photo of young JD Salinger

Franny and Zooey book review

In his dedication at the beginning of Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger appeals to William Shawn, his “editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend”, to accept this “pretty skimpy-looking book”. It is, in fact, rather skimpy, being a short story and novella under one cover. Both appeared earlier and separately in The New Yorker, “Franny” in 1955 and “Zooey” two years later. Together, they work as a novel, partly because “Zooey” picks up exactly where “Franny” leaves off. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.

After the publication of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J. D. Salinger devoted most of his fiction to the Jewish-Irish Glass family from New York City. There are seven of them, not including Les and Bessie, the parents, but by the time we come to Franny and Zooey two have already died: Seymour, the eldest, committed suicide on his honeymoon (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”), and Walter died in Occupied Japan in late fall of 1945. Buddy, generally thought to be Salinger’s alter ego, is now the oldest sibling. He lives in upstate New York, teaches English at a rural women’s college, and is the one who writes the stories. Waker, Walt’s twin, is a Roman Catholic monk of the Carthusian order; Beatrice, or “Boo-Boo”, is a suburban homemaker living in Westchester County; Zachary Martin, or “Zooey”, is an actor, and Franny, the youngest, is a 20-year-old college student and actress.

All seven of the Glass children, at one time or another, were panelists on a radio show called “It’s a Wise Child”. They are, without exception, precociously intelligent, although Seymour was the true savant of the family, becoming a professor at Columbia at the age of 20.

As the book opens, it’s the fall of 1955, the weekend of the big Yale football game. Franny arrives by train to spend the weekend with her boyfriend, Lane Coutell, who meets her at the platform. The plan is to grab something to eat and then attend the match, but during lunch it becomes apparent that all is not well. Instead of eating, Franny smokes cigarette after cigarette and talks about how sick she is of her teachers, how college is such an incredible farce. Lane, who is monopolizing the conversation with the details of a paper he’s written, finally begins to notice: “You’ve got a goddam bug today – you know that? What the hell’s the matter with you anyway?”

All Franny can offer is apologies for being “off” at the moment. She excuses herself, goes to the ladies’ room, and cries for a full five minutes. When she returns, she tells him she’s dropped out of the play she’s been doing, because she’s sick of everything:

“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting – it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. Who can forget Holden Caulfield, who left his private school because he was surrounded by “phonies”? It’s one of Salinger’s favourite themes, in life as well as his art; he holed up in New Hampshire for decades partly to get away from the phonies. (Several memoirs* have been written showing that Salinger might have been something of a phoney himself, but that’s for another review.)

Eventually, Franny begins talking about a book she’s carrying with her, The Way of a Pilgrim. She tells Lane she took it out of the library and it’s well overdue, and then goes on to explain that it’s the story of a simple man who becomes obsessed with the instruction in 1st Thessalonians that we should pray without ceasing. He travels the world, looking for someone who can tell him how a person can do that – pray without ceasing – and eventually meets a Russian monk who teaches him the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. The monk explains that if you say it over and over again it will become automatic and unconscious and eventually you will get to see God. After telling Lane all of this, Franny excuses herself from the table, heads towards the ladies’ room, and faints.

When she comes to, she’s lying on a couch in the manager’s office, with Lane sitting beside her. He tells her not to worry about the game, or the cocktail party they were planning to attend and goes off to hail a cab. Franny lies there looking at the ceiling. As her story ends she begins to mouth the words of the prayer, over and over again, without making a sound.

Zooey’s story, which begins the following Monday, finds Franny collapsed on the sofa in her parent’s apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side. She is alternately crying and mumbling and is apparently having some kind of nervous breakdown. Her brother, Zooey, is in the bathtub, smoking cigarettes and reading a letter from his older brother, Buddy, written four years ago. In it Buddy talks about his students, mentioning that he has 38 short stories to mark: “Thirty-seven of them will be about a shy, reclusive Pennsylvania Dutch lesbian who Wants To Write, told first-person by a lecherous hired hand. In dialect”. He apologizes for the years when he and Seymour force-fed Zooey and his sister a steady diet of religion and philosophy and tells him he should go ahead and become an actor.

