Salinger Revisited: For Esmé with Love and Squalor

This is, as far as I’m concerned, Salinger’s greatest title (and he has some
IMG 1414mighty fine titles, especially once we get into the uncollected stories). The structure here is a bit unusual, With the first part being a first-peron recollection of the narrator’s meeting with the titular Esmé (and her younger brother Charles). Esmé is another of these precocious young people so common in Salinger’s fiction (as an aside, I can remember one of my high school English teachers pushing Salinger on us AP kids with the suggestion that we would identify with precisely these precocious youngsters. I passed on Salinger at the time, but when I did finally read Nine Stories, I was very much in a place to be precisely charmed by said characters). The second part shifts into a third-person present-tense narrative which is ostensibly the narrator relaying his wartime nervous breakdown in the aftermath of D-Day and the occupation of Europe leading to V-E day with as much “squalor” as possible. The depiction of PTSD (a term that wouldn’t exist until the 70s) in the story is expertly drawn and given the many parallels between the narrator and Salinger himself, it’s not a far stretch to assume that there are autobiographical recollections as part of the story.

Given the use of the left turn in several earlier stories in the collection, this shows in some ways a both stronger and weaker use. The opening section is far stronger than the openings of “A Perfect Day for BananaFish” or “Down by the Dinghy,” and does a better job of establishing the pre-PTSD character of the narrator, but the dramatic change in form of the narrative in the second half of the story feels a bit forced. Even so, I’m not entirely sure if it’s a problem or a good thing.

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Salinger Revisited: Down at the Dinghy

TheIMG 1414 first Glass family story without a Glass fatality. I found Salinger’s use of indirect storytelling reasonably effective here. Even though we’re never in the point of view of Lionel, we still manage to get a sense of the world through his eyes. The opening section of the novel, a conversation between two of the servants in the Tannenbaum household tells us a lot about Lionel without the reader even knowing who Sandra and Mrs Snell are discussing (I can imagine this being a source of great criticism if this story were introduced in a typical fiction workshop). 

It seems that there’s a lot of structural parallelism with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” with the story beginning with a conversation between two characters (who disappear from the story later) about the protagonist before introducing a third character who will actually interact with the protagonist. In this instance, we have Lionel Tannenbaum standing in for Seymour Glass and Seymour’s sister Boo Boo standing in for the precocious Sybil Carpenter. Of course here, the roles of wise elder and precocious youngster have been reversed. The central concern of the protagonist here becomes more specific from the shallowness of the majority of people in “Bananafish” to Lionel’s sensitivity towards insults, in particular the fact that one of the maids called Lionel’s father a “big, sloppy kike” a phrase that Lionel doesn’t understand, but knows that it is derogatory. It’s possible to see Salinger incorporating ideas he learned from writing both “A Perfect Day for Bananfish” and “The Laughing Man” in this piece as his skills become still more polished.

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“Girls”: The Story behind the Story

I think “Girls” will win the prize for the longest gestation period of any story I’ve ever written. The opening sentence is exactly as I wrote it in 1984 as part of my autobiography for Mr Caravello’s sophomore English class. Mr NewImageCaravello liked that so much he had me read it out loud to the class.

I’ve toyed with ideas of what to do with that sentence since then. I tried submitting it on its own as a bit of microfiction and it achieved my first tiered rejection from Fence. I tried turning this voice into a young adult novel, but wasn’t able to make it through the first chapter. 

So I decided to return to the original autobiography. In that piece, the first “chapter” was an absurdist bit about a tractor accident in the farm in my family’s backyard and then I decided that as a dateless sophomore, I would recount my most humiliating rejections. I took as much of that as I could remember and rewrote it and began interpolating some additional nerdy stuff (the π section came to me one morning in the shower as I was thinking about the piece). Not all of the piece is autobiography, but enough is to make it recognizable to a few people. In one instance, I sent the story to a writer friend to get her feedback forgetting that she was one of the girls in the story. Oops.

The piece has a long history of close-but-not-quite responses from various publications, the most notable of which was from The Atlantic (perhaps my most treasured rejection). It was actually accepted by another publication earlier this year, but they wanted edits that I couldn’t agree with including moving the opening sentence away from the opening and rearranging things so that the π section was no longer section 3 which misses half the joke.

