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Powells.com
Saturday, September 4th, 2004


 

Nine Stories

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 dreams.

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 other characters.

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.


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