In the series Deep Cuts, I'm taking a look at the lesser known works of famous authors that everyone has heard of. I think it's a shame that we only know, perhaps, the pinnacle of an author's work instead of his or her range and diversity.
For anyone who doesn't know, my favorite book is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. To me, there's something special and ultimately so impressive about the way Salinger crafts the character of Holden Caulfield and his coming of age. I could ramble forever about this young boy who simultaneously cares about nothing and everything, who covers up his fears with explicit language and not-so-random tangents, and who has a stream of consciousness so full of symbolism that may or may not be lost on him. But that's not what this post is about.
Salinger, as an author, has a surprisingly small body of work. Catcher is his only full length novel. The rest of his written work, published and unpublished, is comprised short stories, collections of those stories, or stories told in parts (Franny and Zooey). Hungry for more of Salinger's prose, I turned to his book Nine Stories, which contains just that. (I also found this incredible article of an objective ranking of people's clothes in Nine Stories, so please check that out too).
I bought the book secondhand (my favorite way to buy books!) at a Half Price Books store without opening it. The shop had several copies, and I chose the one with the cover I liked the most: a simple white background with rainbow striped across the corner. Oddly fitting for Salinger's narrative style, which is unadorned on the surface but hides much more meaning underneath, there was a surprise waiting for me right under the cover.
On the title page, the previous owner of the book has doodled a scene from the first story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." It looks elementary and it's perhaps the absentminded work of a bored English student, but the detail of the telephone strikes me the most. The telephone appears in sort of a background arc of the story, and so I don't think the student was apathetic about the story at all. To recognize the significance of the telephone in a story I took to be about the emotions we throw out into the world and how we deal with emotions is no small thought.
The stories in the collection are not related to each other, thematically or chronologically, as they were first published separately (7 of them in The New Yorker, another in Harper's Magazine). Instead, each produces a single slice of life and questions how we're supposed to function in this world where nothing ever stays the same, For instance, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" examines what happens when two former college roommates have little in common after several years of domestic life. In "The Laughing Man," love affects a boy's beloved scoutmaster's outlook on the world and the way he tells his story.
My personal favorite of the stories is "For Esme- with Love and Squalor", which, in a way that recalls Catcher, deals with innocence and the loss of it through experience in the world. A soldier meets a young girl in a cafe, and she strikes up a conversation with him. But later, suffering with what looks like PTSD caused by war, the contrast between where the soldier ends up and the innocence of the conversation with Esme is tragic and striking. If you wanted to condense the themes of Catcher into one story or find an appropriate companion or epilogue to it, this story is everything you need.
What did you think of Catcher in the Rye? Would you read more of Salinger's work? What other short story collections do you love? Let me know in the comments below!