The Books: “Nine Stories”- ‘Just Before The War With the Eskimos’ (J.D. Salinger)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the third story ‘Just Before The War With the Eskimos’

A story so compact, so perfectly structured, that if you remove one word the whole thing would unravel. If you’ve ever tried to write a short story, you know how difficult it is … how to use symbols without being obvious, how to SHOW not TELL, all that … I love reading people who are masters of the form, because it feels easy in their hands. Like Lorrie Moore (excerpt here), Mary Gaitskill (excerpt here), James Joyce (excerpt here – although it is usually unfair to lump anyone else with James Joyce – even the good writers suffer from the comparison), AS Byatt (excerpt here) … These people are masters of the form. They are master enough that they can also mess with the form (AS Byatt) and get away with it. It’s a joy to read these people, and it’s a joy to read JD Salinger. There is something going on in ‘Just Before the War With the Eskimos’ that somehow remains beneath the surface. It’s all THERE, it’s just a bit elusive – and it shifts if you try to put your finger on it. ‘Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut’ (excerpt here) is pretty straightforward, leaving not much to the imagination – It is what it says it is, the meaning and “event” of the story is clear – but ‘Perfect Day for Bananafish’ (excerpt here) and now ‘Just Before the War With the Eskimos’ … hides its meaning, cloaks its true intentions. But it’s such a TAUT story, so tightly wound … that I could spend days ruminating upon it. How can a story 15 pages long have so much in it? And also contain so much mystery? Like the last line … which appears to come out of NOWHERE … but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. It brings a depth and power to the story that you might otherwise miss if you only read it as a surface encounter. And THAT is what makes a good short story – because you have a limited amount of space. If you’re going to use symbolism, please do it subtly and let it sneak up on us – because otherwise the whole thing becomes way too top-heavy, and I end up feeling like you, the writer, are treating me, the reader, like I’m half-tard or quarter-tard.

Ginnie and Selena are two high-school age girls who live in New York City and go to some upscale prep school. They play tennis every weekend. Ginnie is the lead of this story. It’s her POV. She starts the story annoyed because she always gets stuck with the whole cab fare on their tennis days … the cab drops Selena off and then goes on to drop Ginnie off, and Selena never leaves her any money. Ginnie finally has had it and brings it up to Selena. Selena is offended, pissed, defensive … says something about how her mother is sick … Ginnie is like, “I didn’t make her sick, did I?” Selena huffs off into her house to wake up her sick mother and get Ginnie the money she is owed – leaving Ginnie waiting in the living room. This is a world of privilege – we know that because it’s Salinger writing it, first of all – that is his milieu – urban privilege – Ginnie stares around the living room at all the furniture and has the desire to throw it all out the window. I’m not sure what’s going on there – if there are some issues going on here between Ginnie and Selena that I am not perceiving – issues coming to the foreground because of Selena’s cheapness and pettiness when it comes to paying her half of the cab fare. Old money vs. new money? There is NOTHING like the contempt old money has for new money. So that might be what is going on, because it seems like an odd reaction to a set of living room furniture.

Selena’s older brother Franklin comes into the room – he is in his early 20s, kind of raggedy, in a bathrobe, and he has cut his finger. Ginnie has never met him before. Their encounter makes up the bulk of ‘Just Before the War With the Eskimos’. And although this is just an interpretation, here goes: Ginnie goes through some sort of obvious transformation as she talks to Franklin. He has cut his finger, he seems to think she will know what to do, but then he ruins things by making a sneering comment about her sister, and how she is a snob. Ginnie at first is enraged – how dare he talk to her like that – but somehow, through the next couple pages, she lets that go and seems to start to find him funny. Is it that somehow Ginnie knows he’s right – that her sister is a snob? That there is something refreshing about his honesty, in the middle of all of that upper-class repression? Not sure. He divulges that he had rheumatic fever when he was a kid and there is something the matter with his heart. Yet there he is, smoking. He also reveals that he quit college, and spent 37 months in Ohio working in an airplane factory. Ginnie starts to ask him questions about all of this, and his responses are overwhelmingly sarcastic – “I love airplanes … they’re so cute …” and yet he also offers her his sandwich, he actually insists on her taking it … Do they connect? Maybe. Salinger leaves that out of the story, it’s between the lines – nothing is explicit. But the Ginnie who walks out of that house is a different girl. Selena’s brother (his name is Franklin) is waiting for a friend who is coming to get him – they’re going to a movie. Franklin leaves, to go get dressed – and his friend arrives, and HE sits in the living room with Ginnie. He is obviously gay – although I suppose if you have no gaydar whatsoever you might not pick up on it. He compliments Ginnie’s coat. He complains about the dog hairs on Selena’s mother’s couch. He and Franklin are going to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. He launches into a long rather boring story about this horrible free-loading roommate he had – a writer (you can hear his contempt) – but you have to wonder if it was a thwarted lover situation. And then he reveals that he too worked in the airplane factory in Ohio. I have nothing to back this up, but I think that Franklin may be gay, too – so although he is an outsider due to his cynicism, his bad heart, all that – his true outsider status is his sexual orientation. He sneers out the window at humanity – all the men going to the draft board. You might think he was turned away because of his bad heart, but perhaps it was the gay thing. Perhaps he was “placed” in the airplane factory for the duration of the war – again, none of it is made clear – Perhaps Franklin himself is not gay. I didn’t get a gay vibe from him – there are intimations that he might have a crush on Ginnie, and that he certainly had a crush on Ginnie’s sister … but who knows.

