Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

My thoughts on Salinger might best be described as, I don’t know, generally admiring but uninterested. I’m vaguely aware that many people have strong feelings on him, and that a lot of these feelings grow out of The Catcher in the Rye‘s required reading status in high schools across America. I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye three times, though not once since graduating high school; and maybe Salinger doesn’t capture a universal teenage voice (is there such a thing? no more than there is one universal human voice, I don’t think) but he does create a unique voice for Holden Caulfield.

A couple posts ago I wrote about works that send me to google to figure out how “true” they are, so it must have been fate that brought me a copy of Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, thereby sending me to google to try disentangling the lines between Salinger and the narrator of these two novellas.

Both novellas are about the Glass family, in particular Seymour. It has been a while since I’ve read Salinger, so it was only partway through the first novella that I realized Salinger has written about these characters in other works, most memorably (for me) in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” (Any of you who love Salinger are thinking “duhhhh” right now, but sometimes I am not the most observant reader, or one with a very good memory.) Both are narrated by Buddy Glass, a writer who bears some resemblance to Salinger, even quoting in Seymour: An Introduction a story from Salinger’s Nine Stories, but in the novella written by Buddy Glass.

This may be the result of feeling generally frazzled (in the past two weeks I’ve helped run three spelling bees in villages near me, with eight more bees coming in the next two weeks; I’m beginning to put together a grant; my host sister Ava wanted to bake a “cake” [that is, a giant chocolate chip cookie] this afternoon), or the result of the style of Salinger’s writing, but I feel oddly incapable of putting together a review on these novellas. The first, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, doesn’t have much of a plot, but it is recognizable as a story. Buddy learns his brother Seymour is getting married, and obtains three days leave to go to New York for the wedding.

As with The Catcher in the Rye, the plot of this novella isn’t real notable. What gets me are Salinger’s descriptions, like this one of the overpowering sun as Buddy rides in a car with other wedding guests:

I felt as though we were all being saved from being caught up by the sun’s terrible flue only by the anonymous driver’s enormous alertness and skill.

And then a bit later, Buddy tries to answer the question of why he got into a car with a bunch of wedding guests he didn’t know, and why he then remained in the car for the interminable ride, writing that:

…the year was 1942, that I was twenty-three, newly drafted, newly advised in the efficacy of keeping close to the herd – and, above all, I felt lonely. One simply jumped into loaded cars, as I see it, and stayed seated in them. (25)

Some of Salinger’s descriptions, like a “box of Louis Sherry candies – half empty, and with the unconsumed candies all more or less experimentally squeezed,” are so spot-on that I feel this post, essentially an excuse to quote a bunch of lines from the book, is excusable.

Light though Raise High may be on plot, it does have one: Buddy travels to New York, goes to the wedding, finds that it has been called off, jumps into a car with other wedding guests, and then spends the day listening as they abuse Seymour for not showing up for his own wedding. In the second novella of the book, Seymour: An Introduction, Salinger abandons all pretense of plot. The novella is Buddy’s attempt to write about Seymour following his suicide, and is as much a digression as a piece about Seymour. Buddy directs comments to the reader and remarks upon his own writing career and life, which often veers towards Salinger’s own, as when Buddy writes of receiving:

…poignant Get-Well-Soon notes from old readers of mine who have somewhere picked up the bogus information that I spend six months of the year in a Buddhist monastery and the other six in a mental institution. (132)

Buddy also writes at times of his intentions for the text at hand; so that even if things did not turn out as he intended, the reader knows where he had planned to go with the writing:

You can’t imagine what big, hand-rubbing plans I had for this immediate space. They appear to have been designed, though, to look exquisite on the bottom of my wastebasket. (142)

Although Buddy quotes from Seymour’s letters and other writings, the novella basically lacks form and simply follows Buddy’s train of thought, which frequently lands on writing and Buddy’s intentions for his own work. One of my favorite parts of the novella was when Buddy wrote of what he wants the Seymour he writes of here to do:

What is it I want (italics all mine) from a physical description of him? More, what do I want it do do? I want it to get to the magazine, yes; I want to publish it. But that isn’t it – I always want to publish. It has more to do with the way I want to submit it to the magazine. In fact, it has everything to do with that. I think I know. I know very well I know. I want it to get down there without my using either stamps or a Manila envelope. If it’s a true description, I should be able to just give it train fare, and maybe pack a sandwich for it and a little something hot in a thermos, and that’s all. (164)

What this novella does, though, is to blur the lines between truth and fiction, to make it unclear where Salinger’s craft lays and where Buddy’s, where the obvious details Salinger pulls from his own life end and where Buddy’s attempts to create his brother on the page begin. Not much may happen in these novellas, sure – nothing happens in the second – but the way Salinger plays with the form of the stories is fun and rewarding to see.

(This is, isn’t it, an inexcusably bad post? But I enjoyed the book and wanted to write something on it, even if of poor quality apart from the quotes from the novellas themselves. I guess that, like Buddy Glass, my hopes for this piece of writing were above my current capabilities.)



[…] Ellen at Fat Books and Thin Women reviews Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour by JD Salinger. […]

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