J D Salinger, For Esmé – With Love and Squalor (1953, New English Library 1978)
I read this at least partly because I wanted to learn more about the Glass family, particularly Seymour Glass’s suicide. The suicide is there, of course, in the first story in this collection, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, also Salinger’s first published story. It’s a good story, full of charm and then of shocking enigma, but there’s nothing to indicate that the author would still be probing the repercussions for the Glass family a decade later (not to mention possible further Glass Family fictions yet to be discovered … I live in hope). Boo Boo, the older of the two girls in the family, makes an appearance in ‘Down at the Dinghy’. And Buddy, the family’s self-appointed chronicler who is in danger of vanishing into his own parentheses in ‘Seymour: An Introduction’, plays a central role in the title story (at least, I assume Staff-Sergeant X is Buddy, even though I may be the only person in the world to have done so). In each of these stories, the adult Glass has a conversation with a child, and these playfully smart-alecky conversations are what lift the book above standard albeit ultra-sophisticated New Yorker fare. Boo Boo could be a forerunner of the mother in Maurice Sendak’s sublime The Sign on Rosie’s Door. Buddy’s conversation with thirteen-year-old Esmé and her follow-up letter are surely meant to be read in counterpoint to Seymour’s chat with the little girl Sybil. The latter is either a farewell to all things lovely or a cryptic explanation of his suicide, while the former has a deeply healing effect: one brother dies, the other lives. (Incidentally, I doubt if either of these stories could have been written nowadays: in the late 40s the general reader wasn’t expected to see every man as a potential child-rapist.)
Two non-Glass stories stand out for me, both with child protagonists: ‘The Laughing Man’ and ‘Teddy’. ‘Teddy’ is genuinely shocking.
Incidentally, it occurs to me that my lack of enthusiasm for The Hurt Locker may have something to do with the fact that I saw it in the middle of reading this book. It was awfully hard to see the movie as anything other than an adrenaline pumper with pretensions when I had Staff-Sergeant (Buddy?) X’s shaking hands fresh in my mind.