What has depth and worth any more? Can we even talk in terms of heavy, or is the notion as trite as a mass media portrayal of hippies?
One of my favorite stories is a novella I first read years ago, written in the mid 1950s. It’s set in 1942. A soldier bridegroom stands up his bride, and only his brother has made it to the ceremony in a Manhattan brownstone. The brother, nicknamed Buddy, ends up sharing a ride with the maid of honor, honor being the key word. She is out for blood, not yet realizing the groom’s brother is in the same limousine.
The whole novella has a resonance I’ve rarely found elsewhere. It starts in the mid 1930s in a Manhattan bedroom, among the children of former vaudevillians, with the reading of a Taoist story set in China millenia earlier, and that story illuminates everything to come.
The Taoist tale involves two men, Chiu-fang Kao and Po Lo, who at different times are sent to find valuable horses. Kao apparently fails completely when he cannot describe the gender or color of the horse he selects, angering the lord who employed him. Lo, however, sees the truth and marvels at how far Kao’s perception has advanced, claiming Kao is so focused on the spiritual mechanism, the soul of the horse, that he no longer notices trivialities like gender or color.
The novella then focuses on the wedding day. The oldest brother, brilliant but (occasionally) erratic Seymour, is about to wed and none of the dispersed vaudevillian family can make it except Buddy, the second oldest, who, after boot camp, is in Georgia with pleurisy, but damn-near busts a gut getting to the wedding on time.
Except his brother Seymour stood up the bride, and fate or happenstance lands him in a limousine in Manhattan gridlock trapped by a parade, with the blood-boiling maid of honor to the jilted bride.
The author’s ironic detachment is perfect, every time I re-read it (a couple times every decade, perhaps) I am delivered back to that world, and I notice how cleverly he crafted the plot so that conflict dovetails with themes of tinny fame, voyeuristic analysis, and beauty that has depth, transcending categorization or surface appearances.
It’s seductive stuff for students, training to discard chaff and seek the germ of life, and the story still holds its charm for me now.
The combative maid of honor is glorious, vengeful. Yet the other passengers (including a tiny, delightful deaf mute, in cutaway tux) maintain an upright, proper civility, even as they grow testy in the stifling heat, and we begin to suspect that they suspect who Buddy is.
The personalities of the five passengers are adroitly developed well before Buddy finally acknowledges his connection. Desperate to escape, they leave the limo gridlocked in the Manhattan summer heat and Buddy brings his adversarial fellow riders to the apartment he shared with Seymour, where they can use a telephone, share a pitcher of potent Tom Collinses and his guests can examine the framed photographs of his famous vaudeveillian family, continuing a pitiless psycho-analysis and ruthless pigeonholing of what is wrong with them, especially Seymour.
And yet through letters and discovered diaries and notes penned in soap slivers on bathroom mirrors, an undercurrent of depth is revealed. I love the sense of weight the story delivers, as if I’m holding small lithe sculptures in my hands. And at the same time I still puzzle over pieces of it.
Among the photos on the wall is one purportedly of a young Hollywood star, with a scar sustained from a stone thrown by Seymour. Buddy later explains only to the deaf mute why Seymour threw the stone, “because she looked so beautiful … everybody knew that.”
I’ve puzzled over that for years, another figurine to roll in my hands, enjoying the heft, the feeling of weight. The deaf mute always makes me smile, almost laugh aloud, as does his abandoned cigar, a potential wedding present. I’m not sure I ever want to puzzle it all out with explanations; it’s fine for life to have some mystery, too. And the wedding situation has a resolution, also — but I’ll leave that to the story.
Along the way we get to peek at privileged correspondence, the family letters, diaries and notes, especially Buddy’s jaundiced view, counterpoint to Seymour’s exuberance and wonder, and a sister’s note, with the novella’s title written in soap on a mirror:
Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters
And I wish this reminiscence of it were better, that it did justice to what I think is J.D. Salinger’s best work.