A Story a Day: Robed Men on the Beach Should Stay Away from Little Girls

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” :  J.D. Salinger

     The idea of this series is to keep me reading and writing about literature.  I simply have too much free time right now for my own good, so I’m trying to focus my energy on a few beneficial projects instead of letting it waste away on other things.  This particular project is driven by me randomly picking a short story to read (one every day) and writing a review about it.  Given this method of selection, there are bound to be some stories that I may not have too much to say about.  I think this may be one of them, but here it goes.

     Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a fine example of intentionally leaving the peripheral details vague.  The first half, which is only eight pages in my copy, is centered on a phone call between Muriel and her nameless Mother.  In this section the reader is introduced to one half of the main characters directly and interest begins to build around the topic of their conversation, Seymour Glass, the man Muriel is with.  The second half of the story, another eight pages, brings the scene directly to the other half of the main characters, the aforementioned Seymour and a little girl, Sybil Carpenter.  As you can see, it’s not a long story to write commentary on.  Also, just as a heads up, I haven’t read much Salinger.  I’ve never even read “Catcher in the Rye,” but I’m hoping to continue on through his “9 Stories” and get an idea of what he’s about.

SPOILERS AHOY

     This story reads more like a short exercise to me than anything.  The characters are fairly stock: Muriel, the reckless and rebellious daughter in love; Muriel’s Mother, the worrying and advising mother; Seymour, a crazy veteran; and Sybil Carpenter, an innocent young girl running around on her own while her mom has fun.  The introduction to the first half, before the phone call begins, sets the scene as a busy hotel full of New York businessmen that are hogging the phone lines.  Salinger uses this page to introduce Muriel.  She passes time waiting to use the phone by doing her nails, sewing, and other stereotypical “woman” things.  I’m not a fan of summarizing things in stereotypes, but this was written in the 50’s and I can’t think of a better way. 

     After a little too much back and forth for my taste, Muriel reveals that she is in Florida and has come there with Seymour, whom we can only assume is her boyfriends.  This is one of those left-out details.  Their conversations goes on to reveal that Seymour is a veteran and, according to a doctor back in New York, extremely unstable.  There’s no reason for this given.  It’s kind of like a game of fill-in-the-blank, or maybe Mad Libs.  After some pleading for her to come home, Muriel finally ends the conversation.  That’s it.  That’s all you get.  There is a tid-bit about how Seymour goes to the beach in his bathrobe and that he may have had a wreck in Muriel’s parent’s car, but that’s the only concrete idea we get of anything really.  This half is kind of boring, but it does serve its purpose.

     The second half of this story actually made my stomach turn a little bit because of the vague implications of the first half and the actions of Seymour.  Sybil is introduced as a talkative young girl whose first line is, but no definite age is given.  From the way she acts, I’m guessing five to eight years old.  Her mother lets her loose on the beach to go have fun, and soon she wanders far from the crowds and meets up with Seymour, who we find lying on the sand in his bathrobe with a blow-up tube as a pillow.  He seems to have a relationship with her, a fact bolstered by her first line in the story, “See more glass,” and their conversation about another young girl she seems to be jealous of for sitting next to Seymour at the piano. 

     He grabs her ankles a couple of times, and calls her nicknames like “baby,” before shortly telling her that they should go down in the water and look for “Bananafish.”  Asked what Bananafish are he makes up a story about how they go in caves to eat bananas and then swell up and can’t get out, leading to their death.  Now, this may sound silly and strange, but coming from a grown man who has isolated himself with a young girl and is luring her out into the water, the idea of a “banana” thing that swells up in a cave sounds a little less savory, and the idea of entrapment in a cave because of it seems an oblique reference to pregnancy.  If this wasn’t bad enough, once they are in the water Sybil says she sees one and he “kisses the arch of her foot.”  After this, Seymour seems a bit stranger and forces her to go back to shore.  Shortly afterwards, he returns to his hotel room, where Muriel is sleeping, grabs a gun out of his suitcase, and shoots himself in the head.

     As you can see, this seems more like an outline for something than an actual story.  The first scene is half the story, and it only seems to be a weak setup for the “main” character, Seymour.  Sybil and Seymour’s relationship is left basically to the imagination, and, personally, I’d rather not think about it.  Then, it’s over.  If anything, I think this would be a fine candidate for a writing exercise where one picks up from his suicide and focuses on one of the other characters, or even follows him into the afterlife; or this could be used as an opportunity to work on filling in the blanks.  However, on its own, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is only vaguely disturbing and unfulfilling as a read.

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