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Justice to J.D. Salinger

All families of suicides are alike. They wear a kind of permanent letter S on their chests. Their guilt is never assuaged. Their anxiety never lifts. They are freaks among families in the way prodigies are freaks among individuals. Walter died tragically but “normally.” Seymour haunts the family like a member of the Undead. At the beginning of “Zooey,” Buddy (who again brashly claims authorship of Salinger’s work) describes it as a love story, and it is true that the affection the family members feel for each other is an almost palpable presence. But it is also (what family story isn’t?) a hate story. Ambivalence fills the air of the bathroom in which mother and son sit. The son behind the curtain repeatedly protests the mother’s invasion of his privacy—even as he ensures that she remain rooted to the spot, transfixed by his relentless wit. She dutifully plays her straight-man role. When she grumbles about Franny’s unhealthy diet, for example (“I don’t think it’s at all impossible that the kind of food that child takes into her system hasn’t a lot to do with this whole entire funny business…. You can’t go on abusing the body indefinitely, year in, year out—regardless of what you think”), she only opens the way for a new flight of aggressive fancy:

“You’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. It’s staggering how you jump straight the hell into the heart of a matter. I’m goosebumps all over… By God, you inspire me. You inflame me, Bessie. You know what you’ve done? Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve given this whole goddam issue a fresh, new, Biblical slant. I wrote four papers in college on the Crucifixion—five, really—and every one of them worried me half crazy because I thought something was missing. Now I know what it was. Now it’s clear to me. I see Christ in an entirely different light. His unhealthy fanaticism. His rudeness to those nice, sane, conservative, tax-paying Pharisees. Oh, this is exciting! In your simple, straightforward bigoted way, Bessie, you’ve sounded the missing keynote of the whole New Testament. Improper diet. Christ lived on cheeseburgers and Cokes. For all we know he probably fed the mult—”
“Just stop that, now,” Mrs. Glass broke in, her voice quiet but dangerous. “Oh I’d like to put a diaper on that mouth of yours.”

When Zooey gets out of the tub, the mother leaves the bathroom, only to return when he is half-dressed and shaving. During this second visit (“Ah! What a pleasant and gracious surprise!” the fresh son says when she enters, “Don’t sit down! Let me drink you in first”) she touches his bare back and remarks on its beauty. (“You’re getting so broad and lovely,” she says.) His response is to sharply recoil in a way we recall two other Salinger characters to have recoiled. One is the little girl in “Bananafish,” who says “Hey!” when Seymour impulsively kisses the arch of her foot, after she says that she saw a bananafish. The other is Holden Caulfield, who jumps up and says “What the hellya doing?” when he wakes up in the apartment of the one good teacher he ever had, Mr. Antoli, to find him sitting beside the bed patting his head. “Don’t, willya?” Zooey says to his mother; and when she says, “Don’t what?” he replies, “Just don’t, that’s all. Don’t admire my goddam back.”

The rescue fantasy from which Catcher takes its title—Holden imagines himself standing at the edge of a cliff at the end of a rye field where thousands of children are playing, and catching any child who starts going over the cliff—bears on the whole of Salinger’s enterprise. Salinger is himself a kind of catcher of the children and young adults who appear in his stories and are in danger of falling—threatened by the adults who are supposed to be protecting them, but who cannot keep their hands off them. The frank pleasure Bessie Glass takes in the sight of her son’s body is represented as the breaching of a boundary, as “something perverty” (in Holden’s term). Even a good teacher like Mr. Antoli or a good parent like Bessie (or a good psychotic like Seymour) cannot be counted on, will ultimately fail the child in the test of disinterest. The young must stick together; only they can save each other. Thus, in Catcher, Phoebe saves Holden, and, in “Zooey,” Zooey saves Franny. But where Phoebe, in Catcher, was “normal,” in opposition to the off-center Holden, Franny and Zooey are peas in a pod. They have the Glass disease; they suffer from a kind of allergy to human frailty. The pettiness, vulgarity, banality, and vanity that few of us are free of, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger’s helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines.

The second half of “Zooey” is occupied with Zooey’s blind-leading-the-blind attempt to propel Franny back into the world he himself stumbles about in. Interestingly, he does not consider his sister’s (and his own) condition of hypercriticality congenital, but believes it to have been caused by the older brothers, who at an early age indoctrinated them in Eastern religion (as well as a kind of East-inflected Christianity). (“We wanted you both to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Huineng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence,” Buddy writes in his letter to Zooey.) “We’re freaks, the two of us, Franny and I,” Zooey says to Bessie:

I’m a twenty-five-year-old freak, and she’s a twenty-year-old freak, and both those bastards are responsible…. I could murder them both without batting an eyelash. The great teachers. The great emancipators. My God. I can’t even sit down to lunch with a man any more and hold up my end of a decent conversation. I either get so bored or so goddam preachy that if the son of a bitch had any sense, he’d break his chair over my head.

