Salinger’s “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and a lot of question marks…

J. D. Salinger’s short story “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” gave me a film noir impression and many questions.

A “girl” is in bed with a “gray-haired man” when the phone rings.  The man (named Lee) answers it to discover that it’s his acquaintance or perhaps colleague, Arthur.  Slightly drunk, Arthur expresses his concern to Lee that his wife or girlfriend, Joanie, has run off.  First question that pops into my head is:  I wonder whether Joanie is the girl in bed with Lee?  Arthur, apparently an attorney, rambles on about Joanie and their relationship while Lee questions him about a case he had that day.  Arthur lost the case due to a chamber maid, some sheets and bed bugs (?).  According to Arthur, their boss, Junior (Junior?) won’t be happy.  Another impression comes to me at this point.  I don’t think Junior is really the head partner of a law firm(?).   While the phone conversation is taking place, the girl is playing around with cigarettes and the bed sheets (sheets, again?).  Lee hangs up and the girl seems a little surprised that it was Arthur (maybe worried that it was Arthur?).  Arthur calls right back to tell Lee that Joanie came home and went right to the bathroom (in other words, he hadn’t actually seen her come in).  Now it’s time for Lee to be surprised.  Is the person in the bathroom really Joanie?

The title of the story comes from a poem Arthur wrote to Joanie when they first met.  The poem jumbled up the words to a “Roses are red” kind of verse.  I’m not sure what this really says about Arthur or about Joanie?

In some ways, the story reminded me of a few of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.  I get another impression that other stories might exist that fill in some of the blanks.  Whether those stories are actually published or were simply in Salinger’s head, I don’t know – another question?

Anybody with some insight into this Salinger story feel free to chime in.  I would love to be enlightened!

Any story that makes me wonder about so many things can’t be all bad, but I don’t think this one rises to the level of the other three of Salinger’s stories that I’ve read:

For Esme – With Love And Squalor

DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period

The Laughing Man

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Chaim Potok and The Sky of Now

I’ve mentioned briefly in other posts that Chaim Potok is one of my favorite authors.  As I’ve read most of his work prior to blogging, I haven’t mentioned him as much as I’d like.  From somewhere in the deep dark basement of the Cincinnati Public Library, I managed to get one of his two books for younger children, The Sky of Now.

Cover art for THE SKY OF NOW

It’s been a while since I’ve read this type of childrens book as my kids have moved on to books for older kids and even at times adult books; however, that didn’t stop me from reading The Sky of Now and enjoying it – both the story and the pictures (by illustrator Tony Auth).

Brian lives in New York City (not uncommom for Potok characters) and is preparing for his tenth birthday.  His parents take him to the top of the Statue of Liberty.  When he looks down, he realizes that being up high is frightening. 

(Author Chaim Potok)

At home he has two clay models of a clown and a pilot whom he talks to – and they talk back.  This part of the book was great as no explanation needed to be given that these were imaginary friends – they just started talking.  When Brian explains his fear, the clown manages to come up with the profound notion:  “You’re only nine – you’ll grow out of it”.

For his birthday, Brian’s Uncle Conor, a pilot, gives him a wonderful birthday present that helps him overcome his fear.

This may not be the type of book many adults would enjoy but it only took me ten minutes to read it and I found it to be well worth the time.  To complete Potok’s work, I need to read his other childrens book and his two non-fiction books -something to add to my reading goals for the future.  Rereading some of his adult novels might not be a bad idea either.

Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour An Introduction

I consider J. D. Salinger’s two-in-one novel, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour An Introduction a difficult novel to pin down – but it’s one of my favorites.  Boiled down to a concept, I would say it’s about “brotherly love” or perhaps it’s just about plain old “life itself”.  And I get the feeling as I’m trying to figure this out that Salinger himself would cringe at anyone trying to figure this out.