The world outside suddenly seems to be marching along towards a destiny that involves none of the characters in the story. There will be war with the Eskimos next. Franklin will stand by the window, with his bad heart, looking on at the ridiculous foibles of humanity. Let them all stroll towards destruction, see what he cares.

The last image of the story – Ginnie walking off down the street, having told Selena that it’s okay, she doesn’t want her money, and by the way – can I come over later? -leaves much mysterious … What happened to Ginnie in her encounters with the two men? Something did. It seems she has lifted her head a bit from total self-involvement (which is typical of most teenagers) and seen a bit further, gained perspective – became interested in someone other than herself. To even write that out, makes the story sound hokey and preachy and it is neither of those things. Salinger spells nothing out. Ginnie walks down the street, taking out the sandwich Selena’s brother gave her, she contemplates tossing it … but then thinks better of it and puts it in her pocket again.

It’s my favorite kind of story. The writer treats me like I am intelligent. And he leaves enough for me to contemplate … there is enough left unsaid that I can continue to think about it and wonder about it. I love that.

Here is an excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the third story ‘Just Before The War With the Eskimos’

“You Ginnie?” he said, squinting at her through his glasses. “You Ginnie Mannox?”

“Yes,” said Ginnie, uncrossing her legs.

Selena’s brother turned back to his finger, obviously for him the true and only focal point in the room. “I know your sister,” he said dispassionately. “Goddam snob.”

Ginnie arched her back. “Who is?”

“You heard me.”

“She is not a snob!”

“The hell she’s not,” said Selena’s brother.

“She is not!”

“The hell she’s not. She’s the queen. Queen of the goddam snobs.”

Ginnie watched him lift up and peer under the thick folds of toilet paper on his finger.

“You don’t even know my sister.”

“Hell I don’t.”

“What’s her name? What’s her first name?” Ginnie demanded.

“Joan … Joan the Snob.”

Ginnie was silent. “What’s she look like?” she asked suddenly.

No answer.

“What’s she look like?” Ginnie repeated.

“If she was half as good-looking as she thinks she is, she’d be goddam lucky,” Selena’s brother said.

This had the stature of an interesting answer, in Ginnie’s secret opinion. “I never heard her mention you.”

“That worries me. That worries hell outa me.”

“Anyway, she’s engaged,” Ginnie said, watching him. “She’s gonna be married next month.”

“Who to?” he asked, looking up.

Ginnie took full advantage of his having looked up. “Nobody you know.”

He resumed picking at his own first-aid work. “I pity him,” he said.

Ginnie snorted.

“It’s still bleedin’ like mad. Ya think I oughta put something on it? What’s good to put on it? Mercurochrome any good?”

“Iodine’s better,” Ginnie said. Then, feeling her answer was too civil under the circumstances, she added, “Mercurochrome’s no good at all for that.”

“Why not? What’s the matter with it?”

“It just isn’t any good for that stuff, that’s all. Ya need iodine.”

He looked at Ginnie. “It stings a lot, though, doesn’t it?” he asked. “Doesn’t it sting a helluva lot?”

