My relationship with J D Salinger hasn’t necessarily been an easy one. I tried to read The Catcher in the Rye when I was fourteen years old, after seeing it on a blog I was following and decided to buy it along with some other books that were in the same post. I fell in love with Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and was fascinated by the dark world of Chuck Palanuik’s Invisible Monsters, but The Catcher in the Rye for me fell short. Holden wasn’t a character I wanted to spend more than a few pages with and I couldn’t understand why it was a classic. I tried to read the book twice and stumble around the forty page mark. Eventually I donated my copy to a charity shop and decided J D Salinger wasn’t for me.
I didn’t even realise he had written anything else until much later on, and even then I dismissed his books. It wasn’t until a friend recommended his short stories that I considered giving him a second chance. That friend kindly bought me a copy of For Esme with Love and Squalor when I left Merseyside and I finally read it last month.
I’m glad I did. Where I couldn’t tolerate Holden, I could have stayed with these characters for chapters and novels. Salinger’s characters are brimming with life, they are raging, and floundering, ready to fight everything and everyone, and ready to give up. There are traumatised veterans, children with old souls and love-sick coaches, eccentric painters, concerned mothers and troubled men. Salinger sketches them all expertly.
A Perfect Day for Bananafish, the first story in the collection, is an acerbic slap to the face. The tranquillity of the setting is unexpectedly shattered. Seymour and Sybil’s exchange unsettled me, but the story veered off the course I thought it would take. I felt genuine surprise, I’d been caught off-guard. I sensed something was happening below the surface of their conversation but I couldn’t pin point what until the very end.
Conversations are loaded throughout the collection. They are often a battle, or a challenge, but the conflict lies beneath the dialogue. It’s not what they say but their actions and behaviours that reveal the tension.
The Laughing Man stood out for it’s humour. A group of boys are picked up every week in a bus by their ‘Chief’ and taken to play sports. It’s a club that seems somewhere between boy scouts and a sports team. The boys fight and kick their way onto the bus each week, competing for the best spot and in order to tame his unruly charges, the ‘Chief’ concocts the tale of The Laughing Man, a villainous mastermind to rival Moriarty, constantly outwitting his enemies. The boys become fascinated with this character, and look forward to each new instalment in the story. It perfectly captures the power of a child’s imagination, how the story seeps into their lives. The story is also a reflection of their ‘Chiefs’ state of mind, and as his personal life takes a nose dive so does the fate of The Laughing Man.
For Esme with Love and Squalor completely changed my opinion of Salinger. I might have to taken another stab at The Catcher in the Rye.