We revisit the Glass family from Franny and Zooey but this time it’s from the point of view of the second oldest of the family, Buddy, an English professor and a writer.  If I understood the timeframe correctly, Buddy is writing this in 1959.  A humor invades almost every aspect of his writing that I couldn’t help think was actually Salinger’s humor – well, I guess it would have to also be Salinger’s humor since he wrote it – but this is the fantastic game that Salinger plays here:  is the character Buddy or himself?  In Raise High, the humor brilliantly comes in the form of a single circumstance.  Buddy finds himself the only member of his large family to attend his older brother Seymour’s wedding.  It’s 1942 and World War II has interrupted most of the family’s lives.  Seymour doesn’t even show up.  Buddy finds himself in a limo filled with the bride’s miffed family and friends.  The conversations that ensue are both hilarious and informative about the Glass family where all seven children grew up on a quiz show radio program and became relatively famous.  In spite of his absence, Seymour is the most talked-about member.  And the reader learns much about this character that doesn’t show up.

In Seymour An Introduction, Buddy goes on a long “stream of consciousness” description of his brother and their relationship.  More of Salinger’s brilliance jumps off the page as Buddy gives an intense background of his brother’s personality and childhood by simply describing Seymour’s eyes, nose and ears.  Buddy also describes his brother’s (two years his senior) abilities with games and sports.  One of my favorite lines was a parenthetical statement Buddy makes about the brothers’ playing pool:

Pool I’ll have to discuss another time.  It wasn’t just a game with us, it was almost a protestant reformation.  We shot pool before or after almost every important crisis of our young manhood.

Seymour cloaked his siblings in Buddhist and Hindu teachings.  In many ways the love Buddy expresses for Seymour is for both a brother and a sage.  Interestingly enough, though, Buddy doesn’t seem to have accepted Seymour’s religious teachings as his own.  Seymour’s praise and criticism greatly influenced Buddy’s career as a teacher and writer.  Though Buddy wanders excessively in his writing about Seymour, the ending perhaps was more touching than I was expecting.  Buddy is writing this part of the story just before he is scheduled to teach a class:

…I can’t be my brother’s brother for nothing, and I know – not always, but I know- there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful Room 307.  There isn’t one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny.  They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine.  This thought manages to stun me:  There’s no place I’d really rather go right now than into Room 307.  Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.  Is he never wrong?

“Wakefield”: So close yet so far away

Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever.  Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.

In picking the Ace of Spades this week, I found myself reading the wonderful and puzzling story “Wakefield” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Mr. Wakefield leaves his wife for twenty years on a seeming whim.  Does he traipse  around the world or have a torrid affair?  No, unbeknownst to his wife, he moves one street over from his (and his wife’s) house – for twenty years.  After missing for a while, his wife and everyone else in the community assumes he is dead.  Again, after twenty years, he appears at his doorstep and resumes his marriage.  I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything in explaining this aspect of the story because all of this is explained by Hawthorne in the first paragraph.

I found puzzling (but also one of my favorite parts) the description of Wakefield walking out the door and taking a quick look back at his wife with an expression that could be considered mischievous.  The reader gets the impression that Wakefield does not fully know or have set intentions of being gone for twenty years – but simply feels like leaving.   Hawthorne gives no suggestion that marital problems exist between Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield.

Isolation in the midst of community, a small step off the beaten path becoming nonconformity – both these ideas get tossed around by Hawthorne.  Wakefield becomes an “Outcast of the Universe” by moving a block away from his home.   I don’t get a strong sense of whether the author thought Wakefield completely right or completely wrong in his  unusual decision.  Just as unusual, Hawthorne gives no description of Mrs. Wakefield’s reaction on what would have had to have been a surprise when her husband turns up after such a long absence.  It’s hard to imagine no questions being asked.

“The Bell Tower” by Herman Melville

A long time ago I started to read Moby Dick.  I never finished it.  Maybe someday I will, but this week I read Melville’s short story “The Bell Tower”.  The language was older both because the story is older and it’s set sometime in the Middle Ages, but the language was beautiful just the same.

