Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

JD Salinger, Ctd.

All the Salinger coverage reminded me of an awesome review I read a few years ago of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Here’s a section from the middle, summarizing my favourite part of the book:

The bathroom scene in “Zooey” is perhaps the consummate example of this hermeticity. As if the space of the bathroom was still not small enough, there is a space-within-a-space formed by the shower curtain drawn around the tub in which Zooey sits with a lit cigarette parked on the soapdish. The scene is one of the most remarkable mother-and-son scenes in literature. Before the drawing of the curtain occasioned by the mother’s entrance, the immersed Zooey, drawing on his “dampish” cigarette, reads a four-year-old letter from Buddy, in which, among other things (such as encouraging Zooey in his decision to become an actor rather than going for a Ph.D.), Buddy tells Zooey to “be kinder to Bessie…when you can. I don’t think I mean because she’s our mother, but because she’s weary. You will after you’re thirty or so, when everybody slows down a little (even you, maybe), but try harder now. It isn’t enough to treat her with the doting brutality of an apache dancer toward his partner.”

The apache dance begins with Bessie’s entrance:

“Do you know how long you’ve been in that tub? Exactly forty-five—”

“Nobody’s been counting any minutes, young man,” Mrs. Glass said.

“Don’t tell me! Just don’t tell me, Bessie.”

“Just what I said. Leave me the goddam illusion you haven’t been out there counting the minutes I’ve—”

“What do you mean, don’t tell you?”

Bessie is a stout, middle-aged woman dressed in a garment Buddy calls her “pre-notification of death uniform”—a midnight blue Japanese kimono, whose pockets are stuffed with things like screws, nails, hinges, faucet handles, and ball-bearing casters, along with several packs of king-size cigarettes and matches, and who is as unlike the other women in her “not unfashionable” apartment building as her children are unlike the other people in the world at large. The other women in the building own fur coats and, like Muriel and her mother, spend their days shopping at Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. Bessie “looked, first, as if she never, never left the building at all, but that if she did she would be wearing a dark shawl and she would be going in the direction of O’Connell Street, there to claim the body of one of her half-Irish, half-Jewish sons, who, through some clerical error, had just been shot dead by the Black and Tans.” At the same time, her way of holding a cigarette between the ends of two fingers

“tended to blow to some literary hell one’s first, strong (and still perfectly tenable) impression that an invisible Dubliner’s shawl covered her shoulders. Not only were her fingers of an extraordinary length and shapeliness—such as, very generally speaking, one wouldn’t have expected of a medium stout woman’s fingers—but they featured, as it were, a somewhat imperial-looking tremor; a deposed Balkan queen or a retired favorite courtesan might have had such an elegant tremor.”

Bessie also has great legs. But her most significant attribute—the one that gives “Zooey”‘s comedy its tragic underside (and raises the stakes of its outcome) is her grief:

“It was a very touch and go business, in 1955, to get a wholly plausible reading from Mrs. Glass’s face, and especially from her enormous blue eyes. Where once, a few years earlier, her eyes alone could break the news (either to people or to bathmats) that two of her sons were dead, one by suicide (her favorite, her most intricately calibrated, her kindest son), and one killed in World War II (her only truly lighthearted son)—where once Bessie Glass’s eyes alone could report these facts, with an eloquence and a seeming passion for detail that neither her husband nor any of her adult surviving children could bear to look at, let alone take in, now in 1955, she was apt to use this same terrible Celtic equipment to break the news, usually at the front door, that the new delivery boy hadn’t brought the leg of lamb in time for dinner or that some remote Hollywood starlet’s marriage was on the rocks.”


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