Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the fifth story ‘Down at the Dinghy’
There’s not much to this story, it seems to me to be the “thinnest” in the collection. If you put it alongside ‘The Laughing Man’ (excerpt here) or ‘Perfect Day for Bananafish’ (excerpt here) it seems pretty near inconsequential. It features Boo Boo Tannenbaum (that’s her married name – her maiden name is “Glass” and she is yet another of the Glass siblings – her name comes up often, I mean how many people are called BOO BOO?? Boo Boo is known as the maternal one, the nurturing one – and although we have heard much about her from other stories, here she takes center stage). Boo Boo is married, and she has a small son Lionel, who seems to run away every other day. He is four years old or something like that, but he’s been running away since he was two years old. They never can figure out why. They try to put two and two together, someone said something mean to him at school, whatever … but Lionel doesn’t really divulge. Boo Boo and family are staying at their summer house on the lake, and they’ve decided to stay through October. Boo Boo is only 25, but you know, it was a different time. She’s the lady of the household. In cut-off jeans, with a pack of cigarettes in her back pocket. If you’ve read the other Glass stories, you’ve heard so much good stuff about Boo Boo that you’re excited to meet her. And she seems really nice. Nice-ness is underrated. Seymour Glass may have been a more stimulating companion, but he also could be frustrating and opaque. Boo Boo seems straight-up nice, like you could hang with her. The story opens with Boo Boo’s housekeeper gossiping with another local housekeeper – Boo Boo’s housekeeper Sandra is bitching about how she always has to watch what she says about Lionel, and how annoying it is. She’s obviously upset about something – something she said that Lionel heard … but instead of admitting any wrongdoing herself, she keeps insisting that the kid is weird, he sneaks around the house quietly, and you have to watch what you say. The other housekeeper, Mrs. Snell, tries to tell Sandra not to worry about it, and Sandra keeps saying she’s not worried. Yet she still keeps talking about it.
Boo Boo enters. Her son Lionel is apparently sitting down in the dinghy by the dock, and he has threatened to run away again. He is just sitting there, thinking it out. Boo Boo goes down to talk to her son, try to find out what happened, and how to get to the bottom of what he’s going thru. Turns out, Lionel overheard Sandra call his father a “dirty sloppy kike” and this upset him. But he doesn’t even know what the word means – he thinks a “kike” is a thing you put a string on and let it fly up into the air. Okay. So Sandra, the housekeeper, is anti-Semitic – a comment she makes about Lionel’s nose is more evidence of that – but Boo Boo doesn’t fly into a rage about it, or fire Sandra or anything like that … Her tactic is more Glass-ish, of course. She takes a philosophical approach, a Zen approach … Who knows what will happen after the story has finished – maybe she will fire Sandra … but in the moment, Lionel needs her to kiss and coddle him and say how silly Sandra is, and so she does.
That’s the story. There’s nothing wrong with it, and like all of Salinger’s stuff, it is beautifully written and observed. He is so good at writing about children – their non sequitirs, their behavior … There may be something more here that I am missing. I suspect so. But to me, it’s a very surface story. It IS its surface.
But check out how Salinger describes Boo Boo in the excerpt below. That is economical and effective description. She just springs to life, fully, up off of the page – I love that.
EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the fifth story ‘Down at the Dinghy’
The swinging door opened from the dining room and Boo Boo Tannenbaum, the lady of the house, came into the kitchen. She was a small, almost hipless girl of twenty-five, with styleless, colorless, brittle hair pushed back behind her ears, which were very large. She was dressed in knee-length jeans, a black turtleneck pullover, and socks and loafers. Her joke of a name aside, her general unprettiness aside, she was – in terms of permanently memorable, immoderately perceptive, small-area faces – a stunning and final girl. She went directly to the refrigerator and opened it. As she peered inside, with her legs apart and her hands on her knees, she whistled, unmelodically, through her teeth, keeping in time with a little uninhibited, pendulum action of her rear end. Sandra and Mrs. Snell were silent. Mrs. Snell put out her cigarette, unhurriedly.
“Yes, ma’am?” Sandra looked alertly past Mrs. Snell’s hat.
“Aren’t there any more pickles? I want to bring him a pickle.”
“He et ’em,” Sandra reported intelligently. “He et ’em before he went to bed last night. There was only two left.”
“Oh. Well, I’ll get some when I go to the station. I thought maybe I could lure him out of that boat.” Boo Boo shut the refrigerator door and walked over to look out of the lake-front window. “Do we need anything else?” she asked, from the window.
“I left your check on the hall table, Mrs. Snell. Thank you.”
“O.K.,” said Mrs. Snell. “I hear Lionel’s supposeta be runnin’ away.” She gave a short laugh.
“Certainly looks that way,” Boo Boo said, and slid her hands into her hip pockets.
“At least he don’t run very far away,” Mrs. Snell said, giving another short laugh.
At the window, Boo Boo changed her position slightly, so that her back wasn’t directly to the two women at the table. “No,” she said, and pushed back some hair behind her ear. She added, purely informatively: “He’s been hitting the road regularly since he was two. But never very hard. I think the farthest he ever got – in the city, at least – was to the Mall in Central Park. Just a couple of blocks from home. The least far – or nearest – he ever got was to the front door of our building. He stuck around to say goodbye to his father.”
Both women at the table laughed.
“The Mall’s where they all go skatin’ in New York,” Sandra said very sociably to Mrs. Snell. “The kids and all.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Snell.
“He was only three. It was just last year,” Boo Boo said, taking out a pack of cigarettes and a folder of matches from a side pocket in her jeans. She lit a cigarette, while the two women spiritedly watched her. “Big excitement. We had the whole police force out looking for him.”
“They find him?” said Mrs. Snell.
“Sure they found him!” said Sandra with contempt. “Wuddaya think?”
“They found him at a quarter past eleven at night, in the middle of – my God, February, I think. Not a child in the park. Just muggers, I guess, and an assortment of roaming degenerates. He was sitting on the floor of the bandstand, rolling a marble back and forth along a crack. Half-frozen to death and looking –”
“Holy Mackerel!” said Mrs. Snell. “How come he did it? I mean what was he runnin’ away about?”
Boo Boo blew a single, faulty smoke-ring at a pane of glass. “Some child in the park that afternoon had come up to him with the dreamy misinformation, ‘You stink, kid.’ At least, that’s why we think he did it. I don’t know, Mrs. Snell. It’s all slightly over my head.”
“How long’s he been doin’ it?” asked Mrs. Snell. “I mean how long’s he been doin’ it?”
“Well, at the age of two-and-a-half,” Boo Boo said biographically, “he sought refuge under a sink in the basement of our apartment house. Down in the laundry. Naomi somebody – a close friend of his – told him she had a worm in her thermos bottle. At least, that’s all we could get out of him.” Boo Boo sighed, and came away from the window with a long ash on her cigarette. She started for the screen door. “I’ll have another go at it,” she said, by way of goodby to both women.
“Mildred,”Sandra, still laughing, addressed Mrs. Snell, “you’re gonna miss your bus if ya don’t get a move on.”
Boo Boo closed the screen door behind her.