J. D. Salinger must live in a world all his own. Sometimes it overlaps ours and we are lulled into a temporary sense of the humdrum. But this merely makes Salinger's twists of horror even more macabre.
The Nine Stories, most of them reprinted from the New Yorker, all illustrate Salinger's skillful use of children to provide a contrast to his adult characters. It is this child and adult world which is so unique in Salinger's work. He has a talent enabling him to merge the fantasy and illogic of a child's existence with the more stolid pomposity of his elders. Usually, the cast of Salinger's horror is a situation terrifying to one character, the adult or the child, but merely commonplace to the other.
An exception to this is "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," a story Salinger should have finished just one sentence from the end. After creating a tense picture of a sensitive man close to insanity, spending an afternoon raving to a little girl, Salinger glues on a suicide ending which seems too pat.
But if "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is an example of Salinger at his slickest, there are two bed time tales in the collection that should be rated in the short story field just about where Charles Addams' work ranks in the realm of cartoons. The main difference between Salinger and Addams, however, is that it's difficult to laugh off Salinger's stories. The characters are all people we might know, not ghouls. "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" shows a malformed little girl wandering about in dreams of terrible unreality while her mother and a friend get drunker and drunker in the next room. And "The Laughing Man," in the form of a childhood reminiscence, deftly reveals the impact of a scoutmaster's love affair on the stories he tells his group.
Probably the finest story of the nine is "For Esme with Love and Squalor," in which Salinger best merges humor with tragedy. It tells of a soldier in England, who agrees to correspond with a small British girl, and finds himself opening her first letter in Germany, months later, while he is in a state of shell shock.
These stories are all written in Salinger's facile, sometimes overly glib style, and, I suppose, some will deprecate his work on this count alone. But Salinger's stories are quite a bit more than light reading matter. They are perceptive commentaries on the times and the neurotic people who make a child's life so traumatic.