Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters

I know it’s been a while since I’ve done any comics reviews (I'll have some soon, I promise!), but lately the novels and short stories seem to be rising to the top of my reading pile. The best book I read recently is J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction. Of Salinger’s four books (he is a famously non-prolific writer, though rumors abound of the many unpublished works that the writer has withheld), this is by far the most obscure and alienating work. It is often the one that literary critics point their finger at when arguing against Salinger’s place in the canon of great American writers.

The book is essentially two novella length short stories, each about 100 pages, both focusing on the same character, Seymour Glass. Serious Salinger fans who have read Nine Stories will recognize that Seymour Glass, and indeed the entire Glass family, are the subject of many of Salinger’s non-Catcher in the Rye writings. In fact, the first story in Nine Stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which I reviewed a while back, is about Seymour’s tragic suicide. Here we learn that that story, and several others, were written not by Salinger himself, but by his brother Buddy, and both Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction offer much more insight into both characters' lives before that tragic incident.

Both stories are narrated by Seymour’s younger brother Buddy. The first, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, focuses on Seymour’s rather unusual wedding day. The odd thing is, there is no actual wedding that takes place in this story, nor does Seymour himself make an appearance. Instead, we follow Buddy and several of the wedding guests, including the Matron of Honor, her husband, a friend of the bride, and a deaf and mute great uncle, as they travel from the ceremony, which was cancelled due to the fact that Seymour never showed up, to the bride’s parents’ house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. However, when the group is stranded in traffic due to an unexpected parade, they eventually decide to walk to Buddy’s apartment nearby.

What makes this story so fascinating (and indeed this is the case for all of Salinger’s writing) is the narrator. Buddy’s rather unique voice is strong throughout, and his insights into the eccentricities of his brother’s life, as well as the other Glass children (of which there are seven) is phenomenal. With a surgeon’s precision, Buddy describes each of the siblings, all of whom are at once eccentric, neurotic, highly intelligent, some even bordering on genius, and strangely aloof. That all seven of them were once stars of a popular children’s radio quiz show fits with their loving, yet highly individual and competitive natures. Buddy also gives us a strong description of the afternoon's events. The Matron of Honor compains vehemently about Seymour's abandonment of her best friend, while the others debate the circumstances in a much more rational manor. None, at first, realize that Buddy is Seymour's brother, and once they do, they spend much of the rest of the story trying to understand what kind of man could commit such a horrendous act as to disappear from his own wedding.

Though there is much to praise, Salinger’s prose is the real treat in this first story, as observant and fluid as you would expect from one of the greatest American writers. His ability to leap from character to character, noticing and commenting on the most seemingly insignificant details, only to elevate them later to essential within the narrative, is a fascinating skill. It’s the kind of story you could read several times, each time noticing the deepening layers of character.

The second story, Seymour: An Introduction is a much more difficult pill to swallow. First, it is in no ways a story in the traditional sense. Unlike Raise High the Roof Beam, Seymour does not contain a plot, a linear progression, or even any real action or drama. It is, instead, a rambling, jagged meditation on Seymour’s life, written in a series of faux-diary entries by his grieving brother, Buddy, shortly after his suicide. What the story does do is offer the readers rich details into the relationship between the two brothers, background on their childhood and their brief journeys into adulthood. We learn that Seymour was, among many other things, a poet of considerable talent, having written hundreds of modified haikus, and that Buddy, a thinly-veiled Salinger, is himself the author of many of the short stories in Nine Stories. Buddy’s language in these diary entries is at times fascinating, despite being pretentious, rambling, often long-winded, and occasionally confusing or tangential. A quick glance at the reviews on Amazon.com shows that many readers found the story difficult to complete, occasionally even frustratingly impenetrable. To an extent, I would agree, though there is no doubt that I came out of it on the other side having gained a much richer appreciation for both characters, and a real sense that I had just read the diary of a genius.

In the end, despite my (and many other readers’) frustrations with the second story in the book, I would still highly recommend it. If your only experience with Salinger’s writing was reading Catcher in the Rye in high school, this is well worth a read. Salinger’s real skill is in his ability to convey eccentric characters through the use of language and voice. His much more celebrated book, Franny and Zooey, also a collection of two short novellas, focuses on the youngest two siblings in the Glass family. It’s next on my reading list, and given what fascinating characters the members of the Glass family are, I am anxious to get started.


Anonymous said...

I am oh so glad to hear that someone else has struggled reading Seymour: An Introduction. I am currently reading it, and find it difficult to stay focused on.

Anonymous said...

i might be a high school student but i really did enjoy the book,

in the begining i had a difficult time supassing Buddy's "voice" as it were i really couldnt stop reading it but sometimes i had to stop and digest the words... all too full of thought but when other voices came into play i enjoyed roof beams alot more. Slaenger on the other hand i really enjoyed, i found the words i little more discriptive but i absolutely love the quote "i live alone (but catless, i'd like everybody to know)..." thats the only part i really did find houmorous,

all and all a good book.... im kinda afraid to dig into catcher of the rye from what reviews ive heard... time will tell ^_^

Toe Knee said...

I loved 'Raise High'. It may not be as popular as 'Catcher in the Rye' but there was something about Buddy and these ppl he's trapped with (in the car and later at the house) that I finished reading 'Raise High..' in two hours.

'Seymour: An introduction' is next on my list. I haven't heard too many good things about this one but given that I am a Salinger fan, am sure will be able to enjoy it.

LHuston said...

Interesting review and comments. Jerome David Salinger has always been my favorite writer. I read Catcher “in high school” in 1962. I have re-read it many times since. I have read all of the others numerous times, “Roof Beam” and Franny and Zooey when they came out. 9 Stories were all previously published in The New Yorker magazine before being compiled in the book. Salinger was (is, perhaps) a very prolific writer, writing many hours every day in his studio/office located in a small building behind his house. It is interesting that as J.D. Salinger is now 90, “The Catcher in the Rye” has been back on the best seller list, and there is a renewed interest in all of his books. When he passes from his mortal toil, I believe the next several years will see a John Grisham schedule of book and story releases.

It is my belief that “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa” was, in fact, written by Salinger. This is the book that the movie, “Field of Dreams” was based on, and the movie followed the book as closely as possible. This book is written by W.P Kinsella. I don’t know who W. P Kinsella is, although he makes public appearances, and has written other books, possibly also, in my opinion, written by Salinger. W. P. Kinsella…J.D. Salinger. Both use initials instead of their name. Both of their last names have three syllables. In Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella is the character that builds the baseball field in Iowa and J. D Salinger is the writer that joins the character in his quest. For the movie, they couldn’t use J.D Salinger as a character, yet it was okay for the book. Salinger would never have approved that for another writer. The writing style, the language and the feel of Catcher in the Rye are all here. Salinger was (is) a great baseball fan. Many of W.P Kinsella’s books are baseball stories, except The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, which is the history and stats of a fictional Iowa baseball league ala “Seymour, An Introduction.”

If you like Salinger, you will love “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa.” If you love Salinger…join the conspiracy.

LHuston said...

I was writing quickly and forgot to mention two other things. You will never understand the Glass family without reading "Teddy", one of the 9 Stories numerous times. You won't get it the first few times.

Not only was J.D Salinger a character in "Shoeless Joe" with Ray Kinsella, but Ray Kinsella is also a character in on of the 9 Stories, although I can't think of which one at the moment.

viji said...

congrats! keep up the good work/this is a great presentation.