Adventures in Reading

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger
“They lead a very tragic life.”

Sometimes you will discover something and even though you know you have to be the last person in the world to know about this thing it is no different than if you personally had discovered fire (or, even more importantly, s’mores). This is how I felt roughly a page into “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” when all of the petals unfurled and I discovered s’mores, or to be more exact Seymour Glass. Earlier this year I read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey but little did I know that the birth of this book laid in a 1948 short story from The New Yorker entitled “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a snippet from the lives of Muriel and Seymour Glass. They have driven from New York to Florida on an abrupt vacation and concluding the reader’s short acquaintance with them Seymour returns to the hotel room, calmly sits on the bed, and shoots himself in the head. I admit this was another story where I fell flat on my face for the twist.

Salinger brilliantly creates a subtle rhythm of abnormalcy throughout the otherwise very normal occurrences in the story. The opening of the tale portrays Muriel Glass with complete calmness and poise removing a stain from her suit, painting her nails, as she awaits a phone call from her mother. It’s nearly agonizing for the reader watching her continue through her steps even as the phone is ringing. Then Salinger kicks in that twinge of discomfort: “I’ve been worried to death about you. Why haven’t you phoned? Are you all right?” The conversation leads to further suspicion as the mother asks “Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?” and later in the conversation Muriel giggling tells her mother that “he” refers to her as “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948.”

However, from here on out the story utterly radiates calm and nearly a full return to normalcy. The scene changes to a small girl being lathered up in sunscreen by her mother for a day on the beach. Sybil runs into Seymour and the two hold a friendly conversation as an adult and child acquaintance might have – think teasing and silly. This leads to Seymour briefly taking Sybil out into the ocean as he pushes her on a flotation raft. During this time Seymour tells her about the bananafish: fish that gorge themselves on bananas they find in holes, later cannot leave the holes from the banana intake, and die of banana fever. Before returning to shore Sybil is thrilled when she sees a bananafish.

I keep wondering about the bananafish. Is someone in the story meant to be the bananafish? Is the bananafish story a parable? Are the bananas symbolic? Because after the bananafish story Seymour returns to the hotel, has a brief and rude exchange with a woman in the elevator who may or may not be staring at Seymour’s feet, and he kills himself as his wife sleeps on the next bed over. In retrospect the story is strangely calm from his wife’s sequential behavior up to Seymour pulling out the gun. But it’s the suggestions, those blips on the radar, that create an unnerving balance to the tale. Not to mention perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story: Why did Seymour kill himself?

Now more than ever I want to reread Franny and Zooey not to mention the remainder of the tales in Nine Stories.


“Jumper Down” by Don Shea
“Thus we may allow an entire page in a novel to be forgettable, but we approach a flash fiction as if all of it may be memorable.”

Short story is somewhat of a vague term that can be used to describe a great body of work. One area, for example, is flash fiction and my most recent short story reading was from Flash Fiction Forward edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard. For this revised edition, the editor’s introduction goes about describing what a flash fiction is: “very short stories … most depended for their success not on their length but on their depth, clarity of vision, and human significance.”

However, an interesting question that the introduction to Flash Fiction Forward asks regards the length of a short story. Any work within the collection is 1/3 of a page to 750 words. Anything shorter was disregarded as “likely to be a mere summary, or perhaps a joke.” In a comment on flash fiction, Richard Bausch says “when a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size: that is, in order order to make it work in so small a place its true subject must be proportionately larger.”

The first story in this collection left my mouth gaping. “Jumper Down” by Don Shea is the story of Henry a retiring paramedic whose specialty has always been talking “jumpers” out of suicide. “Jumper Down” extends a glimpse into Henry’s life, relationship with his co-workers, and his final call to duty that arrives at his retirement party.

Shea’s story takes an interesting perspective towards suicide and rather than focusing on the person attempting suicide or a close relation it’s from a complete stranger. Nonetheless, it can be part of this strangers job to talk you out of it or to clean up the mess. Threads of dark humor kept me amused as the first few paragraphs explore the notions of “jumper up” and “jumper down.” Half way through during the retirement party the call comes in. When I first read this all I could think was “how predictable, it’ll be a ‘jumper down’ scenario and Henry will reflect on his life.” In my head (you’d be amazed at what can flit through my head during a few sentences) I had decided the conclusion and written off “Jumper Down.”

