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?