Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the seventh story ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’
In Googling around for information on this story (there ain’t much) I came across a couple of disagreements about what actually happens in this story. That’s ridiculous.
It is perfectly clear what happens in this story. The other “interpretations” out there seem to come from reader incomprehension or reader boredom (“I’m bored, therefore I don’t ‘get’ the story”), or just making shit up based on no evidence (“I think what happens is …”)- rather than, oh, you know, literary analysis. Thank you, Mr. Crothers, for teaching me not just how to write a paper – but how to actually analyze a story in 10th grade.
It starts with a grey-haired man in bed with a young woman. The phone rings. Grey-haired man answers phone. It is his friend and also co-worker – they had all been out that night – his friend is drunk, it’s very late, and his wife Joanie has not come home. He is sure she is cheating on him. He’s hysterical and he will not be calmed down.
The girl in the story is never given a name – but it is apparent that this is Joanie, the wife. The clues are in the small bits of behavior Salinger gives to the grey-haired man, as he sits on the phone, trying to talk his friend out of the clocktower. He never really gets a word in edgewise – the hysterical friend does all the talking, unloading all of his problems about his wife. The girl never speaks. She just lies in bed listening to the grey-haired man on the phone. Finally, grey-haired man tells his friend to get some sleep, Joanie is sure to return sooner or later – and hangs up. The conversation that follows between the grey-haired man and the girl involves the girl telling him how “wonderful” he was on the phone – and how she feels like a dog. “Look at me! I’m limp!” she says. Why on earth would she feel like a dog if she weren’t the Joanie in question, cheating on her husband at that very moment?
The phone rings again – and it’s the hysterical friend calling back to tell the grey-haired man that “Joanie just barged in” – she’s home.
Now. Having read some of the disagreements out there – people seem to take the guy’s word for it: that Joanie has returned. It seems totally clear to me that he is LYING, and calling back his friend because he feels embarrassed at how out of control he got – not to mention the fact that they are co-workers, and the grey-haired man is his senior at the firm. He calls back and babbles on about how his wife is now home, nothing to worry about, “I don’t want you to think I called you back because I’m worried about my job!” (why on earth would he say that if it weren’t actually true?) – He is embarrassed that he called so late, so he calls back – and lies … to cover his ass.
Now – none of this is spelled out, and if you took it all at face-value then it would seem that the grey-haired man and the girl have no connection, not really, with the hysterical guy calling on the phone about his missing wife. So the missing wife returns. Great! But if you read it that way, then there is actually no meaning in the story, nothing deeper, no resonance – and Salinger was all about depth. But also not spelling things out (see The Laughing Man – excerpt here).
So picture this. The girl in bed with the grey-haired man is Joanie, the wife. We learn a lot about her from the rantings and ravings of her husband on the other end of the line. She thinks she’s a “goddam intellectual”, she makes him feel like shit, they’re always going to parties and she ends up making out with someone in the kitchen … she’s wild. He’s hoping that moving her out to Connecticut will calm her down a little bit. He tells the grey-haired man everything – upending his life – even though it may make their professional relationship a little bit wonky the next day … completely unaware that his wife Joanie has gone home with his colleague! She’s sitting in bed right next to him! The grey-haired man does the best he can with the situation, and I don’t get the sense that he is in love with Joanie – the way he speaks to his friend is basically: Calm down, she’ll come home eventually, don’t worry so much. That seems to be a sincere position.
So then when the friend calls back to say that Joanie had come home – when obviously she couldn’t have – because she’s lying in bed right there … it’s not just pathetic, but it takes on aspects of tragedy. To know your friend has lied to save face, but you can never ever point it out to him … it will drive a wedge in the relationship, certainly … It’s one of those moments when you truly see how vulnerable somebody else is, and it’s a terrible thing – that knowledge – when you can’t do anything about it.
The story packs a huge punch when you read it in the way I described, and packs no punch whatsoever if you believe that the girl in bed is NOT Joanie. I happen to think that some things are NOT up for interpretation, even if they were not spelled out for you in the story. There would be no reason whatsoever to tell the story if there weren’t some connection between grey-haired man, girl, and guy on phone. The clues are there in the behavior, not in the language (which is how real life so often is) … when someone chooses to light a cigarette, what someone chooses NOT to say, etc. etc. This is the roadmap to the truth that Salinger lays out for us.
I know when I read the story, and the guy calls back, all psyched that his wife has returned – I feel a dull thud of embarrassment for him, but also compassion – because I might do the same thing. A little lie to save face. You just hope you aren’t caught, because it’s embarrassing.
The man is unraveling. There are enough clues in the text, too, that he is in trouble at work – his colleagues are not pleased with him, for professional reasons … I think Salinger has dropped those hints deliberately. Things are falling apart for this man. So perhaps Joanie has a point. Maybe she doesn’t want to go down with the sinking ship. Or maybe she just is a stupid “goddam intellectual”. Who knows. She remains a bit of a mystery, and in the end my heart goes out to the guy on the phone – the desperate lonely midnight-caller, trying to understand why everything is going so haywire.