Useful feedback along the way came from Josip Novakovich, Resa Alboher, Kerri Allen, Travis Kiger, Kevin McFadden and Benjamin Tier.

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The Big Countdown

My life expectancy this year has dropped five years to 83 from 88. I’m not entirely sure what led to my precipitous drop in my expected life span, but it appears the grave looms closer than I thought.

Salinger Revisited: The Laughing Man

InIMG 1414 “The Laughing Man,” Salinger is telling his story while ostensibly telling a different one. It’s a great use of a narrative frame to illuminate his story in ways that wouldn’t be possible directly. We have a narrator relating memories of his nine-year-old self and not employing the understanding that the older self would have gained through adult experience. 

Salinger spends six pages before Mary Hudson, the true subject of “The Laughing Man” makes any kind of appearance and that only as a picture in the bus. Her eventual arrival sparks one of those great Salinger bits of prose:

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.

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Salinger Revisited: Just Before the War with the Eskimos

ThisIMG 1414 is one of those Salinger stories that left me feeling, “huh?” There is the usual Salinger wit and sharp prose (certainly, this is one of my favorite titles for a Salinger story, even if the story itself is not completely satisfying). Wikipedia informs me that, “At the time of its publication, it confused yet nevertheless delighted its audience.” which is certainly a sentiment with which I can identify. 

I’ll close these comments with my favorite sentence from the story:

Very probably, it was not part o the sofa vaudeville of a showoff but, rather, the private, exposed achievement of a young man who, at one time or another, might have tried shaving himself left-handed.

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Salinger Revisited: Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut

The story whose film adaptation is (at least nominally)IMG 1414 the reason that there are no other films of Salinger works. The second of the Glass family stories, in this case with Walt Glass who appears only in recollection. Told almost entirely through dialog, it’s a good example of telling a story through indirection and omission. Again, Salinger shows a great knack for the excellent turn of phrase: “[They] were talking in the manner peculiar, probably limited, to former college roommates.”

Where the story felt awkward to me is in the inherent sexism of the situation. Not merely in that the female characters were tied into the roles dictated by 1950s American society, but that Salinger’s imagination cannot really have them push very hard against those limitations. Eloise’s life exists only through her relationships with her husband Lew and the haunting specter of Walt Glass who has Eloise metaphorically sleeping to one side of her bed just as her daughter left room for her imaginary friend.

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Salinger Revisited: A Perfect Day for Bananafish

This was the first story I ever taught, in a class on Zen BuddhismIMG 1414 I took as an undergrad (everybody in the class taught some topic for half an hour). It’s been twenty-six years, at least, so I don’t really remember the details although I think I only assigned the middle section, the interaction between Seymour and Sybil. Coming back at the story, I find myself drawn into some of the masterful elements of craft in the story, particularly the first section which I’m pretty sure I did not teach all those years ago. The remarkable specificity of the opening paragraph with its “Ninety-seven New York advertising men” and the complete record of everything Muriel did while waiting for a long distance line to open so she could call her parents. The remarkable sentence, “She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.” The oblique references to an earlier suicide attempt by Seymour which might have taken place with Muriel in the car with him, given her parents’ concern about “that funny business with the trees.” The whole thing is a beautiful piece of art.

I wonder about my idea back then that the story was to be read as a sort of Zen koan. The fact that Nine Stories itself employs the koan about one hand clapping as its epigram might seem like support to this idea, but I had my doubts even when I was teaching the story to my classmates and they continue now. It feels, in some ways, as if Seymour is almost a slightly more sophisticated version of Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda who employs Eastern mysticism as a sort of justification and explanation for his own depression, but who most likely has not reached the level of satori that he believes he has. 

This is Salinger’s second story to appear in The New Yorker, following by a bit over a year, the uncollected “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison” which was incorporated into The Catcher in the Rye

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Salinger revisited: The Catcher in the Rye

I stopped reading Salinger over twenty years ago because I found myself being overly influenced by IMG 1289 is voice. I’ve decided that I’ve developed a sufficiently strong voice of my own as a writer that I can allow myself a chance to re-read Salinger. My plan is to read the published books from Catcher to Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters/Seymour an Introduction before revisiting the uncollected stories from “The Young Folks” to “Hapworth 16, 1924.” 

