Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: J. D. Salinger, Three Early Stories

J. D. Salinger. Three Early Stories. Illustrated by Anna Rose Yoken. Memphis: Devault-Graves, 2014. $14.95 paperback. $8.99 e-book. $3.95 audio. 69 pages.

Three Early Stories reprints work to which J. D. Salinger, careful though he was, never lay claim: “The Young Folks” (Story, 1940), “Go See Eddie” (University of Kansas City Review, 1940), “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” (Story, 1944). The stories are short, and slight. Gathered here, they make a meager bouquet, but a bouquet nonetheless, and a wondrous one, something rather than nothing. In the first of these stories, a young woman at a party of “noisy young people” works hard to make conversation with a young man whose attention is directed to a “small blonde” who sits on the floor, at some distance. The blonde is laughing and already commanding the attention of at least three other young men. In the second story, a brother attempts to exert authority over his sister’s life by insisting that she give up her married lover and “Go see Eddie” about a job. In the third, a young soldier packs his suitcase and talks with his wife and aunt before shipping out. He struggles about how to tell Aunt Rena (now lost in a placid dementia) that he is leaving. These characters are recognizable as Salinger people: they smoke cigarettes, squint to avoid the smoke from their cigarettes, sip coffee, bite their fingernails. At least two characters are marked by lovely idiosyncrasies: the soldier remembers that his mother always whistled a risqué song through her teeth when drawing the blinds; the soldier’s aunt has started collecting canceled two-cent stamps. We are not far from Jane Gallagher’s habit of keeping her kings in the back row.

Already on display in these stories is Salinger’s ear for the registers of modern American speech. Consider Edna Phillips, the lonely young woman of “The Young Folks,” determined to be cheery and social, insisting with forced gaiety that people and things are grand: “He’s a grand person, don’t you think?” “It’s so grand out here.” “Oh, he’s a grand guy.” (Says Holden Caulfield of “grand”: “There’s a word I really hate.”) Edna later explains with Caulfield-like honesty and awkwardness her thinking about sex: “It’s gotta be the real thing with me. Before, you know. I mean, love and all.” Or consider this exchange between brother and sister:

“Have you ever seen his wife?” Bobby asked.

“Yes-I’ve-seen-his-wife. What about her?”
Or these words from the soldier’s wife:
“Well, I hope at least they send you to London. I mean where there’s some civilized people.”
There’s an element of defensiveness in Salinger’s effort to capture tone by means typography: “It had been three years and she had never stopped talking to him in italics,” the narrator observes. In other words, that’s just how she talks. Salinger’s characters would never stop talking in italics.

Also on display in these stories is Salinger’s indebtedness to Ernest Hemingway. A sentence in “Once a Week” about a woman’s arms — “They were brown and round and good” — is either hapless imitation or fine parody. The real debt to Hemingway in these stories involves narrative silence. Hugh Kenner offers a brilliant characterization of Hemingway’s achievement as a matter of “setting down, so sparely that we can see past them, the words for the action that concealed the real action.” After the distracted male partygoer walks off to pay attention to the blonde, Edna Phillips retreats to a forbidden part of her host’s house (a parental bedroom?), and returns with cigarettes. She is gone nearly twenty minutes: doing what? Grieving her social failure? The sudden violence of brother against sister suggests that the exhortation to “Go see Eddie” is just one more moment in a long history of sibling conflict and sexual tension. The poignance of Aunt Rena’s Miss Havishamish existence and the great losses that lie in her past are left for the reader to infer — or is it only suspect? — from a handful of details.

About the design of Three Early Stories: the cover is promising in its Salingerian austerity, but inside are mistaken choices. The text is printed recto-only in a large thin font (a Goudy Californian, I think), with a ragged right margin and generous space between lines. There are only thirty-two pages of text, and ten full-page illustrations. The design, especially when text and illustration appear side by side, too strongly resembles that of a young reader’s chapter book. This book is of course the first illustrated edition of Salinger, illustrations or annotations having been a requirement for permission to reprint. Anna Rose Yoken, the book’s illustrator, appears to be an artist of genuine ability, but her work here looks unidiomatic, far removed from the sophistication of mid-century commercial illustration. I’d like to see larger margins, a more substantial font, small blocks of text recto and verso, and (if need be) a handful of small line drawings. And one annotation I’d like to see: an explanation of “Tea Gardens” (for “Teagardens,” recordings by Jack Teagarden). Is that Salinger’s joke? Or an error in the original publication?

New Salinger work is supposed to begin arriving in 2015: David Shields and Shane Salerno’s Salinger (2013) describes five volumes to come but makes no mention of the early stories. Will Three Early Stories (and last year’s digital bootleg of three unpublished early stories) move the Salinger estate to consider making all the early work available in book form? I think that’s unlikely. Which makes the legitimate publication of these three stories an even more wondrous thing.

Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the book.

Related reading
All OCA Salinger posts (Pinboard)

[In The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Holden describes Jane Gallagher’s checkerplay: “What she’d do, when she’d get a king, she wouldn’t move it. She’d just leave it in the back row. She’d get them all lined up in the back row. Then she’d never use them. She just liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row.” Hugh Kenner’s characterization of Hemingway’s achievement appears in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975). ]

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