by J D Salinger
A review by Jill Owens
There may be two major kinds of Salinger characters: the heroes and the hypocrites.
Some of his characters seem remarkably erect in a slumped world; ethically and
morally struggling, often anxious and usually very funny, they are immediately
identifiable as being occupied by a worthy pursuit a spiritual searching
that leads them to resemble a combination of Eastern philosopher and genial psychotherapist.
These luminaries are genuine, intelligent, and eminently likable. And then there
is everyone else. Salinger's satiric portraits of people leading more ordinary
lives worrying about relationships, jobs, and social standing are
terrifically biting and accurate interpretations of the soullessness of everyday
In these stories, very often Salinger's heroes are children; the sympathetic
adults are those rare creatures who can talk to children without talking down
to them, can draw them out without resorting to condescension. (The adults who
cannot understand their children, who are caught up in their own selfish lives,
usually littered with cigarettes, alcohol, and profanity, as well, show up as
nearly monstrous in contrast.) What the stories seem to value in children is
an equal sense of absurdity and innocence, an clarity of perception capable
of cutting through untruth (or uninteresting facts they often amount to the
same thing). Many of the title characters in Nine Stories fit this profile,
including Esmι and Teddy; they are a perfect representation of the tenderness
Salinger can show, the opposite of the sharp disappointment embodied in the
In stories like "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes," as well as "Uncle
Wiggily in Connecticut," the dialogue is remarkable I rarely "hear"
characters speak, mentally, no matter how well drawn, but the trademark italic
emphasis, the inclusion of every "you know" and irritated "I
don't know" brings these unhappy, proud and funny characters directly into
the present. Salinger's descriptions are brilliant, too; the smallest gestures
of his characters often the way they react to each other are detailed
with exact emotional precision:
"The gray-haired man turned his head again toward the girl, perhaps
to show her how forbearing, even stoic, his countenance was. But the girl
missed seeing it. She had just overturned the ashtray with her knee and was
rapidly, with her fingers, brushing the spilled ashes into a little pick-up
pile; her eyes looked up at him a second too late. 'No, you didn't, Arthur,'
he said into the phone."
Rereading Nine Stories recently, I realized I'd nearly forgotten entire
stories ("Just Before the War with the Eskimos," "De Daumier-Smith's
Blue Period") and that my longtime favorite "Teddy," the last
and longest story in the book, which includes, I think, one of Salinger's most
fully evolved characters was jostled out of top spot by another, much shorter
gem, "Down at the Dinghy." But that's what's wonderful about this
book, or any good book, for that matter as you grow older, your tastes and
sympathies change, and Salinger, in these stories, has collected a rich palette
of characters to identify with, for better or worse, at any age.