Sunday, May 4, 2008

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

I didn't read this collection specifically for this challenge, but it's so awesome that I had to cross-post my review here. :)

I just finished reading J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, and that man could write! Each story evokes a post WWII world where everyone smoked, parents weren't terribly concerned about what their children were doing every minute of every day, people wore their racism on their sleeves, and some of the soldiers who came home weren't quite right anymore. The first story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is probably the most famous; I was planning on writing why I loved it so, but it turns out that Mariel decided to do that today as well! So I'll talk about some of my other favourites. My absolute favourite, even over "Bananafish," was "For Esme-With Love and Squalor." In it, an American GI training in Dover wanders around the town one day and meets thirteen-year-old Esme. Esme is rather what I imagine Anne Shirley would be like if she had been born to a titled British family. She loves big words, and the way Salinger captures her voice is simply magical. The GI is in a cafe when Esme, her little brother, and her nurse come in. Obviously, Esme comes over to talk:
The next thing I knew, the young lady was standing, with enviable poise, beside my table. She was wearing a tartan dress-a Campbell tartan, I believe. It seemed to me to be a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day. "I thought Americans despied tea," she said.
It wasn't the observation of a smart aleck but that of a truth-lover or a statistics-lover. I replied that some of us never drank anything but tea. I asked her if she'd care to join me.
"Thank you," she said. "Perhaps for just one fraction of a moment."
The narrator himself was really neat too: he's a writer and a reader, and I think we'd all identify with his priorities:
By three in the afternoon, I'd packed all my belongings into my barrack bag, including a canvas gas-mask container full of books I'd brought over from the Other Side. (The gas mask itself I'd slipped through a porthole of the Mauretania some weeks earlier, fully aware that if the enemy ever did use gas I'd never get the damn thing on in time).
They have a wonderful conversation, and when Esme learns that the narrator is a short story writer, she asks him to write a story for her that's full of squalor ("I'd be extremely flattered if you'd write a story exclusively for me some time. I'm an avid writer.") The second half of the story is the narrator's short story for Esme, but it's still based on the narrator's experiences. I don't want to give away anymore (but I promise it doesn't have an abrupt, depressing ending like some of Salinger's other stories), but it's one of my favourite short stories ever (I really long for a whole novel about Esme). And you can read the whole thing here. Go do it.

Have you read it? Now do you understand my passion? Ok, so we'll go on to a couple of my other favourites. "Down at the Dinghy" focuses on an afternoon at a beach house. It begins with two women talking, but the focus quickly shifts to a young mother:
The swinging door opened from the dining room and Boo Boo Tannenbaum, the lady of the house, came into the kitchen. She was a small, almost hipless girl of twenty-five with styleless, colorless, brittle hair pushed back behind her ears, which were very large. She was dressed in knee-length jeans, a black turtleneck pullover, and socks and loafers. Her joke of a name aside, her general unprettiness aside, she was-in terms of permanently memorable, immoderately perceptive, small-area faces-a stunning and final girl.
I love how Salinger describes his characters. The heart of the story is a conversation between Boo Boo and her four-year-old son, who has an odd habit of trying to run away. He's just done it again, and he refuses to come out of the familys dinghy, so Boo Boo tries to find out why. Unlike most of Salinger's mothers, she's just wonderful, and I loved watching her interact with her son. In looking up a link to the full story (you can read it here), I learned this is part of Salinger's Glass series. I really need to read Franny and Zooey, even if Boo Boo doesn't play a big part.

This is becoming a long post, and those were my two favourites, so I think I'll leave it at that. I'd highly recommend this collection to everyone: Salinger perfectly captures children and teenagers (I think I understand now why Catcher in the Rye is so popular) and the psychological devestation of war. The stories are quite varied, dealing with everything from a little boy who is something of a guru and believes in reincarnation ("Teddy") to a husband at his wit's end about his wife's roving eye ("Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes") to a teenager convinced by his years in Paris that he is the Next Big Thing in art ("De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period"). They're all united in their powerful endings (a very important feature for me in a short story) and distinct voices.

1 comment:

K K Mohapatra said...

"Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes" is all about deception and rates as one of the finest stories ever written in any language. I read it a long time ago and am wondering if it's available on the net to reread.