I encountered an old friend recently. Our re-acquaintance came about through this blog. Ms. Maria del Mar found my post on Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (Roof Beam, to us) which I had ended with a note on the odd wedding gift at the end of the story, wondering why anyone might send cigar ash. She commented that it is explained in the next novella of that collection, Seymour — an Introduction.
I’ve read Roof Beam easily a half dozen times down through the years, but my initial impression of Seymour was less favorable. I remembered it as difficult, off-putting.
While that opinion hasn’t changed, reading it again decades later has been fun. Once again the voice is that of Seymour Glass’s younger brother, and perhaps I had braced myself for all of Buddy’s subordinate clauses, the complex sentences that that start in one direction, dart another, then pause for a self-conscious examination of whether or not the author is predisposed to continue.
Not that he doesn’t warn us. Early on he presents us with a bouquet of parentheses, a perfect metaphor for what is to follow, as well as an image that has stayed with me the rest of my life. Every so often, in reading something with a bounty of parenthetics, I’ve been reminded of Salinger, Buddy Glass, and that parenthetical bouquet.
Late in the novella, Seymour Glass as a football player is described as “snaky-hipped.” Buddy lauds his elusiveness as a running back, yet so much of the book concerns elusive clarity, which Salinger addresses right up front.
He begins with two quotes, one each from Kafka and Kierkegaard, on falsity and on writing that becomes erroneous. From this initial note he delves into a painful self-consciousness, as Salinger struggles with both his concern that he get his introduction right and with the sense that as soon as the words find the page they will find the note of error, of falsity.
All of this was written well over half a century ago now, by the man who became such a famous recluse and, in the fashion of our time, the subject of a tell-all biography, which I read at the turn of the century. ((Is his imagined distaste for the intrusion into his privacy part of a modern reader’s fascination?))
Buddy and Seymour’s parents were retired vaudevillians, so a sense of theater comes with the territory, and actors speak sometimes of breaking the fourth wall. J.D. as Buddy does this as well, often speaking directly to us, and even informing us of what he suspects about us: “my general reader; that is to say you.” After claiming the reader will deny it up and down, he informs us: “You’re a great bird lover.”
I was raised by amateur birders, often going for early morning walks in the woods. Even now, decades after that sentence first penetrated, it makes me smile.
Re-reading Seymour decades later, my sense of Salinger is of a control freak. His dedication preceding the two novellas rebuffs attempts to critique the book, seeking an amateur reader who “just reads and runs” for whom he has “untellable affection.” Which sets up a bemusing structure—Salinger is permitted to rummage around his fictive recollections in his nests of parentheses and serial commas, while even as he considers the revealed items we are asked not to provide any analysis of our own.
Which reserve is reinforced by the amateur psychoanalyses he and Seymour underwent as child radio stars, as described vividly in Roof Beam but also in Seymour. We’re accustomed now to the sight of childhood stars brought low, the Danny Bonaduces who struggle so publicly with early fame. What interests me is Buddy Glass’s effort to both confront and move beyond the withering analyses first of the self-serving matron of honor in Roof Beam but also the unpersonified critics of Seymour.
Am I too critical? Maybe. But J.D.-nee-Buddy could put one in that frame of mind as (circa 1959) he rails against middle-aged hot rodders, Dharma bums, cigarette filters for thinking men, lofty experts on our poor little sex organs, unskilled guitarists, Zen killers, and his female students’ lurid fascination with the personal details of poets’ lives, such as Mary Shelley’s belief in free love.
So it’s not your run-of-the-mill page turner. What’s hard for me to dis-entangle is how much the pleasure I found in it is tied to re-discovery. For, toward the end, after Buddy attempts to describe Seymour physically over several days (informing us of the starts, finishes, and lapsed time) one of my most pleasant reminders came as he recalled life in Manhattan playing marbles as a boy. I knew what was coming, almost like déjà vu, Buddy’s memory of believing himself the fastest boy in the world.
Roof Beam is set in 1942, and in my mind’s eye this recollection has become 1940s New York, too, but this time I realized that the 40-year-old Buddy would be looking back over three decades (“I was eight”), and the memory is more properly the late 1920s; the canvas in my mind’s eye shifts. Many times since I’ve thought of that lovely childhood conceit, the hope that one might be the swiftest, captured by Salinger in the magical quarter hour he describes with such resonance.
So I enjoyed the re-reading and, as well as bumping into old acquaintances, I also liked his adroit description of Seymour’s appearance. When the boys get their hair cut, Buddy is irritated when Seymour’s clipped locks drift on to him, then regrets complaining as he sees Seymour worry about it. In this and numerous other ways, Buddy links this panegyric to Roof Beam, which sought spiritual mechanisms.
Seymour we are told was “brilliant” at soccer or hockey, but once in position to score had the “singularly unendearing” trait of pausing to let the goalie set an impregnable defense. This from the author who gave us Holden Caulfield who, right at the beginning, was skeptical of prep school football tradition where, if you lost, you were also supposed to commit suicide or something.
Don’t aim, Seymour counsels Buddy at playing marbles. If you aim, you will miss. And this introduction takes the advice to heart. He sets out by telling us the words will sound false as soon as they find the page. So Buddy keeps trying, reconsidering, and trying again.
Unlike Roof Beam, I can’t say I’m eager to read an Introduction soon again. I prefer the tighter fiction of the former novella. But Salinger fans who appreciate his critical aversion to psycho-analysis as he endeavors to find spiritual gravitas will find a lot to enjoy here. Through the lens of Buddy Glass we look again and again at Seymour, the sweet boy so concerned with the well being of others, not wanting his barber-snipped hair to drift onto Buddy, not wanting to score for concern about his opponent.
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Oh, and about Ms. Maria del Mar’s note on the wedding gift? Avert your eyes if you don’t want to see the connection made between stories.
At the end of Roof Beam, a petite, mute, cigar-smoking visitor has left, and Buddy notes the cigar end in the pewter ash tray. The third to last sentence is “I still rather think his cigar end should have been forwarded on to Seymour, the usual run of wedding gifts being what it is.”
About 14 pages in to Seymour, we read of Seymour’s interest in ashes and ash trays.