Zooey’s mother comes into the bathroom, smokes at least a dozen cigarettes – everybody in this family smokes – the place must stink to high heaven – and shares her worries about Franny. When she mentions the book Franny’s brought with her, The Way of a Pilgrim, Zooey recognizes it as one that belonged to Seymour. He gets dressed, seeks out Franny on the sofa where she’s huddled with the family cat, and gives her a pep talk that includes disparaging the “Jesus prayer” and calling her selfish. Not surprisingly, this upsets her even more. Zooey then goes into Seymour’s room, and calls Franny from the bedroom phone, pretending to be Buddy. She sees through this, but doesn’t hang up. Zooey then shares stories from their “freakish” upbringing, and concludes with something Seymour once told him, about the need to live with optimism and love. When they hang up, Franny is finally calm; she lies in bed, smiling, and falls into a dreamless sleep.

In terms of action, that, in essence, is the story. It’s not that nothing happens . . . it’s that what does happen is all internal. Generally rendered in dialogue. “We don’t talk,” Zooey says, “we hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound. At least I do. The minute I’m in a room with somebody who has the usual number of ears, I either turn into a goddam seer or a human hatpin.”

It’s not unusual – in fact, it’s necessary, I think – for a writer to become attracted to the characters he creates. In Salinger’s case, he was in love with the Glass family. All of them, even Bessie, who is used as a kind of verbal punching bag by most of her children. An ex-vaudevillian, Mrs. Glass has fingers “of an extraordinary length and shapeliness”, and the “comely” legs of a former dancer: “The feet were extraordinarily small, the ankles were still slender, and, perhaps most remarkable, the calves were still firm and evidently had never been knotty”. As for Franny, “Her skin was lovely, and her features were delicate and most distinctive. Her eyes were very nearly the same quite astonishing shade of blue as Zooey’s but were set farther apart, as a sister’s eyes no doubt should be.” Zooey, besides being the most handsome of the seven siblings, possesses the “somewhat preposterous ability to quote, instantaneously and, usually verbatim, almost anything he had ever read, or even listened to, with genuine interest”.

We are meant to adore this family, even envy them, in spite of their peculiarities. Or because of them. They are so intelligent, so attractive, so well-read. And also so completely neurotic. It’s here, I think, where Salinger’s literary canon stumbles, just a little. He loves them too well; he asks nothing of them but that they should exist. And talk. And talk. Aside from committing suicide, he never asks them to do anything. They are the plot. And if you love them, or are at least prepared to appreciate them, you will come to Franny and Zooey again and again and find something new to delight you.

If, however, you find them intensely irritating and just a tad self-obsessed, you may give this a pass.

And miss a great story by an American genius.

*At Home in the World, by Joyce Maynard (1998) tells the story of her affair with J. D. Salinger. He was 53, she was 18. The critics trashed the book and she received death threats. In Dream Catcher: A Memoir (2001), Margaret “Peggy” Salinger wrote about life with her reclusive father. She, too, received death threats.

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If you’re sick to death of hearing that 40 is the new 30, 50 is the new 40, and so on – that life for the boomers just gets better and better – that growing old means getting fitter, richer, and having more sex – welcome! We are as one, as they say.

It’s time, I think, for a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek look at the boomers by one of their own. I try not to complain about getting older – I mean, consider the alternative, right? But, as Leonard Cohen so aptly put it, “I ache in the places where I used to play.”

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, most of us aren’t as rich as we thought we’d be – well, who is? But still, didn’t those old Freedom 55 ads make you think you’d at least own a sailboat by now? Even if, like me, you’re terrified of the open sea??

And what about those of us who are still supporting our (practically) grown-up kids? Come to think of it, there’s almost no way to talk about these things without sounding like a whiner – but I’ll try.