Books that Built Us: J.D. Salinger’s ‘Nine Stories’

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 10:52am

The first time I came across “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” it was in the form of 10 printed pages delivered by my sister as she stumbled off a train from Mich. Her friend had written a dissertation on it in high school, and on her recommendation my sister printed it off for the trip from Mich. to Chicago. “You should read it if you liked ‘Catcher in the Rye’,” Mimi told me as she placed the pages before me on the kitchen counter.

Liked “Catcher”? I didn’t just like “Catcher,” I thought incredulously. Along with every other unbearably angsty 15-year-old, I worshipped it and treasured the voice of Holden Caulfield, his weariness towards life and bemoaning over phonies everywhere. “It perfectly captures the listlessness of youth,” I would tell anyone who asked, but mostly those who didn’t.

Were I being honest with myself, I would have been able to admit the book didn’t do much for me. My dedication to the book at 15 was entirely guided by a pursuit of social capital. I was a teenage girl with a bunch of friends who were obsessed with the book and the faux-academic air it allowed us to presume. It’s not that I hated the book or anything; I just couldn’t figure out what the big deal with Salinger was all about.

But then I met Seymour Glass, and in 10 pages, I fell in love. It’s Salinger’s sickly sweet cruelty that drew me in. Forget Holden and his droning thoughts, here I had Muriel and Sybil and Seymour. Here I had a woman who “for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing” and bananafish that contract banana fever from uncontrollable eating. Here I had Seymour, holding onto the edge of a little girl’s foot as waves of the ocean carried her, before later putting a pistol to his head.

Maybe it was the precision with which Salinger describes Muriel applying lacquer to her nails or the slicing sound of young Sybil yelling after “see more glass.” Maybe it was that I never anticipated the ending.

“Nine Stories” has carried me through the last five years of my life. I find myself revisiting the hazy, cigarette smoke-filled living room of “Uncle Wiggley in Connecticut” with its two women lying on their backs, scotch glasses on their chests, reliving their college days and lost loves. I find myself thinking of the missing wife in “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and her desperate husband who doesn’t suspect that she might be found in the hotel room of a friend. I think about how I want to talk, write, be like the characters he crafts. On another day in another life, I’d be a Salinger character, built from the ground up by his pen. I want to exist in the mind of a writer whose descriptions and dialogue are laden with humor and sadness.

These stories are undercut by small and heavy tragedies, filled with characters simply trying to figure out how to live in a world overwrought with unexplainable peculiarities and sorrows. Philip Roth, in his 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction,” writes that the only solution Salinger gives us for how to live in this world, between The Glass Family and Holden, is “to be charming on the way to the loony bin.” But I disagree. In the wake of Salinger’s specialty sadness, something persists. At the end of each story, when the words on the page shake you to your core and leave you hollow, something else drags you on. It’s why placing “Bananafish” as the first of nine stories doesn’t immediately halt the collection. We are human, and because of this our fascination for the uncanny and devotion to reading another’s sadness all stems from an effort to figure out our own.

The spring of my freshman year of college a friend from back home came to visit. He had recently lost a brother and I, a friend. In an effort to escape the shadow of this loss I threw myself into making the weekend fun for him, filled with exuberant distractions like karaoke and blistering hangovers. And while it was fun, something about him, our relationship, had shifted in the months since death visited our doorstep. His signature pessimism had become darker, more sinister. I was drained by the end of his visit, the inevitability of our changing relationship leaving me limp and exhausted.

My sister came to meet me in the Diag the day after I dropped him off at the bus station. My body was hungover and heavy with weariness, so we simply laid back into the warm sun of a late Apr. day and talked, sharing a sandwich. Months earlier, on the night the news of Danny’s death had reached me, I was lying next to her in her bed overcome with grief. Now I lay next to her in the sun overcome with something close to grief, but not quite.

She read “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” aloud for me that day. From start to finish her voice told the story that had been my favorite since I read the collection all those years ago. I fell in love once again with the soldier and his lovely affection for Esme, the little girl with an arrogant wit in whom I saw a little too much of myself. I fell in love once again with its strange structure, its self-reflexivity that seems to stretch farther into J.D. Salinger’s own life than any other of the nine. I fell in love once again with all its nuances and all of its fac—f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s.

I often return to those hours Mimi and I spent lying in the Diag, just as I return to these stories. In reading them, I’m able to read myself in different places, at different times in my life. And every late Jan., when the cold creeps around the corner and the excitement of the new year slowly turns to dust, I yearn for the warmth of the sun, not the cold of dim memories. I yearn for the sunburn that slowly stretched across my face as Mimi and I read stories filled with love and squalor and humor and grief. I clutch to Salinger, his words and his characters who don’t presume to know anything about living in the world, but who simply subsist and push on from one story to the next.