(by J.D. Salinger) (1961)
This perfect little novella (actually, a short story published in The New Yorker in 1955 and followed by another a couple of years later, then combined as a diptych) is a personal favourite. One would not wish to go on a houseboat holiday with any member of the Glass family (maybe Les) but their mood storms are always worth getting caught in.
Frances Glass, the baby of the family, has discovered a little book called The Way of a Pilgrim (in real life purchased from Brentano’s by Salinger’s bride-to-be and reputed Gestapo staffer, Claire) which she carries about like a talisman. She’s sick of liking people, and that presumably includes likable people, which boyfriend Lane Coutell, so full of himself as to be almost a churl, is not (Zooey calls him “a charm boy and a fake.”). But young Frances is also a little too full of herself: college girls aren’t generally world-weary, at least in the books I’ve read. Yet here she is:
“I know when they’re going to be charming, I know when they’re going to start telling you some really nasty gossip about some girl that lives in your dorm, I know when they’re going to ask me what I did over the summer, I know when they’re going to pull up a chair and straddle it backward and start bragging in a terribly, terribly quiet voice – or name dropping in a terribly quiet, casual voice.”
Over an untouched chicken sandwich, Franny describes The Way of the Pilgrim to a skeptical Lane. It promotes prayer without ceasing* that brings a physiological and ultimately transcendental effect. En route to the powder room, she faints, is revived, and we leave her, for now, on a couch in the office of a restaurant, silently mouthing “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Cut to her slightly older brother Zooey, a TV actor not quite ready for prime time. He dispenses mercy, after a fashion, inspired by the oldest surviving sibling, Buddy (he uses an old letter to formulate a script) and hectored by his mother. He suggests to Franny, now convalescing at the family seat in NYC’s East Seventies, that she is “beginning to give off a little stink of piousness” and selecting the most comfortable and convenient place for her nervous breakdown. After something of an explosion, he departs the field, “Always the heavy.” But then their mother, Bessie, tells Franny that Bessie’s hermit-like son Buddy is on the phone and wants to talk to her.
After complaining to him about Zooey and the horrible circles in which he turns (including the one where Jesus asks an eight-year old Zooey for a small glass of ginger ale), Franny realises that she is, in fact, speaking to Zooey.
Most critics were unhappy with F & Z when they appeared, finding them sloppy and self-indulgent. Anthony Burgess later commented: “It required boldness to present an attempt at solving the world’s problems through a positive creed of love, though Salinger’s crime is to close in, depicting a family of the elect (the Glass family) who are doing two things – ritually washing away the world’s guilt; practising a synthetic religion that has elements of Christianity and Zen Buddhism in it. Holden [Caulfield] at least confronts the dirty mass of sinning humanity, though it drives him to a mental home; the Glass family confronts only itself.“**
Yes, the Glass kinder are special and know all about it, but we can’t agree that they have nothing to offer. Their discursive confessional style leads one to conclude that “the thing to listen for, every time…is what [they’re] not confessing to“^ but when F & Z agree on the importance of doing something, and something well, or kind (even though no one sees it) for the benefit of the Fat Lady, the reader as well as the characters receive something beautiful if not necessarily revelatory.
“I can’t talk any more, buddy.”
—————————————-[*Thessalonians 5: 17.] [**Ninety-Nine novels (1984), pp. 53-54.] [^ Seymour: An Introduction (1959) p. 125.]