The story revolves around Bannadonna, an Italian artisan, who, in building a bell tower, keeps upping the ante in artistic and technological (for the middle ages) achievement.  Allusions are made to the Biblical story of the tower of Babel inferring that the artist wanted to be God.  It raised the question in my mind as to where does art end and technology begin or can they somehow be intermingled.  Bannadonna sometimes seemed to be an artist and other times seemed to be an inventor-perhaps one doesn’t have to exclude the other.  I was also reminded of a certain literary Doctor who created a monster.

The story itself is simple but it’s a story by a brilliant writer.  I found it in an anthology called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  The stories were selected by Harold Bloom.  I’ve read some other things by Mr. Bloom and while he can be somewhat of a fuddy-duddy about literature, he’s picked some great stories in this collection.  The picture below is of Melville, not Bloom.

Franny and Zooey


In the course of reading J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, something struck me as odd about the decade of the 1950’s.  Salinger wrote the novel in 1955.  He also set the novel in 1955, so the novel takes place in the “present”.  When I think of the 1940’s or 1930’s or decades prior, I think of them as historical.  When I think of the 1960’s and since, I don’t think of those decades as historical.  I think of them as more or less the present.  So that leaves the 1950’s:  this decade doesn’t seem like either.  The decade is in some sort of limbo.  I’m sure my age has something to do with this.

This unusual aspect of the 1950’s intertwined itself with the unusual Glass family.  Les and Bessie had seven children of which the youngest two are the novel’s title characters.  All of the children are exceptionally intelligent.  Two of the older children have died – one from World War II and one from suicide.  The majority of the story takes place in the family’s New York apartment within the time frame of a few hours.  Franny, the youngest, is having a spiritual crisis or nervous breakdown (depending on how the reader wants to look at it).   Zooey, Franny’s older brother, seems torn between feeling sorry for his sister and being ticked off with her.  He deals with both his sister and his mother with a little bit of tenderness and a whole lot of sarcasm.

The novel’s themes revolve around religion, yet I wouldn’t call this a religious novel.  Discussing religion and philosophy along with the falseness and sincerity found in both seems to be the theme.  I enjoyed Zooey’s tirade when, fed up with Franny’s issues, he tells her that he doesn’t mind her praying to Jesus – as long as it’s the Jesus in the New Testament, the Jesus who got mad at the sales people in the temple and destroyed their tables, not the Jesus who has been made into St. Francis of Assisi – writing canticles and talking to animals.

The Glass family makes other appearances in Salinger’s work.  His genius makes them a real family.  The wonderful personalities and character of Franny and Zooey take precedent over the religious conversations.  This is truly a novel – not just an essay on religion disguised as fiction.

“Tarquin of Cheapside” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Tarquin of Cheapside”, contains what I would call a major  gimmick – but because of his writing style, it’s an eloquent gimmick.

In Part I, Soft Shoes (one person) is being pursued through the streets of London by Flowing Boots (more than one person). In Part 2, Wessel Caxter hides Soft Shoes from the pursuers while he is reading Edmund Spencer’s poem The Fairie Queene.  Flowing Boots barges into Wessel’s apartment but doesn’t find Soft Shoes.  During this scene, the reader gets an idea of why Flowing Boots is chasing Soft Shoes.  It has something to do with the sister of one of Flowing Boots.  Soft Shoes then spends the night at Wessel’s writing a poem about his adventure.  It was at this point that I figured Soft Shoes was probably someone well-known. In Part 3, Wessel finds Soft Shoes’ poem and begins reading it.  Soft Shoes’ identity is revealed through the beginning lines of his poem.

I consider the story fun and pleasant.  This was one of Fitzgerald’s earlier stories and foreshadows his writing style.  I’ve always thought of Fitzgerald as a compliment to Hemingway, his fellow “Lost Generation” member.  His writing style is ornate compared to Hemingway’s stripped-down style.  I discovered Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby shortly after I had discovered Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises – back in tenth grade English.  The two of them continue to be my favorites all these years later.