“It looked like a circus act. No exaggeration. Two half gainers and a backflip, and every second of it caught in the spotlights. The guy hit the ground about thirty yards from where we were standing, and Henry and I were over there on the run, although it was obvious he was beyond help.

He was dead, but he hadn’t died.”

This is where my eyes popped. I’ve said it repeatedly but I’ll say it again, I love a short story with a good twist and I didn’t see this one coming. However, when Henry arrives at the dying man and yells into his ear “I just gotta tell ya, I wanted you to know, that jump was fucking magnificent.”

“Jumper Down” is a thrilling story and as Bausch said “when a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size,” and this story was a perfect example. It’s an ordinary tree of a story that suddenly bursts into feathers.

Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories

During my years as a literature major I have repeatedly been assigned Flannery O’Connor’s short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People. These two stories seem staples in the English major repertoire, and don’t get me wrong because these are phenomenal stories, but seldom does an undergraduate read anything else. I have heard rumors of people reading The Artificial Nigger, but even with this addition that is only three stories out of her numerous books of short stories (not to mention the novels O’Connor wrote). When I started reading her Complete Stories I suppose I was just as interested in the stories I had not read as much as wondering why the previously mentioned stories are so academically popular.

All of O’Connor’s stories are focused in or at least on the southern United States, and any discussion of O’Connor cannot escape commenting on the southern gothic. I had never made the comparison until I ran across the portrait the other day, but a great way of explaining the term southern gothic is comparing it with Winslow Homer’s American Gothic. It is a quintessential representation of a geographical location and the people and customs from that region. Gothic writers tend to stereotype their characters but still maintain to perplex and astound the reader at what they reveal through their writing. Being described as southern gothic also classifies O’Connor with the southern United State’s literary tradition along with Margaret Mitchum, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

O’Connor’s stories largely focus on religion and brokenness (yes, a word I am making up), and often how these themes tie together. I do not specifically recall O’Connor’s personal relationship with god, but I think it is safe to say that she was a troubled Catholic. In the introduction an excerpt from a letter from O’Connor describes, “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” However, I cannot recall one story out of the thirty-one that I read that favorably represents religion, but there are quite a few stories that interestingly juxtapose atheism and christianity.

As for brokenness, all of O’Connor’s stories focus on an idea of brokenness and this is reflected in a tangible manner through her characters. Chronologically early in her writing, her characters may singularly be morally, religiously, or financially broken, but the stories she wrote later in her career also have her characters physically “broken” with missing limbs, deformities, and mental illness. For example, in Good Country People Hulga-Joy (how I fondly recall the character from class discussion) has a prosthetic leg and all of the characters can be described as broken or corrupt in a fashion.

Another theme I find fascinating, but that appears less in her writings, are her many characters relationship with the academy and education versus the “uneducated.” (By uneducated I do mean to imply ignorance or stupidity (though it would apply for certain stories), but simply characters that have received formal or public education.) This creates a terrific tension of displacement similar to Jane Austen’s character Harriet in Emma, who receives enough education from Emma to find herself displaced from the social groups she is acquainted with but without the peerage to formally belong to a different social group. O’Connor’s stories are brimming over with various themes and these are only a handful of teasers.

Both A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People were written in the middle of O’Connor’s career, and a definite development exists between her early stories and the later ones. One reason why I love the short story is because of the twist. A good short story must have a twist. For lack of a better word, a twist is the point in the story where you have to set the book down and spend time pondering, “What exactly happened?” Novels usually are developed so that the conclusion is a neat and tidy package. Certainly not all novels (one exception that comes to mind is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale), but most novels seem to leave the reader satisfied that the story has been completed. Short stories, however, tend to build up a familiarity, then remove you from the structured comfort zone, and often purposefully leave you on edge. This process the author puts the reader through is the twist, and O’Connor’s Good Man and Good Country People have excellent twists that leave the reader feeling blindsided.

Some of O’Connor’s short stories certainly are weaker or less dynamic, but as a whole collection I am by no means disappointed. Her later stories gain in length, and I wonder (without knowing the dates) how much this bridges her shorter stories and novels. Then again, short stories should be read over and over again and I do not want to pass unfair criticism on stories I am less familiar with. As for why A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People are consistent favorites – I don’t have an answer. They are tremendous tales but valid arguments seem to exist for the inclusion of at least half the stories in this collection.