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

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.

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36 Responses to “A J.D. Salinger Tribute, Part One: Nine Stories”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I would like to revisit this set, too, Kevin. And your review here provides the incentive to do that and a great perspective from which to revisit. It’s been about a decade since I read anything by Salinger. It was a summer and I remember reading these stories and The Catcher in the Rye all in a day. It was a great experience, but I know I’d get much more out of the stories now — not least because I would space them out over at least two days. I have never read the later Glass volumes you’ll be discussing next, but I’ve been meaning to — and this is an intention I’m going to see fulfilled soon.

  2. Trevor Says:

    By the way, since you opened it up, I’m intrigued to know the answer to H. Caulfield’s question above.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: To answer your most recent question first, so much has been said by so many people about H. Caulfield (60 million copies sold) that I don’t think I have anything to add. It isn’t my favorite Salinger, so I’m willing to sit on the sidelines and read what others think. Also, I first read it when it was a cult novel, not something on the high school curriculum that was forced on me.

    But, to now give H. Caulfield his due — you will recall the reference in the novel to meeting at the clock at the Biltmore. From coverage of Salinger’s death, we also now know that when he went into New York from New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die” — any wonder Salinger retreated there?) to meet William Shawn, they met under the clock at the Biltmore rather than at Shawn’s regular table at the Algonquin. Perhaps, themookseandthegipes could post a photo of you and Sherry under the clock at the Biltmore, then having lunch/tea/dinner at the Algonquin? Only a suggestion of course and Holden, you semi-phoney, you are no longer ignored.

    On a more serious note, your first comment raises another interesting side issue: Salinger is a very, very fast read. I always read Nine Stories in one day, often in one sitting, and my edition is 302 (albeit small) pages. Reading all four books is a two-day project if there is nothing on the agenda, four at most otherwise. I think this is because so much of Salinger takes place in the form of conversations (not really dialogue, because the two conversors are usually on completely different tracks) — putting the book down would be like walking out of a play in mid act. In the case of Nine Stories, he wraps each one up so concisely that you have to move on to the next one. As opposed to say, Tobias Wolff, who when he finishes a story you need to sit back and ask “just what was that all about?”

  4. Ronak M Soni Says:

    About Salinger being a fast read, I began and finished a piece of pizza with Catcher in the Rye. Give or take a couple of chews.

    One more interesting thing: I came to this post as a respite from writing my retrospective about Catcher (only Salinger I’ve read).

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ronak: I’m not going to post on Catcher (as the snide reference from H. Caulfield on the blog title notes), so when you do could you please drop in with a link? I am sure visitors here would appreciate it.

    And as fast a read as a Salinger is, it must have been a fairly large slice of pizza.

  6. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I will post that link, Kevin, thanks for asking.

    I didn’t get the reference from H. Caulfield. Trevor talks about a question of his, but I can’t seem to find it.

    It was a medium pizza, I think. I chew a lot, sometimes. Especially in this case because we in India are used to much thinner fare.

  7. Trevor Says:

    Kevin, I reread “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” last night and was mesmerized. I remembered the basic elements but was surprised at how well the story moves forward, at how much information Salinger conveys with such apparent ease.

    I’m going to start up a new New Yorker feature on my blog to review some “classic” New Yorker fiction. I believe this Saturday I’ll post some of my own thoughts on “Bananafish.” I’m sure given the nature of my project Salinger will come up often, but I’m also looking forward to some others. I’ve got Dorothy Parker and Shirley Hazzard in my sights right now, but if you think of any, I’d love to expand my list.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: For me, the ultimate New Yorker classic post is In Cold Blood, which of course may or may not be fiction. I remember when the first section arrived and I waited for the rest. The other author I remember (but have not read in books) is Donald Barthelme.

    And it is true that “Bananafish” has a timing all to itself. I too reread it last night, after I put up the post. I don’t think I have ever done that before.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ronak: You might have missed that I post a changing line in the banner across the top of my blog — and yesterday inserted a grumpy comment from H. Caulfield, which led to Trevor’s response. It is still there and will remain until you link to your post. :-)

  10. leroyhunter Says:

    I read Catcher In the Rye as a teen (who didn’t?) and enjoyed it a lot, without finding it the world-changer that some seem to. I’ve never really been moved to re-read it, my own fault I’m sure, and I’ve never paid attention to Salinger’s other work. So your post is timely Kevin, in that it draws attention to a part of Salinger’s output that never attracted me before, and that it coincides with a bit of a short story kick I’m on just now (Cheever, Carver mostly). Nine Stories sounds well worth a look (pity I didn’t swerve past that spoiler though).