As Franny wanly lies on the living-room sofa under an afghan, with the Jewish cat snuggled up against her, Zooey makes his pitch—and gets nowhere for an excruciatingly long time. The charge that the story was “interminable” doubtless derived from Salinger’s unwillingness—at whatever cost to the speed of his narrative—to scant the magnitude of Franny’s retreat from life.

Finally, Zooey resorts to an interesting stratagem—he leaves the living room and calls Franny on a telephone extension in the apartment, first pretending he is Buddy, and then admitting he is himself. Salinger permits us to overhear both sides of the conversation, but to only see Franny, who has taken the telephone in her parents’ bedroom, and is sitting tensely upright on one of the twin beds, smoking a cigarette, putting it out, and attempting to light another with her free hand. As Zooey talks—”If it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you’re missing out on every single goddam religious action that’s going on around this house. You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup—which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings to anybody around this madhouse”—Franny’s body language tells us that his message is coming through. The cure that could not be effected in the large, light-filled living room is achieved in the dark closet of the telephone conversation. Franny will eat from now on. Also, she will not carry out her threat of giving up acting because of “the stupidity of audiences,” of “the goddam ‘unskilled laughter’ coming from the fifth row.” “That’s none of your business, Franny,” Zooey says. “An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.” Zooey’s final offering, which causes Franny to hold the phone with both hands “for joy, apparently,” is the now famous concept of the Fat Lady in the audience, who is Everyman, and who is Christ. I would have preferred that Salinger had stopped at the chicken soup and the artist’s minding of his own business. Salinger rarely puts a foot wrong; but with the Fat Lady, I’m afraid he takes a tumble into condescension.

Although Salinger stopped publishing after the appearance of “Hapworth,” he evidently has never stopped writing, and someday there may be dozens, maybe hundreds, more Glass stories to read and reread. On the dust jacket of the 1961 Little, Brown edition of Franny and Zooey Salinger wrote an author’s note about his enterprise:

Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambitious one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.

The image of the patiently and confidently “waiting” writer is arresting, as is the term “settlers,” with its connotations of uncharted territory and danger and hardship.

Salinger’s own perilous journey away from the world has brought many misfortunes down on his head. His modest wish for privacy was perceived as a provocation, and met with hostility much like the hostility toward the Glasses. Eventually it offered an irresistible opportunity for commercial exploitation. The pain caused Salinger by the crass, vengeful memoirs of, respectively, his former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard,9 and his daughter, Margaret,10 may be imagined. A redeeming moment occurred a few weeks after the publication of the latter book, when a letter by, of all people, Margaret’s younger brother, Matt, an actor who lives in New York, appeared in The New York Observer. He was writing to object to his sister’s book. “I would hate to think I were responsible for her book selling one single extra copy, but I am also unable not to plant a small flag of protest over what she has done, and much of what she has to say.” Matt went on to write of his sister’s “troubled mind” and of the “gothic tales of our supposed childhood” she had liked to tell and that he had not challenged because he thought they had therapeutic value for her. He continued:

Of course, I can’t say with any authority that she is consciously making anything up. I just know that I grew up in a very different house, with two very different parents from those my sister describes. I do not remember even one instance of my mother hitting either my sister or me. Not one. Nor do I remember any instance of my father “abusing” my mother in any way whatsoever. The only sometimes frightening presence I remember in the house, in fact, was my sister (the same person who in her book self-servingly casts herself as my benign protector)! She remembers a father who couldn’t “tie his own shoe-laces” and I remember a man who helped me learn how to tie mine, and even—specifically—how to close off the end of a lace again once the plastic had worn away.

What is astonishing, almost eerie about the letter, is the sound that comes out of it—the singular and instantly recognizable sound of Salinger, which we haven’t heard for nearly forty years (and to which the daughter’s heavy drone could not be more unrelated). Whether Salinger is the rat his girlfriend and daughter say he is will endlessly occupy his well-paid biographers, and cannot change anything in his art. The breaking of ranks in Salinger’s actual family only underscores the unbreakable solidarity of his imaginary one. “At least you know there won’t be any goddam ulterior motives in this madhouse,” Zooey tells Franny. “Whatever we are, we’re not fishy, buddy.” “Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!” Seymour writes in “Hapworth.” What is thrilling about that sentence is, of course, the order in which kindness and originality are put. And what makes reading Salinger such a consistently bracing experience is our sense of always being in the presence of something that—whatever it is—isn’t fishy.

  1. 9

    At Home in the World (Picador, 1998). 

  2. 10

    Dream Catcher (Washington Square Press, 2000). 

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