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The Clock at the Biltmore — J.D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish

If you have a print subscription to The New Yorker (which comes at the very reasonable price of $40 for a year’s worth of 47 issues — 5 are “double-issues”) you get access to their complete digital archive.  I hope they never take away this perk.  To me, access to every past issue of The New Yorker, in digital images of the original pages, is worth  $40 per year on its own — more than $40, actually.  There are countless treasures in there.  I spend a bit of time each week going through old articles, particularly old essays, book reviews, and features on authors.  With the death of Salinger, I was reminded yet again of the literary wealth found in these archives — most of his stories were originally published in The New Yorker.  I thought, then, that it might be a worthwhile ongoing project to highlight some of the fiction from the past 85 years (The New Yorker was first published on February 21, 1925, so it’s almost anniversary time with its classic Eustace Tilley cover).

I plan on making this a regular feature on The Mookse and the Gripes.  For now — and maybe forever – it is going to be called “The Clock at the Biltmore” as an homage to the place where J.D. Salinger and The New Yorker editor William Shawn met, a collaboration that in my mind represents a particular aspect of classic New Yorker fiction.  William Shawn (besides being father to Wallace Shawn) was editor from 1952 – 1987, longer than any other.  Franny and Zooey is dedicated to Shawn.  “The Clock at the Biltmore” will also remind me of when I started this feature, and of this first post’s subject.  Ideally I would have liked to have worked in some sort of reference to William Maxwell, who was the fiction editor from 1936 – 1975.  While I believe The New Yorker has always had high standards and high quality, there’s no denying that these were fantastic years for fiction — American fiction in particular.  I’ll just assume that William Maxwell met with Shawn and Salinger at the clock at the Biltmore too, and if someone could confirm that for me, I’d love it.

So here is the plan.  Fortnightly I’ll revisit some piece of fiction first published in The New Yorker.  I’ve already reviewed a few here: Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” and “Sexy” and “The Third and Final Continent” in Interpreter of Maladies, Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” in Goodbye, Columbus, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” and “Rosa” in The Shawl (I don’t count the ones like Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” or Tobias Wolff’s “Class Picture” because they were part of and became something else).  Obviously, The New Yorker is a favorite of mine, so on The Mookse and the Gripes you’ll also find a round-up of all the fiction published in 2009.  And, of course, there’s the new New Yorker fiction forum on the left sidebar where we discuss the fiction being published in each week’s issue – we’d like to get some more participants there, if you’re interested.  Why all of this attention to The New Yorker when great short stories are also published elsewhere?  Because The New Yorker has a corner on the market — and because I have a subscription for it.

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This past week KevinfromCanada did a blog tribute on J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, and he spent some time focusing on that collection’s first story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”  While Salinger’s death reminded me that I need to revisit Nine Stories (it had been a decade since I read them all in one day — along with The Catcher in the Rye), it was Kevin’s post that really prompted me into action.

Click for a larger image.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published January 31, 1948, was Salinger’s second story in The New Yorker, and it set the bedrock for a relationship that would help, in part, define the two.  Also, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is the first of Salinger’s stories to feature the Glass family.  Besides the ones found in Nine Stories, I’ve never read Salinger’s Glass stories, almost all of which (all but one) were first published in The New Yorker, so I’m hoping this project gets me to read them all finally.  After rereading this story, I can’t wait.

Interestingly, the first member of the famous Glass family we meet is an in-law.  Muriel Glass, “a girl who for a ringing phone dropped nothing,” is married into the Glass family by way of the oldest son Seymour.  When the story opens Muriel and Seymour have been married for around six years (1942 – 1948), and they are in Florida celebrating a second honeymoon.  Since they married, however, Seymour has been deeply scarred from fighting in World War II.  People, particularly Muriel’s parents, have noticed. While the phone rings we watch Muriel fix her nails, slowly.  When she finally picks up, she hears her worried mother.  Seymour is the topic of this telephone conversation, and we’ll meet him in a few minutes, but this conversation says a lot about Muriel and her mother — a lot that helps understand the ending to the story.  It’s been said ad infinitum over the past week, but Salinger is a master at dialogue.  You feel like you’re in the room watching with an analytical eye.

“Muriel?  Is that you?”

The girl turned the receiver slightly away from her ear.  “Yes, Mother.  How are you?”  she said.

“I’ve been worried to death about you.  Why haven’t you phoned?  Are you all right?”

“I tried to get you last night and the night before.  The phone here’s been — “

“Are you all right, Muriel?”

The girl increased the angle between the receiver and her ear.  “I’m fine.  I’m hot.  This is the hottest day they’ve had in Florida in — “

“Why haven’t you called me?  I’ve been worried to — “

“Mother, darling, don’t yell at me.  I can hear you beautifully,” said the girl.  “I called you twice last night.  Once just after — “

“I told your father you’d probably call last night.  But, no, he had to — Are you all right, Muriel?  Tell me the truth.”

“I’m fine.  Stop asking me that, please.”

“When did you get there?”

“I don’t know.  Wednesday morning, early.”

“Who drove?”

“He did,” said the girl.  “And don’t get excited.  He drove very nicely.  I was amazed.”