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      If you are reading Cheever, I think Nine Stories makes an excellent counterpoint. There is a fair bit of “compare and contrast” that can be done. I would not attempt to say which author was the “better” short story writer — they are both so good in different ways, that a ranking would be absurd. Sorry about the spoiler in Bananafish — I’ll admit that I come from a generation of readers where it is safe to assume that every single one knows how that story ends. And knowing what Seymour does does not spoil the story.

      • leroyhunter Says:

        No harm done Kevin. Am enjoying dipping into Collected Stories by Cheever very much, so your suggestion is welcome.

  11. “Why is this ultimate phoney ignoring me?” « Life as it ain't Says:

    [...] A J.D. Salinger Tribute, Part One: Nine Stories February 2, 2010 [...]

  12. Ronak M Soni Says:

    There should be a pingback from my post here. Anyway it’s here:

    http://ronakmsoni.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/why-is-this-ultimate-phoney-ignoring-me/

    Btw, keep that quote where it is. It’s nothing short of brilliance.

    Also, thanks for asking.

  13. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Trevor:
    oh do please keep Dorothy Parker in your sights. I think of her every time the phone rings. She used to say “what fresh hell is this” whenever the phone rang. I love that!

    • Trevor Says:

      I have her collected works in that Penguin Deluxe edition with cover illustrations by Seth, and I can’t wait to get to know her better. She will definitely be one of the first authors to make an appearance in the new feature of my blog — just can’t decide which story? From my count there are 27 of them in all. I think “Arrangement in Black and White” might be a good place to start since it was in the very early days of the magazine. Any suggestions, though, are very welcome!

  14. tolmsted Says:

    Kevin –

    Wonderful post. I, too, am tired of reading posts on Catcher in the Rye, with dismissive asides regarding the Glass family. I put my Salinger post up last night – discussing why critics were so harsh on the short stories (there’s a link to a great NYRB article “Justice to Salinger” by Janet Malcolm from 2001 – but you’re readers can easily Google it).

    Franny and Zooey has always been my favorite Salinger work… I mention it because I think it addresses part of why his books are such quick reads. He writes dialogue like the kind found in the “pre-code” Hollywood movies of the 30’s – rapid, short sentences fired back and forth like tommy guns. I just can’t imagine anyone reading the exchange between Zooey & Bessie in the bathroom and not thinking Salinger was showing off!

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    tolmsted: I certainly agree with your thoughts about Salinger and dialogue. It just pulls you along (as in the Zooey/Bessie bathroom exchange). And then in Franny, she and Lane just sort of talk past each other.

  16. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Trevor:
    for my money, there is no bad place to start on Dorothy Parker. She is consistently and unfailingly irreverent and funny. “Arrangement in Black and White” is very good.

  17. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    I’ve now added Nine Stories to my reading list, thanks to this review. I read Catcher in the Rye the summer I backpacked through Europe on my own and I thought it a perfect little gem. And I’ve always admired Salinger’s reclusiveness in a way–such a counterbalance to the world of PR, hype and exposure that I inhabit.

    Irecently read The Retreat (speaking of reclusiveness) by David Bergen and recommend it if you haven’t picked it up. But knowing you, you probably have! Cherine

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am sure you won’t be disappointed with Nine Stories, Cherine — every one of them is a treasure.

    I have read The Retreat and was not very impressed — I thought Bergen introduced too many story lines and then lost his way in confusion.

  19. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    IYeah OK, I will concede that I was disappointed by his handling of the native protest. It seemed like it was going to be a major focus, and then was just sort of hapharzardly referred to. I thought there were some echoes of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners in the work (one of my favourite reads of all time), especially around the attraction between Lizzy and Raymond, and the dump as a central motif. But The Diviners did it better.

  20. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    Your writings on Salinger have been very interesting and have told me much I didn’t know before. I have never heard of Nine Stories and will definitely seek it out

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: If you haven’t read Nine Stories, you really must. It is as good an example of the genre as you can find.

  22. Trevor Says:

    I actually was thinking of Nine Stories the other day when I tried to come up with the top-tier, best collections of short stories. I came up with a list but I wondered what others would add to or take away from it. I have limited knowledge.

    On that shelf I’d put Nine Stories alongside Dubliners, The Stories of Anton Chekov, and The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. I might leave it with those four, but I might also add The Stories of John Cheever and Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories by Tobias Wolff.

    I might be close to putting Interpreter of Maladies on there, but I’m not sure I would today. And I’m not sure whether Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is really a collection of short stories — well, it is, but not like these others, so I’d leave it on a lower tier too.