Funny thing, too: If you read it in the way I just described, and not like: “Oh yay, his wife came back … So … what was the point in that story?” – then you realize that the guy calling on the phone has every right to be freaking out, because Joanie actually IS cheating on him, right at this moment, with his colleague – whom he is calling to rant to. His suspicions are confirmed – only NOT by him – by us.
Sad little story.
EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the seventh story ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’
“All right, try to take it a little easy now, Arthur,” the gray-haired man said. “In the first place, if I know the Ellenbogens, they probably all hopped in a cab and went down to the Village for a couple of hours. All three of ’em’ll probably barge -”
“I have a feeling she went to work on some bastard in the kitchen. I just have a feeling. She always starts necking some bastard in the kitchen when she gets tanked up. I’m through. I swear to God I mean it this time. Five goddam–”
“Where are you now, Arthur?” the gray-haired man asked. “Home?”
“Yeah. Home. Home sweet home. Christ.”
“Well, just try to take it a little – What are ya – drunk, or what?”
“I don’t know. How the hell do I know?”
“All right, now, listen. Relax. Just relax,” the gray-haired man said. “You know the Ellenbogens, for Chrissake. What probably happened, they probably missed their last train. All three of ’em’ll probably barge in on you any minute, full of witty, night-club–”
“They drove in.”
“How do you know?”
“Their baby-sitter. We’ve had some scintillating goddam conversations. We’re close as hell. We’re like two goddam peas in a pod.”
“All right. All right. So what? Will ya sit tight and relax, now?” said the gray-haired man. “All three of ’em’ll probably waltz in on you any minute. Take my word. You know Leona. I don’t know what the hell it is — They all get this god-awful Connecticut gaiety when they get in to New York. You know that.”
“Yeah. I know. I know. I don’t know, though.”
“Certainly you do. Use your imagination. The two of ’em probably dragged Joanie bodily –”
“Listen. Nobody ever has to drag Joanie anywhere. Don’t gimme any of that dragging stuff.”
“Nobody’s giving you any dragging stuff, Arthur,” the gray-haired man said quietly.
“I know, I know! Excuse me. Christ, I’m losing my mind. Honest to God, you sure I didn’t wake you?”
“I’d tell you if you had, Arthur,” the gray-haired man said. Absently, he took his left hand out from between the girl’s upper arm and chest wall. “Look, Arthur. You want my advice?” he said. He took the telephone cord between his fingers, just under the transmitter. “I mean this, now. You want some advice?”
“Yeah. I don’t know. Christ, I’m keeping you up. Why don’t I just go cut me –”
“Listen to me a minute,” the gray-haired man said. “First – I mean this, now – get in bed and relax. Make yourself a nice, big nightcap, and get under the –”
“Nightcap! Are you kidding? Christ, I’ve killed about a quart in the last two goddam hours. Nightcap! I’m so plastered now I can hardly –”
“All right. All right. Get in bed, then,” the gray-haired man said. “And relax – ya hear me? Tell the truth. Is it going to do any good to sit around and stew?”
“Yeah, I know. I wouldn’t even worry, for Chrissake, but you can’t trust her! I swear to God. I swear to God you can’t. You can trust her about as far as you can throw a — I don’t know what. Aaah, what’s the use? I’m losing my goddam mine.”
“All right. Forget it, now. Forget it, now. Will ya do me a favor and try to put the whole thing out of your mind?” the gray-haired man said. “For all you know, you’re making – I honestly think you’re making a mountain –”
“You know what I do? You know what I do? I’m ashameda tell ya, but you know what I very nearly goddam do every night? When I get home? You want to know?”
“Arthur, listen, this isn’t –”
“Wait a second — I’ll tell ya, God damn it. I practically have to keep myself from opening every goddam closet door in my apartment – I swear to God. Every night I come home, I half expect to find a bunch of bastards hiding all over the place. Elevator boys. Delivery boys. Cops–”
“All right. All right. Let’s try to take it a little easy, Arthur,” the gray-haired man said. He glanced abruptly to his right, where a cigarette, lighted some time earlier in the evening, was balanced on an ashtray. It obviously had gone out, though, and he didn’t pick it up. “In the first place,” he said into the phone. “I’ve told you many, many times, Arthur, that’s exactly where you make your biggest mistake. You know what you do? Would you like me to tell you what you do? You go out of your way – I mean this, now – You actually go out of your way to torture yourself. As a matter of fact, you actually inspire Joanie –” He broke off. “You’re bloody lucky she’s a wonderful kid. I mean it. You give that kid absolutely no credit for having any good taste – or brains, for Chrissake, for that matter –”
“Brains! Are you kidding? She hasn’t got any goddam brains! She’s an animal!”
The gray-haired man, his nostrils dilating, appeared to take a fairly deep breath. “We’re all animals,” he said. “Basically, we’re all animals.”
“Like hell we are. I’m no goddam animal. I may be a stupid, fouled-up twentieth-century son of a bitch, but I’m no animal. Don’t gimme that. I’m no animal.”