempts to understand her preoccupation are equally half-hearted and fruitless. The weekend ends in disaster.

While “Franny” is complete as a story, it is in fact a prelude to “Zooey” but it takes some pages into that novella before we discover that. Zooey is a 25-year-old actor whom we meet soaking in the bathtub, reading an extended, ancient letter of advice from his brother Buddy, and getting ready for a business lunch with a producer. Bessie intrudes (an action we are given to understand is not uncommon) and directs her own lengthy monologue at him, eventually getting to her main point that she wants Zooey to speak with Franny, who has been moping around the place ever since the football weekend and is now ensconced asleep on the living room couch.

The Bessie-Zooey interaction has a number of interesting sub-themes, as does the start of the Zooey-Franny exchange (including some great riffs on the Glass family cat, Bloomberg — did Salinger know that New York was destined to have a Mayor Bloomberg?). Zooey is fully aware that his younger sister is praying incessantly and knows why. He finally gets to the crux of the issue:

“It’s us,” Zooey repeated, overriding her. “We’re freaks, that’s all. Those two bastards [Seymour and Buddy] got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all. We’re the Tatooed Lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tatooed, too.” More than a trifle grimly, he brought his cigar to his mouth and dragged on it, but it had gone out. “On top of everything else,” he said immediately, “we’ve got ‘Wise Child’ complexes. We’ve never really got off the goddam air. Not one of us. We don’t talk, we hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound. At least I do. The minute I’m in a room with somebody who has the usual number of ears, I either turn into a goddam seer or a human hatpin. The Prince of Bores.”

That’s your summary of the Glass family. Brilliant observors, brilliant talkers (or perhaps expounders). Seymour, the departed genius who continues to dominate them all. Buddy, the chronicler who narrates all these stories. And at the youth end, Zooey and Franny, marked forever by their two eldest siblings. There are only sparse references to the middle three siblings. It is true there is a lot of confusing Salinger-spirituality that intrudes along the way, although that neither attracts nor disturbs me. His observational capacities and the ability to articulate them are what forms the brilliance of Salinger’s work for me.

I’m going to give the last two novellas short shrift here. If you are intrigued by the Glass family after Franny and Zooey, you will find Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction an intriguing read. If you think they are a bunch of annoying spoiled brats, you will want to give it a miss.

The narrative for Carpenters is the story of Seymour’s wedding day in 1942, even more of a disaster than the football weekend. Yet Salinger uses it as a set piece for an intriguing look into New York and its characters of the day. Seymour, An Introduction is actually more about Buddy than it is about Seymour — it consists of his musings about the legacy Seymour has left (184 short poems in addition to his impact on all his brothers and sisters) and Buddy trying to decide what to do with them. Given that Buddy is also Salinger’s alter-ego, there is a fair bit of perceptive author observation in this one as well — fans of The Catcher in the Rye will find some very interesting thoughts.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Glass family are an interesting bunch and readers are acutely aware that there is more to say beyond what has been published. Salinger, who wrote his own liner notes and refused to have blurbs on the cover, says as much on the dust jacket of this final volume:

Whatever their differences in mood or effect, [the two novellas] are both very much concerned with the character of Seymour Glass, who is the main character in my still-uncompleted series about the Glass family. It struck me that they had better be collected together, if not deliberately paired off, in something of a hurry, if I mean them to avoid unduly or undersirably close contact with new material in the series. There is only my word for it, granted, but I have several new Glass stories coming along — waxing, dilating — each in its own way, but I suspect the less said about them, in mixed company, the better.

Oddly, the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years. I can’t say why, though. Not, at least, outside the casino proper of my fiction.

With that, J.D. Salinger headed off into seclusion in New Hampshire — only a long and confusing story in the 1965 New Yorker (a letter from seven-year-old Seymour at camp) has been published since. We know from various sources that Salinger kept on writing. We don’t know with certainty whether any of those manuscripts were saved. And we certainly have no idea what thoughts the author left about posthumous publication.

Some of us (that would include me) are hoping to see further works. Other readers speculate, with some passion, that whatever got written later probably continued a trend towards increasing impermeability. Like the author, I certainly regard the Glass saga as a work in progress, one that already provides significant insights and rewards. I haven’t been holding my breath for almost a half century in anticipation; but that does not decrease my desire for more one bit. Perhaps now, with Salinger’s death, we shall see if there is still more to come from one of the twentieth century’s most outstanding writers.

A J.D. Salinger Tribute, Part One: Nine Stories

February 2, 2010

Bought who knows when

While I admire all four published volumes of J.D. Salinger’s work, Nine Stories has always been my personal favorite. The Catcher in the Rye is certainly better known and has sold more copies, but this story collection has a special attraction. I take it off the shelf every few years and within a sentence or two, for every story, I find myself back in the world that Salinger created for that story. It seems a fitting place to begin my two-part tribute to an author whom I first read as a student and have revisited with considerable reward and pleasure many times since.

