Last week I received a surprise birthday book package that included J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (the serendipity of long-ago-added-to-Amazon-wishlist books). I’d read about half the stories in high school, and remembered liking them—especially “For Esmé, with Love and Squalor.” But on the whole the book is rather different from what I remember. I didn’t remember the heavy focus, in several stories, on the psychological aftermath of World War II on the men who fought it—and didn’t. And it also seems even more different from the way I remember Catcher in the Rye, which makes some sense, since I never cared for that book.
While I still enjoyed “For Esmé,” this time “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” stuck out as effective. It’s very simple: a gray-haired man and a girl are in bed when the phone rings; the gray-haired man answers; the call is from a man, Arthur, whose wife has not come home from the party they and the gray-haired man were at that evening. The gray-haired man calmly talks Arthur down, as Arthur drunkenly rants about his wife, her infidelity, and other personality flaws. The gray-haired man assures Arthur that Joanie will walk in any minute, after a wild outing in the Village, and they finally hang up. Arthur calls back a moment later to say that he was right, Joanie just came in, and everything is grand.
Of course, all through the first phone call, we are sure that Joanie is the very girl in bed with the gray-haired man. And we are sure that the gray-haired man, while genuinely trying to calm Arthur, is also carefully deflecting suspicion—and looking down on the man he’s cuckolding. Nothing at all says that. On the contrary, Salinger is careful not to say it. The girl’s eyes are a focal point; first they are described as “very, however disingenuously, large, and so blue as to appear almost violet.” Later, they, “more just open than alert or speculative, reflected chiefly their own size and color.” Arthur, beating himself up over the poem that gives the story its title*, says “it used to remind me of her. She doesn’t have green eyes—she has eyes like goddam sea shells, for Chrissake.” That sounds compatible, but what do eyes like sea shells look like? Are they blue, almost violet? There are lots of sea shells.
That’s not really the point. All this certainty builds up that, though it remains unsaid, Joanie is the girl, until finally the gray-haired man hangs up with Arthur and there is hardly any wiggle room left, the girl feels “‘like an absolute dog!'”; the man says “the whole thing’s so fantastic….” He’s pulled it off, though, Arthur has gone to bed. He pities Arthur, and aside from, you know, sleeping with his wife, he wishes Arthur well. But when Arthur calls back, to say never fear, Joanie is back, all is well—it is too much. “‘What?’ said the gray-haired man, and bridged his left hand over his eyes, though the light was behind him.” This is too pitiful. At first, the gray-haired man simply can’t speak, but finally he manages to end the call. Disgusted, he rejects Joanie as well. This is all much too close for comfort.
The jar is perfect. We are as surprised as the gray-haired man is to hear that Joanie has barged in. It makes no sense. What is happening? We experience the realization with the gray-haired man, and his reaction is ours. We want to shield ourselves from what Arthur will say next, from the optimistic nonsense he is peddling now that he realizes what a fool he’s made of himself. And for us too, Joanie has gone from a nice kid with good taste to a cruel child, an animal, destroying a man in this way. Very emotionally effective, in a series of such stories.
*According to the story, the poem, “Rose my color is and white, Pretty mouth and green my eyes,” was something Arthur “sent” to Joanie, that “remind[ed]” him of her, strongly implying that he didn’t actually write it, as seems to be a common internet misconception. Is it a real poem? Googling has gotten me nowhere.