A book of stories that runs less than 200 pages shouldn’t take two months to read, but that’s what happened with J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. I wish I could lay blame on Salinger’s prose, and maybe I could — certainly the first page of “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” qualifies as dense — but that argument wouldn’t stand a chance against “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” which is like 80% dialogue. Actually, “Pretty Mouth,” outside of that first paragraph, is just as dialogue-driven as “Uncle Wiggily.”
I’d think it’s pretty much impossible to discuss Salinger without mentioning his talent for dialogue. Here’s just a tidbit from “Uncle Wiggily”:
“Oh, I’m dying to see her,” Mary Jane said. “Oh, God! Look what I did. I’m terribly sorry, El.”
“Leave it. Leave it,” said Eloise. “I hate this damn rug anyway. I’ll get you another.”
Salinger doesn’t mention the spill at all. He doesn’t have to. The use of italics, the repetition — there’s a hyperreality to the conversation that takes this story into a realm above and beyond fiction. It’s more like you’re eavesdropping into this story than reading it. It is very impressive — Richard Yates was also a fan of Salinger, and especially this story in particular, and now I can see why.
But it’s strange — as fine as Wiggily is, I’m not sure if I actually feel these characters. It’s like I’m watching them instead of being them, which I suppose is what Salinger wanted. In the end, I feel sort of robbed. I wish there was more, but Salinger was a master at doing as much as possible with as little; it was his style. Not in a Hemingway-minimalist way, either, because there’s nothing spare about his artistry.
Before this collection, the only work of Salinger’s that I’d read was The Catcher in the Rye, which was of course required reading during my high school years. I remember liking it, but obviously for all the wrong reasons (“Oh my God — we’re reading a book that has the f-word!”). I’ll have to go back to it soon, because there’s much to learn.
Now, just a few words on each story:
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” – the ending is what makes the story so unforgettable, but there’s plenty of great moments throughout. It’s the first time we see how good Salinger is when it comes to replicating the way kids talk.
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” – dialogue reigns supreme. Salinger really knows how to end his stories.
“Just Before the War with the Eskimos” – Salinger also really knows how to title his stories. Raymond Carver was another one who had a knack for titles — “What’s in Alaska?”, “Are These Actual Miles?”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” Of the nine, this one is my favorite, because initially, the ending comes out of nowhere, but in retrospect, it fits perfectly.
“The Laughing Man” – the first one in the first person. There’s not enough here to know exactly what happened between the Chief and his girlfriend, and that sort of annoys me.
“Down at the Dinghy” – again, the dialogue, especially between the mother and the boy. I don’t think there’s another writer out there who writes more accurately about the way children speak to adults.
“For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” – perhaps the most famous story in the book. It’s probably the most experimental of the bunch. I prefer the first half to the second half. At about this point, I sort of grew tired of Salinger’s style. That’s not a knock against him — it’s something that happens to most short story books for me, a too-much-of-a-good-thing effect. Somebody like George Saunders is another one — there’s no way I can read one of his collections straight through because it all starts to sound the same. Though recently, I got through Kevin Brockmeier’s The View from the Seventh Layer without a hitch. It might be because he had that choose-your-own-adventure story right in the middle of the book, mixing it up.
“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” – it’s a story told with smoke and mirrors. If we knew, from the get-go, that the girl in bed is the wife of the man on the phone, what would Salinger lose? His fanatics might say everything, but I beg to differ. By keeping nothing away from the reader, it might have turned into a much deeper story than what it is now, a one-trick pony. The dialogue goes on for too long.
“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” – Salinger is going for humor here, and he succeeds. The narrator’s reactions are priceless (especially of the Japanese couple), and his devotion to the nun is outright hilarious.
“Teddy” – Salinger probably indulged himself a little bit too much here, featuring a ten-year-old boy genius who could talk like an adult. The conversation between Teddy and Nicholson mostly feels like Salinger wanting to get his philosophical points across. And the ending echoes “Bananafish,” and not in a good way.
So that’s my take, and it looks like for me, the first half of the collection is stronger than the second. But that’s just my opinion, and there’s somebody else on the Internet who’s done a much more thorough job of reviewing these chapters. Her name is Sheila O’Malley (“I’m fifty! Fifty years old!” I can hear Molly Shannon kick, stretch, and kick, except that character’s name was Sally O’Malley), who’s one hell of a writer in her own right.
From The Sheila Variations:
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”
“Just Before the War with the Eskimos”
“The Laughing Man”
“Down at the Dinghy”
“For Esmé – with Love and Squalor”
“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”
“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”