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Justice to J.D. Salinger

As we follow Lane’s consumption of his lunch (Salinger shows him chewing, cutting, buttering, even exhorting his frogs’ legs to “sit still”), we also watch—with the bated breath of parents of anorexics—Franny’s nonconsumption of hers. At the end of the story she falls into a faint. In “Zooey,” at the Glass apartment, the drama of food continues, as the daughter continues to refuse to eat. As in “Metamorphosis” (and in its pendant “The Hunger Artist”), the person who is other, the misfit, is unable to eat the food normal people eat. He finds it repellent. Kafka’s heroes die of their revulsion, as does Salinger’s hero Seymour. (Though Seymour shoots himself, there is a suggestion that he, too, must be some sort of hunger artist. When he is on the beach with the little girl he tells her a cautionary tale about underwater creatures called bananafish, who crawl into holes where they gorge themselves on bananas and get so enlarged that they cannot get out again, and die.) In “Zooey,” Franny is pulled back from the brink by her brother. The story has some of the atmosphere of the Greek myths about return from the underworld and the Bible stories in which dead children are resurrected.

Neither you nor Buddy knows how to talk to people you don’t like. Don’t love, really,” Bessie Glass tells Zooey. She adds, “You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.” But Buddy and Zooey do, in fact, live in the world, if uncomfortably. Buddy is a college teacher, Zooey a television actor. They have passed through crises like Franny’s. They are misfits—Mary McCarthy will always be cross with them—but they are not Seymours. They will live. Now the job at hand is to bring Franny out of her dangerous state of disgust. As she lies fitfully sleeping in the Glass living room on a Monday morning, the mother urges the son to get going with the rescue mission.

The conversation takes place in a bathroom. Zooey is in the bathtub with a shower curtain drawn decorously around him—a red nylon shower curtain with canary yellow sharps, flats, and clefs printed on it—and the mother is sitting on the toilet seat. (The influence of the story’s genteel first publisher, William Shawn, may be adduced from the fact that Salinger never comes right out and says where the mother is sitting.) Both are smoking. In his essay on Salinger, Kazin writes with heavy irony, “Someday there will be learned theses on The Use of the Ash Tray in J.D. Salinger’s Stories; no other writer has made so much of Americans lighting up, reaching for the ash tray, setting up the ash tray with one hand while with the other they reach for a ringing telephone.” Kazin’s observation is true, but his irony is misplaced. The smoking in Salinger is well worth tracking. There is nothing idle or random about the cigarettes and cigars that appear in his stories, or with the characters’ dealings with them. In “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters,” Salinger achieves a brilliant effect with the lighting of a cigar that has been held unlit by a small old deaf-mute man during the first ninety pages of the story; and in “Zooey” another cigar is instrumental in the dawning of a recognition. The cigarettes that the mother and son smoke in the bathroom play less noticeable but no less noteworthy roles in the progress of the story.

Like the food in “Franny,” the cigarettes in “Zooey” enact a kind of parallel plot. Cigarettes offer the writer (or used to offer) a great range of metaphoric possibilities. They have lives and deaths. They glow and they turn to ashes. They need attention. They create smoke. They make a mess. As we listen to Bessie Glass and Zooey talk, we follow the fortunes of their cigarettes. Some of them go out for lack of attention. Others threaten to burn the smoker’s fingers. Our sense of the mother and son’s aliveness, and of the life-and-death character of their discussion, is heightened by the perpetual presence of these inanimate yet animatable objects.

Bessie and her husband, Les, respectively Irish-Catholic and Jewish, are a pair of retired vaudeville dancers; they closed down their act when the fourth of their seven children was born, and Les took some sort of vague job “in radio.” He is himself a vague, recessive figure, an absence. (Note the name.) He is never physically described, nor does his Jewishness play a part in the narrative. One of the things that really got up Maxwell Geismar’s nose was what he saw as Salinger’s craven refusal to admit that all his characters were Jewish. Of Catcher Geismar wrote, “The locale of the New York sections is obviously that of a comfortable middle-class urban Jewish society where, however, all the leading figures have become beautifully Anglicized. Holden and Phoebe Caulfield: what perfect American social register names which are presented to us in both a social and a psychological void!” (In his discussion of “Zooey,” Geismar dryly noted that the family cat, Bloomberg, “is apparently the only honest Jewish character in the tale.”) As it happens, Salinger is himself honestly half-Jewish: his mother, née Marie Jillich, was an Irish-Catholic who, however, changed her name to Miriam and passed herself off as a Jew after she married Salinger’s father, Sol, with the result that Salinger and his older sister Doris grew up believing they were wholly Jewish; only when Doris was nineteen, and after Salinger had been bar mitzvahed, were they told the surprising truth.