He drove?  Muriel, you gave me your word of — “

“Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you.  He drove very nicely.  Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact.”

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

I love how Salinger conveys his information.  We don’t even know Seymour’s name yet, but we have an accute sense of him that continues to build over the next few pages as the conversation continues to talk about him without ever approaching specifics.  Much comes by alluding to something else — for example, Muriel asks her mother where that German book of poetry that Seymour sent her from the war is.  It seems a minor point in the conversation — Muriel wants to know where it is because Seymour asked about it on the way to Florida, wondering if she had read any of it.  The mother exlaims, ”It was in German!”  The poet is never mentioned here by name, and the dialogue moves on, but by simply alluding to Rilke Salinger has added a whole new dimension to this very short story.

After the phone conversation, we move out to the beach where Seymour sits in a terry-cloth robe, conversing with the five-year-old (or so) Sybil Carpenter.  He is very kind to Sybil, plays with her, tries to get her to be more kind to the three-and-a-half-year-old Sharon Lipschutz who sits by Seymour when he is playing the piano in the evenings (Sybil wants Seymour to push Sharon off the bench).  There’s some vitality to Sybil, something pure, that Seymour loves, and he adores it — he kisses her foot.  As kind as he is, though, we can’t help but fear him when he takes Sybil out to play in the sea, even though (or perhaps because) he is exciting the little girl with a nonsense story about bananafish eating so many bananas they get stuck in holes under the water.

There is much to this short story, and it completely stands on its own, meaning it does not require any knowledge of the Glass family at all.  But, of course, there is much more about the Glasses — perhaps volumes and volumes more.

9 thoughts on “The Clock at the Biltmore — J.D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”

  1. Wilson Knut says:

    I held a subscription to The New Yorker for several years, but I just had too much I wanted to read and unread issues started piling up. I think your plan sounds great though. I recently re-subscribed to Tin House, another great literary magazine I gave up, and hope to discuss pieces of each issue at my site.

    I too need to revisit Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey. I have not read them since college many years ago, and I’m sure I would have a new appreciation.

  2. Ronak M Soni says:

    Rilke! I knew I knew the poet being referred to.

    In other news, I just bought the volume and read the story today. :P

    Why do you think there’s that preoccupation with the feet here? First Seymour kisses Sybil’s foot, then there’s the incident in the lift where he asks that woman whether she’s looking at his feet. Somehow I felt that this had something to do with the end. Or am I just being paranoid?

  3. Ronak: I think the “feet” preoccupation is just an indication of Seymour’s inability to make direct contact with other people, even a five-year-old (looking at the trees while driving is another aspect of it). Salinger develops the characteristic further in the Seymour sections of Franny and Zooey and, even more so, both novellas in Carpenter. It isn’t so much that Seymour avoids other people — he just likes to be “abstracted” from them, which Salinger ties back to his performances on It’s a Wise Child where, it being a radio show, both the communication and contact was obviously one-way.

  4. Nicola says:

    I need to read more Salinger. Thought I’d start with a re-read of Catcher which I loved as a teenager and see how it reads now, and then move on to the stories. I like that extract and your analysis of it.

  5. Ronak M Soni says:

    Thanks, Kevin. That really helped.

    All three stories that I read yesterday are starting to make deeper sense to me now, now that I’ve slept over it. I think I’m going to proceed more slowly from now on.

  6. Lee Monks says:

    I dug out my copy of ‘Nine Stories’ to read this and I thoroughly enjoyed it, far more than I did first time around. As you say, Trevor, ‘Much comes by alluding to something else’, and the way that is handled is quite brilliant. Although you can see the join and the artifice it’s so superbly crafted you don’t care.

    “Who drove?”

    “He did,” said the girl. “And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”

    “He drove? Muriel, you gave me your word of — “

    “Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you. He drove very nicely. Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact.”

    “Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

    An enormous amount is done here and alluded to, there’s a clever compression of information and a continual sense of curiosity is maintained over such a short piece.

    As ever, there are people on the same wavelength that regularly tune out of each other and there seems to be a pricklish sense of precious self-preservation borne out of fear running through most Salinger. Peculiar behavioural manifestations that emerge due to an inability to connect or self-examine. Fantasy and fabrication as a diversion from an intolerable normality. To create such a fully-fledged world from such economical means demands respect. And it’s great fun.

  7. Trevor says:

    Glad you revisited it and that it paid off, Lee. I need to do that with several books and stories I’ve read in the past — wonder when I’ll get to it :).

  8. Lee Monks says:

    Yeah, and it can be really surprising what can be gleaned from a revisit. Besides the fact that we can’t possibly remember everything about a piece of work, reading something again some years later can be quite odd, in that it can tend to prove the old maxim about a book reading you, not merely the other way round. Salinger is a pretty acute example, for me. Some works pall and some are rendered into something entirely different, often better. It’s a strange alchemic relationship between reader and writer, magical at times.

  9. Lisa Hill says:

    Hi Trevor,
    You know, I think I might get a T-shirt made: ‘a girl who for a ringing phone dropped nothing’ – that’s me! (Well, not quite a girl any more, but you know what I mean, eh?)
    Lisa

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