I first read The Catcher in the Rye in one day on a Saturday suspension at the end of my senior year of high school in 1986. Along with reading the book, I wrote a short essay reflecting on the book, my experience of the Saturday suspension and a version of the facts (not especially accurately recounted) around the ditching the field trip that led to my suspension. High on Salinger’s prose, the prose I generated led the teacher for whom this was a final assignment declared it “the best piece of student writing he’d ever read.” This fine piece of writing is, of course, now lost to the ages.

I re-read the book a few times in the following decade as I became increasingly enthralled by Salinger’s writing, especially in my undergraduate years and my copy of the book with the maroon and yellow assassin cover has grown a bit fragile as a result, but this is the copy that I re-read (I was tempted to purchase a new copy before a recent vacation and gift it to my oldest nephew after a quick re-read, but I ended up sticking with my battered copy for the re-read, hoping that the trips to the playground with my kids and a book wouldn’t end with the book falling apart.

There’s a special pleasure in re-reading a book, hitting the familiar beats that memory is ready to serve back to you along with the surprises of forgotten corners of the book. I’d forgotten how long the book stayed at Pencey Prep and found myself impatient for the story to get to the New York chapters which had been the meat of the book for me in all my earlier reads. Everything carries a host of additional associations in my mind now. Ackley will be forever associated with one of my college English profs who, in a conversation in his office, made a strong point of the assonance between  “Ackley” and “acne” which I took at the time as a bit of an insult aimed in my direction because of my own poor complexion. 

I did find that the book’s rather abrupt termination was less satisfying to me now than it had been in the past. Catcher doesn’t really have much of a plot to begin with, being more a series of scenes and the pleasure in the book is in the voice more than anything else, but it still felt as if Salinger might have just run out of gas at book’s end and decided to just let it go.

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“Our Lady of the Freeway”: The Story Behind the Story

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You can purchase a copy of Headland Journal No. 6 here to read “Our Lady of the Freeway.”

This is a story I’ve been trying to write for almost thirty years. Preparing to write this post, I spent a bunch of time digging through my notebook covering 1988–1991 but didn’t find any trace of this, although I can remember working on an early version of the story set in Germany with a lot of details copped from the Hotel Grillparzer sections of The World According to Garp. I’m sure if I dug through my notebooks and scraps of hard drive from days gone by, I might turn up some of those early attempts. Later, I read John Biguenet’s “The Vile Soul” in Granta and found myself despairing because Biguenet succeeded in doing what I wanted to do with my story and much better than I was capable of doing that.

During my MFA, I needed to generate some new material for workshop during my second residency and I decided to resurrect this idea and see where it led me. I chose to re-set the story in Los Angeles as it’s a city that I know well (all the locations in the story are real). I had a rough idea of the story having attempted to write it before, but this time, I had a second character appear besides the narrator and with his appearance, the story developed new life beyond the question of the apparitions at the center of the story.

I tend to choose character names with some indirect significance if only to help me keep them straight in my mind In this instance, the two main characters, Henry and Arthur derive their names from the unused first names of the English Catholic novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, respectively, The characters take their attitude toward Catholicism loosely on the personalities of those two writers as well.

Before its eventual acceptance, this story received 26 rejections including nine “encouraging” rejections. On the final round of submissions, one journal accepted it on the day it was sent. I’m not sure how they ended up in my submission list, but I think it was a case of the journal doing a follow-unfollow on Twitter in hopes of dredging up followers. I decided to decline the acceptance, figuring that I’d rather have it go some place with high enough standards to spend more than a day to accept a piece and that if the story was so good that it’d merit a one-day acceptance, it would be accepted elsewhere as well. It was.

The workshop group who gave me input on the earlier draft of this story was composed of Tibor Fischer, Kat Grilli, Steven Paul Lanski, Kossiwa Logan and Ryan McConkey,

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