    Of those I haven’t read but hope to soon: the new collection of J.G. Ballard stories, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver (my wife got me the new LOA collection for Valentines).

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    An interesting question, Trevor. While I enjoy short stories, there is no doubt that I know novels better. I tend to read in longish stretches which makes me a bad short story reader because I read too many at one time and they run together. So I am probably better offer reading them in magazines than in full volumes — with the inevitable “collected stories” volumes probably being the ones that I am worst at.

    That reading style also means that my bias would be towards linked story collections. Both Nine Stories and The Things They Carried would be in my top tier — but both are “near” novels (as indicated in my post, I regard Nine Stories as part of the Glass collection, even though some of the stories are only about their environment, without any actual Glass characters).

    Alice Munro would also be in the top tier, although my favorite collection (The View From Castle Rock) is linked personal stories and is not a favorite of many who do like her. Certainly Alistair Macleod would be there, but that is probably Canadian bias. I would also put Richard Yates on my list — again, acknowledging it is because I find he introduces themes which later get expanded into novels.

    Beyond that bias in taste, mood of the moment would definitely be a factor — Lahiri, Chekhov and Cheever would all be there some days, but not all. Ditto Dubliners. I haven’t read any Flannery O’Connor and blow hot and cold on Wolff’s stories (that too I think is a reflection of my mood when I read him).

    All of which is not a very concrete answer to your comment. Sorry.

  24. “We know the sound of two hands clapping. / But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” – A Zen Koan « Life as it ain't Says:

    [...] I’ll just direct any interested readers to two interesting write-ups on it, one by Kevin (from Canada) and one by Trevor Barrett, as they say anything and everything I could possibly [...]

  25. Ronak M Soni Says:

    About best ever short stories, I have come to be of the opinion that nothing fits the form like Science Fiction. My list would the anthology ‘Anthropology through Science Fiction’ edited by Carol Mason, Martin Harry Greenberg and Patrick Warren, and Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” (I would list his complete works, but every edition I’ve seen of that is translated by that fool Andrew Hurley), both basically sci-fi.
    I know Borges as sci-fi sounds odd, but think about it; he just does a completely different form of sci-fi. Where other writers might put new planets, he puts infinite libraries. If he does put new planets (“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the story’s about their mode of thought.

    Also, good job keeping that quote aat the top on.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m not a science fiction reader, Ronak, so I can’t really offer an opinion. I do have a copy of Labyrinths and must try to get to it soon — I’ll keep your advice in mind when I do.

  27. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I hate the phrase ‘science fiction reader’, because it implies that you have to be a special type of reader to discuss science fiction. In the general sense of the word, neither am I, but that doesn’t stop me from making (probably unjustified in any experiences but my own and fanboys’) generalisations. In fact, I’ve only read two collections of conventional sci-fi (not Borges), and probably around three novels.

    Also, do get down to Labyrinths. It’s a beautiful, yet fast, read.

  28. leroyhunter Says:

    What the hell was I thinking not reading this for so long? It’s superb, blew me away. Almost every sentence is a joy and the stories are wonders of both construction and execution. If I read much more this year that gives as much pleasure I’ll be doing well.

    Many, many thanks Kevin for prodding me out of my Salinger disinterest. I was going to ask which of the stories is your favourite, but that’s a foolish question – they’re all gems. “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” is really sticking in my mind right now.

  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Don’t give away the book. Take it down once a year and spend the two hours that it takes to read it all — and every time, I predict, you will come away with a different favorite. Although I have to say The Laughing Man is one that I can never overlook.

    And, since you have raised the Salinger “disinterest” question: Isn’t it incredible that Holden attracts so much attention when these stories are so much better work? I have been beating my head against that issue for decades — and, frankly, any one who reads the books agrees with me. Holden is okay, but the Glasses are something special.

    And given today’s news from The Guardian’s posts on his letters, we have to head out for a Whopper from Burger King tonight. I think I will pass on that one.

  30. Jonathan Mendelsohn Says:

    So glad you highlighted “The Laughing Man,” but wished you’d also mentioned “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” which alongside TLM and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” are three of my favourite ever short stories. De Daumier has so much whimsy, so many wonderful flights of fancy, and yet has the trademark Salinger intoxicating combination of wit and pathos to keep you laughing and/or crying your way through.

  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jonathan: Well, I think I could have picked any of the nine — they are all very good. Thanks for bringing the post back onto the comments list. I am certainly delighted to be reminded of it.

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