“It stings,” Ginnie said, “but it won’t kill you or anything.”

Apparently without resenting Ginnie’s tone, Selena’s brother turned back to his finger. “I don’t like it when it stings,” he said.

Nobody does.”

He nodded in agreement. “Yeah,” he said.

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4 Responses to The Books: “Nine Stories”- ‘Just Before The War With the Eskimos’ (J.D. Salinger)

  1. The Books: “Nine Stories”- ‘The Laughing Man’ (J.D. Salinger)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf for the Daily Book Excerpt: Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the third story ‘The Laughing Man’ One of Salinger’s perfect blends of comedy and pathos – another great example (if…

  2. Jim Fung says:

    Reading “Nine Stories” now, and I have to say I think this is my favorite story in the collection! It’s such a coincidence I’m reading it just as the whole gays in the military issue is heavily in the news. I don’t know why more people haven’t commented on this story. I saw some other commenters saying something along the lines of how Franklin hanging out with Eric was supposed to show how Franklin’s life was screwed up, and Salinger was being homophobic, but I didn’t get that vibe from the story at all. I don’t think Eric is a negative character.

  3. Stephen says:

    I read “Nine Stories” for the first time a couple of years ago and I have to confess that the I never really “got” the stories beyond their value of being “nice stories.” Now, however, I’m absolutely captivated by the quality of the writing and the depth of such small pieces. I still struggle with figuring out “the point” of ‘Just Before The War with the Eskimos” but this article made me view the story in a whole new light.

  4. Michael says:

    I know you wrote this awhile ago, but I just came across this researching for a meeting where I’m to discuss interpretation and perspective on the story. I think you give the story a lot of justice in how you comment on it, particularly in how little you go into explaining the story beyond what the story offers. However, the gay claim is entirely new to me. I must say, it’s fun to play with, but as I’ve been working with Salinger and social conformity, I’ve seen the two men of the story to be trying to fill their voids.
    Franklin comes into the room with his ‘wound’ from a trash barrel full of razor blades (first of two wastebaskets). He holds it close to heart and values his wound but doesn’t quite know how to present himself around ‘girls’, and very confidently calls Ginnie’s sister a snob for not responding to the letters he wrote while working on airplanes. Because of his heart problem, he was unable to become a part the example he saw himself as having to fulfill to become a ‘man’, and he is frustrated that all this while he has to keep being reminded of his ‘boy-ish’-ness; soon they’ll begin a war with the eskimos, as they’ll run out of other people to flaunt their strength by fighting. As he has little to offer, he brings his wound to be received to her as a man, like the soldier in war (playing gender roles). But his wound is little more than a physical symbol for his actual wounds on the inside, as we see by how he actually tries to show his strength and ability by offering her a sandwich, which he slowly becomes able to accept, as feels sorry for how weak he appears.

    His friend comes on the scene, a much different man. He says he wasn’t able to fight because of ‘constitutional of–‘. Looking back on his character, I want to believe you may be right, if only for how Salinger uses italics in the text. “we saw gangster pictures, western pictures, musicals–“, with musicals italicized. The first two genres, we have a Holden like character, which is why I think we get a sense of him in how he’s presented to us, but then the musicals is more a part of Eric’s. I mean, he’s seen Beauty and the Beast a few more times than me.

    Also, some tricks that often show up in Salinger’s writing. Like in ‘catcher’, how Phoebe wants Holden to go to her show while Dad will be away on business trip, or how his mother comes in the bedroom and it’s her who will be devastated when he talks about getting the boot from school. In this story, Selena’s dad makes tennis balls or something, but is never present in the story aside from his relationship to their activity/financial micro-crisis between friends, and her mother is on bed rest while sick, and Franklin handles entertaining and providing the home’s guest while mother sleeps, yet still retains the reigns over financials, even from her sickness in bed.

    To say Franklin’s character seems gay, I consider to be doing to Salinger what you’re thankful he isn’t doing to you: not treating him at the level his intelligence deserves. It would make sense to me that Eric is gay, and I thank you for opening that door for me. Especially since now, it further puts Franklin in a hole, since the only thing he can really get dressed for and do is see movies with his homosexual friend, which isn’t exactly a 1950s heterosexual ideal, unless of course you’re Tom Wingfield (Glass Bead Menagerie).

    Thank you for giving somewhere to come out with this, take care.

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