This book is made up of two stories by J.D. Salinger that interlink in terms of being based around the same character but are written in almost completely different styles. The first story is easier to digest but the second displays a type of confessional writing that although hard to get on with at first does have a power of its own.
Salinger is famous for a few things, among them being a recluse, including creating one of the greatest fictional families in literature, The Glass family. These stories both focus on the eldest brother in the Glass clan, Seymour, and are both written from the point of view of his brother Buddy. As well as providing an indication of life during and post World War Two.
It makes sense to split the review into the two halves of the book:
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
Buddy, the narrator, gets a letter from his sister telling him that no one else can attend but he must go to his brother’s wedding and represent the family. One he arrives at the wedding it becomes clear there is a problem and his brother has not turned up and so he jumps in a car with other guests including the matron of honour and gets to drive for several minutes hearing all sorts of bad things about his brother. One of the themes of the maid of honour’s attack is that the groom Seymour was mentally unbalanced. Even after they realise that Buddy is Seymour’s brother the criticisms continue as they take up his offer of hospitality in his apartment as the heat becomes oppressive after the car becomes stuck in a jam. Finally things are resolved with the news that Seymour and the bride have eloped and all is forgiven. But Buddy is left alone in the apartment wondering, having read his brother’s diary, just what on earth motivated the absent brother.
Seymour: an Introduction
This is a book that describes an author that has the weight of family expectation that they can produce a fitting tribute to their dead sibling. The narrator is finding it very hard to write about a brother that he idolised and the rest of the family looked up and the effort of trying to come up with a suitable tribute is crushing and you start to see the pain of the exercise:
“I said I’d finish this, but I’m not going to make it after all. Not because I’m not a proper iron man but because to finish it right I’d have to touch on – my God, touch on – the details of his suicide, and I don’t expect to be ready to do that, at the rate I’m going, for several more years.”
The book ends with just a few anecdotes being shared and all about Seymour as a boy or young man. The writer has set the boundaries of the non painful zones and it is only when you realise this in a way is not a story about Seymour at all but the reaction of a brother and family to a suicide that this story starts to make sense. Once that penny drops it becomes a powerful story but the slight criticism would be the length of babble you have to get through to start getting to the nub of the story.
Is the book well written?
It takes a while to get bedded down with the idea that both stories are about a character that apart from a few diary entries and a memo never really speaks for himself. The description of Seymour is poor, and deliberately so in an Introduction, making the reader completely rely on the narrator Buddy to be their guide. He is a strong and engaging voice in Raise the Roof but becomes almost unable to write at all in the second story. For those readers expecting more answers – why Seymour killed himself – this book does not provide that and you have to turn to the story A Perfect Day for Bananafish to get that. Appreciate what is going on here and it is a well written book, fail to do that, which is more than possible with an Introduction and it might fail to engage readers.
Should it be read?
To see the power of imagination in action – bear in mind both Seymour and Buddy are completely fictional – this is worth reading. To discover that there is more to Salinger than Catcher in the Rye this is worth reading. To see someone really trying a different style then this is worth reading. But you have to be prepared to work at it and think laterally to appreciate just what is trying to be achieved here. Sadly my suspicion is that most people will expect Holden Caulfield to appear, or someone similar, from the pages and will be disappointed when he doesn’t.
Version read – Penguin paperback