The connection between this piece of biography and Salinger’s refusal to be an American Jewish writer writing about Jews in America is impossible to fully sort out, of course, given Salinger’s reticence; we can only assume that it exists. But the refusal itself is what is significant. Geismar is acute to note it—but obtuse, I think, to condemn it. The “void” of which he speaks is a defining condition of Salinger’s art. The preternatural vividness of Salinger’s characters, our feeling that we have already met them, that they are portraits directly drawn from New York life, is an illusion. Salinger’s references to Central Park and Madison Avenue and Bonwit Teller, and the Manhattanish cadences of his characters’ speech, are like the false leads that give a detective story its suspense. In Salinger’s fiction we never really quite know where we are even as we constantly bump up against familiar landmarks. The Catcher in the Rye, though putatively set in an alien nighttime New York, evokes the familiar terrifying dark forest of fairy tales, through which the hero blunders until dawn. Near the end of “Zooey,” its hero picks up a glass paperweight from his mother’s desk, and shakes it to create a snowstorm around the snowman with a stovepipe hat within. So, we might say, Salinger creates the storms that whirl around his characters’ heads in the close, hermetically sealed world in which they live.

Salinger will often literally set his scenes in small, sealed-off spaces—such as, for example, the limousine in which the central scene of “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” is set. In “Franny” there is a startling moment when Lane, waiting for Franny to come back from the ladies’ room, looks across the restaurant and sees someone he knows. It is startling because until this moment we had no awareness of there being anyone else in the restaurant. Salinger had typically isolated Franny and Lane at their table, so that we saw nothing and heard nothing but their conversation and the remarks of the waiter who attended to them.

The bathroom scene in “Zooey” is perhaps the consummate example of this hermeticity. As if the space of the bathroom was still not small enough, there is a space-within-a-space formed by the shower curtain drawn around the tub in which Zooey sits with a lit cigarette parked on the soapdish. The scene is one of the most remarkable mother-and-son scenes in literature. Before the drawing of the curtain occasioned by the mother’s entrance, the immersed Zooey, drawing on his “dampish” cigarette, reads a four-year-old letter from Buddy, in which, among other things (such as encouraging Zooey in his decision to become an actor rather than going for a Ph.D.), Buddy tells Zooey to “be kinder to Bessie…when you can. I don’t think I mean because she’s our mother, but because she’s weary. You will after you’re thirty or so, when everybody slows down a little (even you, maybe), but try harder now. It isn’t enough to treat her with the doting brutality of an apache dancer toward his partner.”

The apache dance begins with Bessie’s entrance:

“Do you know how long you’ve been in that tub? Exactly forty-five—”
“Don’t tell me! Just don’t tell me, Bessie.”
“What do you mean, don’t tell you?”
“Just what I said. Leave me the goddam illusion you haven’t been out there counting the minutes I’ve—”
“Nobody’s been counting any minutes, young man,” Mrs. Glass said.

Bessie is a stout, middle-aged woman dressed in a garment Buddy calls her “pre-notification of death uniform”—a midnight blue Japanese kimono, whose pockets are stuffed with things like screws, nails, hinges, faucet handles, and ball-bearing casters, along with several packs of king-size cigarettes and matches, and who is as unlike the other women in her “not unfashionable” apartment building as her children are unlike the other people in the world at large. The other women in the building own fur coats and, like Muriel and her mother, spend their days shopping at Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. Bessie “looked, first, as if she never, never left the building at all, but that if she did she would be wearing a dark shawl and she would be going in the direction of O’Connell Street, there to claim the body of one of her half-Irish, half-Jewish sons, who, through some clerical error, had just been shot dead by the Black and Tans.” At the same time, her way of holding a cigarette between the ends of two fingers

tended to blow to some literary hell one’s first, strong (and still perfectly tenable) impression that an invisible Dubliner’s shawl covered her shoulders. Not only were her fingers of an extraordinary length and shapeliness—such as, very generally speaking, one wouldn’t have expected of a medium stout woman’s fingers—but they featured, as it were, a somewhat imperial-looking tremor; a deposed Balkan queen or a retired favorite courtesan might have had such an elegant tremor.

Bessie also has great legs. But her most significant attribute—the one that gives “Zooey“‘s comedy its tragic underside (and raises the stakes of its outcome) is her grief:

It was a very touch and go business, in 1955, to get a wholly plausible reading from Mrs. Glass’s face, and especially from her enormous blue eyes. Where once, a few years earlier, her eyes alone could break the news (either to people or to bathmats) that two of her sons were dead, one by suicide (her favorite, her most intricately calibrated, her kindest son), and one killed in World War II (her only truly lighthearted son)—where once Bessie Glass’s eyes alone could report these facts, with an eloquence and a seeming passion for detail that neither her husband nor any of her adult surviving children could bear to look at, let alone take in, now in 1955, she was apt to use this same terrible Celtic equipment to break the news, usually at the front door, that the new delivery boy hadn’t brought the leg of lamb in time for dinner or that some remote Hollywood starlet’s marriage was on the rocks.
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