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 Of Salinger’s four books (he is a famously non-prolific writer, though rumors abound of the many unpublished works that the writer has withheld), this is by far the most obscure and alienating work.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.