J. D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948) “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is just about perfect. It is a story that is easy to misread, because the treasures are in the details, a Christmas tree hung with baubles that are barely visible among the pine needles and tinsel. In fact, I had to read it three times to feel that I “got it,” and I’m still not sure if I got all there is to get.
At first glance, the story seems to begin in a banal manner, then becomes awkward, cute, creepy, before an explosive last paragraph that makes you flip quickly back to the beginning, to see if you might find foreshadowing that would have clued you in to the conclusion. It is there, of course, as it must be in all good stories—none of your deus ex machina business, but an honest surprise ending.
The story is divided into two sections, plus that whammy of a coda. The first section features Muriel Glass on a long-distance call with her mother. Muriel is on holiday in Florida with her husband, Seymour, who was a soldier in the recently-ended Second World War. Muriel is a dismissive, unconcerned, and rather oblivious socialite who stuck with Seymour throughout the war, and doesn’t seem to realize that he returned a changed man, damaged goods, as so many poor, shell-shocked soldiers did (Salinger himself was one, and it is easy to project his biography onto Seymour Glass).
It took me a few reads of this opening sequence to catch what was actually going on, because Salinger ingeniously presents it to us as a straight dialogue, with almost no authorial interference, and a lot of interrupted sentences, as when two people are talking over each other or cutting each other off. Muriel’s mother is quite frantic with concern for her daughter, and refers to a number of incidents involving Seymour’s instability, and in each case we can only infer what happened. “The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away.” After a second read, I conjectured that Seymour had been involved in an accident with his father-in-law’s car, perhaps involving trees, that may have been intentional. He may be suicidal (“business with the window” and “plans for passing away”).
We also learn, obliquely, that he was recently released from a psychiatric hospital—too soon, according to one doctor. In the hotel, Seymour’s appearance prompts a psychiatrist on holiday to approach Muriel about him, but she treats the conversation dismissively. Salinger creates tension through the mannered dialogue between a concerned mother and her strong-willed daughter, who seems to want to ignore her husband’s issues since his return from combat. She also accepts that he mocks her, thinking it’s cute that he called her “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” and seems most concerned that she knows nothing about the book by “the only great poet of the century” that he sent her from Germany, and which was in German. From the mother’s insistent questions, despite casual comments on fashion and gossip, we sense Muriel’s husband is a ticking time-bomb.
The second section is where it gets odder—more playful but also creepier. A little child, Sybil Carpenter, is sent off to play while her mother goes for a martini (promising to bring Sybil the olive). Sybil heads straight over to Seymour, who is lying on the beach in his bathrobe. Seymour is charming with the young girl, but we may think it odd that a grown man is playing with a little girl unrelated to him, with no other adults around. Their interaction is friendly but their relationship clear. Seymour speaks familiarly to the child, but in a bantering way. When the girl mentions her father’s imminent arrival, Seymour says he has been waiting for him, but we can’t tell he is teasing her or if he actually knows her father. Sybil seems comfortable with Seymour—who she refers to as “see more”—and that’s reassuring. But when he kisses her foot while she’s on a raft in the ocean with him, she is startled. It’s then that he says they must go. There seems to be a sexual undertone that is disturbing, highlighted by the weird idea of “bananafish,” an imaginary fish that Seymour suggests he and Sybil look for in the water. It’s when she says she saw one that he kisser her foot, suggesting a spontaneous gesture of tenderness toward her. If we like we can consider the sexual overtones of the bananafish, certainly a phallic image as described by Seymour: “I’ve known bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas…after they eat so many bananas they can’t get out of the banana hole…they die.”
Why is Seymour on the beach in his bathrobe? His reticence to disrobe is dismissed by Muriel as shyness at being pale, but we sense that’s just an excuse for her mother, who thinks there must be something more to it. Muriel offers another explanation: “[Seymour] says he doesn’t want a lot of fools looking at his tattoo,” to which her mother replies, “He doesn’t have any tattoo! Did he get one in the Army?” Now, that detail seemed to be often ignored by other readers of the story—at least I could find no mention of the tattoo in a Google search—but, after several reads, it occurred to me that the sort of tattoo one would get during World War Two that one wouldn’t want “a lot of fools” staring at, is a numerical tattoo from a concentration camp. An identification with Nazi prisoners—according to his daughter, Salinger was among U.S. soldiers who entered a liberated concentration cam—would further underscore the sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that Seymour suffers from. And yet the reference is subtle, and seems to elude most readers.
In the final part of the story Seymour returns to his hotel-room, where Muriel sleeps on a twin bed. In a master-class showing how to build tension and shock in one sentence, Salinger first leads us to believe that, as per the fears of Muriel’s mother, Muriel is going to be the victim of Seymour’s violence.
He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies caliber 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.
That last sentence is a demonstration of skillful misdirection. By telling us Seymour looks at the girl, we assume that Muriel is the one “aimed” at, an assumption that Salinger cultivates until the final three words.
In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger’s readers must work, like detectives, to first recognize clues that might not seem to be clues, then use them to decode the enigmatic story, piecing together what the clues mean. A writing professor of mine once said that about 2/3 of your readers should “get” a great story the first or second time through. That means that 1/3 will need assistance in order to “get it” all, or they might not get it all—and that’s okay. “Getting it” is not requisite to enjoying the story as a whole, but each hidden attribute that you “get” feels like a miniature conquest, and enriches the overall experience.
Salinger is notoriously hard to “get,” in the sense that he lets quizzical actions and statements remain so, prodding the reader to get on his wavelength but explaining very little. My favorite novels and, particularly, short stories are those that offer up riddles that close reading will solve, opening like flowers to reveal the beauty of the story and the author’s ingenuity. And yet some writers are so good you admire their work even when you can’t determine exactly what they’re getting at with every detail.