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:
“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.