I had never read J.D. Salinger until my friend, Larry Ellis, lent me his copy of Nine Stories. Of the nine in the collection, two of them, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, and For Esme – With Love and Squalor, were considered instant classics when published in 1948 and 1950, respectively.
There’s something about the stories that feels dated, aside from the period references to telephone operators and incessant cigarette smoking. Like one of those old black and white movies from the 40’s with Cary Grant or Peter Lorre. There’s a lack of subtlety in those movies; the plots can be melodramatic, the dialogue exaggerated, the acting over the top. Salinger’s stories have that kind of feel. But where those old movies can sometimes seem pointless, there was a purpose to Salinger’s stories. Both Bananafish and Esme are about soldiers back from World War II dealing with what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is something captivating and disturbing about his stories, hinting at a dangerous turbulence just below the surface. You just know something’s not right. In Bananafish, Seymour Glass befriends a young girl at the beach in a way that is unsettling to our modern sensibilities, yet Salinger uses the encounter as an expression of innocence. He does the same thing in Esme. Beguiling and disquieting. In the end, the turbulence doesn’t just bubble to the surface, it roils.
Salinger’s stories often end abruptly, without detailed explanation or comforting epilogue. If you’re looking for stories that make you feel good, look somewhere else. If you prefer a story that will have your head buzzing and your conscience searching, you might want to give Nine Stories a try.