The first story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, introduces us to Seymour, the eldest of the seven Glass family children who will dominate the rest of Salinger’s restricted publishing career. While not every one of Nine Stories (published as For Esme — With Love and Squalor outside of North America) involves a Glass, a number do directly (and some of the others I wonder about). And they all show Salinger’s considerable strengths.

Consider, for example, his use of dialogue, for which he is rightly famous. In the opening pages of this first story, Muriel, a young wife in a hotel in Florida, has made phone contact with her mother back home in New York. After some pleasantries, they get down to brass tacks:

“Who drove?”

“He did,” said the girl. “And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”

He drove? Muriel, you gave me your word of–”

“Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you. He drove very nicely, Mother. Now, please. I asked him to stay close to the white line, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did. He was even trying not to look at the trees — you could tell. Did Daddy get the car fixed, incidentally?”

“Not yet. They want four hundred dollars, just to–”

“Mother, Seymour told Daddy that he’d pay for it. There’s no reason for–”

“Well, we’ll see. How did he behave — in the car and all?”

“All right,” said the girl.

“Did he keep calling you that awful–”

“No. He has something new now.”

Note the italics — Salinger underlines words in his conversations. Note the dashes — his characters often don’t get to finish their sentences. We never do find out what the old “awful” name was; the new one is “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948″. After one reference, it too is never mentioned again.

Seymour was in the war and was institionalized afterwards. At least in the eyes of his mother-in-law, he is not quite right yet. He is introduced lying on the beach; fivish Sybil Carpenter tracks him down. After some exchanges about her yellow bathing suit (which Seymour says is blue), the dislikable Sharon Lipschutz (age three and a half) and Sybil’s teasing of a dog, the two prepare to head into the water:

“Don’t let go,” Sybil ordered. “You hold me, now.”

“Miss Carpenter. Please. I know my business,” the young man said. “You just keep your eyes open for any bananafish. This is a perfect day for bananafish.”

“I don’t see any,” Sybil said.

“That’s understandable. Their habits are very peculiar. Very peculiar.” He kept pushing the float. The water was not quite up to his chest. “They lead a very tragic life,” he said. “You know what they do, Sybil?”

She shook her head.

“Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’ve very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas.” He edged the float and its passenger a foot closer to the horizon. “Naturally, after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole again. Can’t fit through the door.”

Sybil does see a bananafish, the two part and (SPOILER) Seymour heads to his room and “fired a bullet through his right temple.” End of story. For those of us who know the Glass family well, nothing that we will learn further on is a surprise.

“The Laughing Man” would be on my shortlist of greatest stories of all time. I admit that there is only circumstantial support for my presumption (the date and geography fit, the style of writiing as well), but I like to think that the youthful narrator is young Buddy Glass who will write the chronicles of the family that form the rest of Salinger’s work:

In 1928, when I was nine, I belonged, with maximum esprit de corps, to an organization known as the Comanche Club. Every schoolday afternoon at three o’clock, twenty-five of us Comanches were picked up by our Chief outside the boys’ exit of P.S. 165, on 109th Street near Amsterdam Avenue. We then pushed and punched our way into the Chief’s reconverted commercial bus, and he drove us (according to his financial arrangement with our parents) over to Central Park. The rest of the afternoon, weather permitting, we played football or soccer or baseball, depending (very loosely) on the season. Rainy afternoons, the Chief invariably took us either to the Museum of Natural History or to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Each day’s session concludes with another episode in the Chief’s story of The Laughing Man, “a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the out-going water in the bathtub.” I won’t even attempt to summarize the plot of The Laughing Man.

One afternoon in February, the narrator notices a new fixture in the Chief’s bus, a photograph of a young woman mounted above the rear-view mirror. The Chief admits her name is Mary Hudson and that she attends Wellesley College. She remains just a girl in a photo until a few weeks later when the Chief takes a detour, starts to recount the latest installment of The Laughing Man and there is a tap on the door:

Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief’s girl, Mary Hudson.

Among other things, Mary turns out to be an excellent baseball player, despite her insistence on wearing a catcher’s mitt while playing right field. Her story and that of The Laughing Man start to overlap — and I won’t be providing any spoiler on this one.

In addition to the dialogue (which leaves every impression that you are overhearing real conversations), it is those asides — like the three great beauties the narrator remembers from first sight — that are part of the appeal of these stories. Yes, they all have their weird aspects (and that has its own appeal) but those all occur in the context of readily identifiable, and sympathetic, reality. I would say that that is the reason that I don’t so much remember the stories as enter into them each time that I pick them up. I apologize for going into detail on only two stories, but I find it impossible to summarize a Salinger story in just a paragraph or so. Trust me, I could go on at this length for every one of the remaining seven stories because every one is good.

The characters in these stories are both gentler and scarier than Holden Caulfield and his story in The Catcher in the Rye. Every one of the stories has its own appeal; the volume is a testimony to a truly great writer. While many readers and critics find fault with Salinger’s obsession with the Glass family which is still to come in Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction , I find these stories both an excellent introduction and an extraordinary achievement in themselves. I’ll have more to say on the two Glass volumes in a few days.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 439 other followers