Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the ninth and final story ‘Teddy’
Not too wacky about the closer story. It just doesn’t work for me. I can see what Salinger is going for – and I guess part of it is that I find the whole philosophy that Teddy spouts annoying and grating. I like logic, and I like thought. I know it’s deeper than that, and Teddy isn’t some new-age hippie-dip – he is a swami, a 10 year old swami prodigy – who knows that in a former life he was a holy man who got distracted by a “lady” which is why he did not reach enlightenment and had to come back as a small American boy. He’s enough of a phenom that he is famous, and is brought to universities to be interviewed by professors of philosophy and theology – his parents are cranky and seem to have no idea what kind of person they have created. Teddy seems to be in a transcendent state at all times, oddly calm, uttering thoughts about reality and existence which baffle his parents … He seems strangely unattached from everything. He knows the end of things. He is not afraid of death. I don’t think that Salinger was trying to create a charming child prodigy. I don’t think he cared one way or the other how we perceive Teddy. I’m just speaking for myself. Anyone who is that unattached to humanity has elements of either a sociopathic or psychopathic personality, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe the Dalai Lama would disagree, or some Hindu holy man, and that’s fine – I’m just a logical thought-bound American woman. I’m cool with that. Salinger wasn’t really counted as one of the “Beats” – but much of his experience and interest was in the same realm. Looking “east” for the answers, or letting go of the need to have answers at all. A true and deep rebellion against the materialism and conventionality of life in America (for a white person anyway) in the 1950s. Salinger put many of those interests into Seymour Glass -but here he has them embodied in Teddy, a little boy. The story doesn’t work, I don’t think. The ending does pack a punch – but it might have packed more of a punch if I didn’t see it coming from 10 miles away, and it was hugely controversial at the time it was originally published, but Teddy seems like such a little demon-spawn to me that it doesn’t really have any resonance. Salinger apparently agreed. He didn’t think Teddy worked either – and in Seymour An Introduction (excerpt here), Buddy Glass (the narrator) says that HE wrote “Teddy’ – one of those strange confluences of narrator, author, persona … whatever. He did not think “Teddy” was successful. To me, it feels like Salinger is USING Teddy as a vehicle for self-expression: Here, let me explain to the world my thoughts about the Vedanta Karma Theory and reincarnation … but I won’t write a personal essay – I’ll just make this little boy say it all …. And it doesn’t feel right. It feels contrived, that’s the word. I fully admit my bias here as well. Teddy doesn’t seem wise to me. He seems mentally ill and possibly sociopathic. I feel sorry for him, being so emptied out like that. No wonder his little sister despises him. I don’t blame him for detaching himself from his parents who are rather awful (although more interesting than anybody else in the story) – it’s just the execution of it all that detaches ME from caring about Teddy’s journey. Consider the difference between Teddy and a character like Owen Meany (excerpt here) – another little psychological prodigy, who has insights into not only the way things are, but the way things should be – he is one of the most selfless of characters, as complex as he is – but he never comes off as a drip. He always seems human (if bizarre) … and if he has insights into the universe and God and destiny, the effect on me, the reader, is that I am dying to know more. HOW does he see it? He doesn’t sit around meditating. Does he pray? Or does he just know? Teddy just seems creepy to me.
Salinger didn’t think the story worked – but it was published anyway in 1953, and does seem all of a piece with the literature of America in that decade – but I prefer his other stuff. This one has zero sense of humor. The story opens in the cabin of the ship, with Teddy staring out the porthole, and his weirdo parents arguing and talking and trying to get Teddy to come down off the bag he is standing on. The first line of the story is awesome: “I’ll exquisite day you, buddy, if you don’t get off that bag this minute.” We are in the middle of an ongoing argument, no prelude, no catchup … launched into the middle of the action. It’s real Michael Gazzo/Clifford Odets (excerpt here) stuff: let’s start the story in the middle of an argument, almost mid-sentence even … and not give you any backup information. Just toss you in. Neither of Teddy’s parents are pleasant people – as a matter of fact they are both awful – but they are at least interesting. Because they are ATTACHED TO REALITY unlike their bad-seed son who strolls about like a wee Lama of Wisdom, freaking out all of the adults in his path.
I’ll excerpt the opening of the story because hey, I’m biased. I’m attached to it, Teddy would say.
EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the ninth and final story ‘Teddy’
“I’ll exquisite day you, buddy, if you don’t get off that bag this minute. And I mean it,” Mr. McArdle said. He was speaking from the inside twin bed – the bed farther away from the porthole. Viciously, with more of a whimper than a sigh, he foot-pushed his top sheet clear of his ankles, as though any kind of coverlet was suddenly too much for his sunburned, debilitated-looking body to bear. He was lying supine, in just the trousers of his pajamas, a lighted cigarette in his right hand. His head was propped up just enough to rest uncomfortably, almost masochistically, against the very base of the headboard. His pillow and ashtray were both on the floor, between his and Mrs. McArdle’s bed. Without raising his body, he reached out a nude, inflamed-pink, right arm and flicked his ashes in the general direction of the night table. “October, for God’s sake,” he said. “If this is October weather, gimme August.” He turned his head to the right again, toward Teddy, looking for trouble. “C’mon,” he said. “What the hell do you think I’m talking for? My health? Get down off there, please.”
Teddy was standing on the broadside of a new-looking cowhide Gladstone, the better to see out of his parents’ open porthole. He was wearing extremely dirty, white ankle-sneakers, no socks, seersucker shorts that were both too long for him and at least a size too large in the seat, an overly laundered T shirt that had a hole the size of a dime in the right shoulder, and an incongruously handsome, black alligator belt. He needed a haircut – especially at the nape of the neck – the worst way, as only a small boy with an almost full-grown head and a reedlike neck can need one.
“Teddy, did you hear me?”
Teddy was not leaning out of the porthole quite so far or so precariously as small boys are apt to lean out of open portholes – both his feet, in fact, were flat on the surface of the Gladstone – but neither was he just conservatively well-tipped; his face was considerably more outside than inside the cabin. Nonetheless, he was well within hearing of his father’s voice – his father’s voice, that is, most singularly. Mr. McArdle played leading roles on no fewer than three daytime radio serials when he was in New York, and he had what might be called a third-class leading man’s speaking voice: narcissistically deep and resonant, functionally prepared at a moment’s notice to outmale anyone in the same room with it, if necessary even a small boy. When it was on vacation from its professional chores, it fell, as a rule, alternately in love with sheer volume and a theatrical brand of quietness-steadiness. Right now, volume was in order.
“Teddy. God damn it – did you hear me?”
Teddy turned around at the waist, without changing the vigilant position of his feet on the Gladstone, and gave his father a look of inquiry, whole and pure. His eyes, which were pale brown in color, and not at all large, were slightly crossed – the left eye more than the right. They were not crossed enough to be disfiguring, or even to be necessarily noticeable at first glance. They were crossed just enough to be mentioned, and only in context with the fact that one might have thought long and seriously before wishing them straighter, or deeper, or browner, or wider set. His face, just as it was, carried the impact, however oblique and slow-travelling, of real beauty.
“I want you to get down off that bag, now. How many times do you want me to tell you?” Mr. McArdle said.
“Stay exactly where you are, darling,” said Mrs. McArdle, who evidently had a little trouble with her sinuses early in the morning. Her eyes were open, but only just. “Don’t move the tiniest part of an inch.” She was lying on her right side, her face, on the pillow, turned left, toward Teddy and the porthole, her back to her husband. Her second sheet was drawn tight over her very probably nude body, enclosing her, arms and all, up to the chin. “Jump up and down,” she said, and closed her eyes. “Crush Daddy’s bag.”
“That’s a Jesus-brilliant thing to say,” Mr. McArdle said quietly-steadily, addressing the back of his wife’s head. “I pay twenty-two pounds for a bag, and I ask the boy civilly not to stand on it, and you tell him to jump up and down on it. What’s that supposed to be? Funny?”
“If that bag can’t support a ten-year-old boy, who’s thirteen pounds underweight for his age, I don’t want it in my cabin,” Mrs. McArdle said, without opening her eyes.
“You know what I’d like to do?” Mr. McArdle said. “I’d like to kick your goddam head open.”
“Why don’t you?”
Mr. McArdle abruptly propped himself up on one elbow and squashed out his cigarette stub on the glass top of the night table. “One of these days –” he began grimly.
“One of these days, you’re going to have a tragic, tragic heart attack,” Mrs. McArdle said, with a minimum of energy. Without bringing her arms into the open, she drew her top sheet more tightly around and under her body. “There’ll be a small, tasteful funeral, and everybody’s going to ask who that attractive woman in the red dress is, sitting there in the first row, flirting with the organist and making a holy–”
“You’re so goddam funny it isn’t even funny,” Mr. McArdle said, lying inertly on his back again.