J. D. Salinger, American author, who was born on January 1, 1919, died three days ago at his home in New Hampshire, at the age of 91. (Have you noticed how long people are living nowadays? Isn’t it great!) Salinger’s reputation rests primarily on one novel, three novellas, and a handful of short stories, and while the literary world is holding its collective breath over the possibility of new posthumous works, Salinger’s status as one of the giants of American letters is secure, even if nothing new is ever forthcoming.
Salinger’s greatest strength as a writer was his ability to create flesh and blood characters, and infuse life into them. I know of no other author whose characters come to life more vividly than his. If I were asked to name just a few of his greatest creations, I would begin with Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, the title characters from Franny and Zooey, Seymour and Muriel Glass from A Perfect Day for Bananafish, and Boo Boo Tannenbaum from Down at the Dinghy. I could go on and on, and it pains me not to mention a whole host of his minor characters, all of whom are drawn with unerring accuracy and attention to detail. I must mention, however, the extraordinary success that Salinger achieved in his portrayals of children. If you are familiar with his short stories, take another look at Sybil in Bananafish, at Lionel in Down at the Dinghy, and at Teddy and Booper in Teddy. In his portrayals of children at least, Salinger’s achievements have not only never been exceeded, they are unequaled.
A key component of Salinger’s success in characterization was his uncanny ear for dialog. If there is a writer’s equivalent of perfect pitch in a musician, Salinger had it in spades. When his characters speak, we can see right into their souls. We learn at least as much about them from how they speak as from what they say.
To illustrate this, I have reproduced below a short excerpt from A Perfect Day for Bananafish. One of Salinger’s most compelling works, Bananafish is my idea of the perfect short story. If you haven’t read it, you should run – not walk – to your nearest library or bookstore, pick up a copy of Nine Stories, and read the very first one.
A Perfect Day for Bananafish (excerpt)
There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.
She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.
With her little lacquer brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left – the wet – hand back and forth through the air. With her dry hand, she picked up a congested ashtray from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood. She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds and – it was the fifth or sixth ring – picked up the phone.
“Hello,” she said, keeping the fingers of her left hand outstretched and away from her white silk dressing gown, which was all that she was wearing, except mules – her rings were in the bathroom.
“I have your call to New York now, Mrs. Glass,” the operator said.
“Thank you,” said the girl, and made room on the night table for the ashtray.
A woman’s voice came through. “Muriel? Is that you?”
The girl turned the receiver slightly away from her hear. “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.”
“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 said he drove very nicely, Mother. Now, please. I asked him to stay close to the white line, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did. He was even trying not to look at the trees – you could tell. Did Daddy get the car fixed, incidentally?”
“Not yet. They want four hundred dollars, just to – ”
“Mother, Seymour told Daddy that he’d pay for it. There’s no reason for – ”
“Well, we’ll see. How did he behave – in the car and all?”
“All right,” said the girl.
“Did he keep calling you that awful – ”
“No. He has something new now.”
“Oh, what’s the difference, Mother?”
“Muriel, I want to know. Your father – ”
“All right, all right. He calls me Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” the girl said, and giggled…
Isn’t that amazing? Don’t you feel like you know these people, after just a few minutes of dialog? This is Salinger’s great gift: He creates real people. Characterization is far more important to him than plot, which serves primarily as a means for him to delve into his characters. We, the readers, feel that we know them. Within a few lines, their issues, their lives, become important to us, and we care about them.
If you are unfamiliar with Salinger, I would begin with The Catcher in the Rye. It is a classic, and mandatory reading for everyone. Then I would pick up his volume of Nine Stories, and read A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Down at the Dinghy, and Teddy. For your next course, read Franny and Zooey, and if you still hunger for more, read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction and the rest of the Nine Stories. You may get hooked on Salinger, but you will never regret a single minute of the time you spend with him.