In Pretty Mouth and Green my Eyes, one of the stories from For Esmé with Love and Squalor, Arthur describes himself as ‘a stupid, fouled-up, twentieth-century son of a bitch’. This has been J. D. Salinger’s constant estimate of how people live in modern America. It is possible, naturally, to deploy such an attitude interestingly and uninterestingly in the novel, and he has taken each alternative to its absolute extreme: The Catcher in the Rye is a superb achievement; his latest novel, Franny and Zooey, is sickeningly inept.

It deals with two members of the Glass family, a tribe we have met already in A Perfect Day for Bananafish and Down at the Dinghy. In an account of his writing plans for the future given in a blurb written by himself, Salinger promises a whole series of Glass stories and affirms his fascination with the family, and in his introduction to the section Zooey, he permits us to identify him with Buddy Glass. The Glass family has in fact already become Salinger’s private zoo in which all his monsters are on show—a suicide; neurotics and precocious children; a few chi-chi eccentrics and quaint intellectuals; and, this time, one and a half religious maniacs.

Franny Glass, a girl of 20, is having a nervous breakdown. Like Holden Caulfield, she has been discovering how much in life is phoney, and how unattractive is the prospect of being an adult in modern America. She is observed, however, without the controlling comic sense of The Catcher, without its psychological insight, and without real compassion—although there is a great deal of shut-in, non-air-conditioned sentimentality. Her case, presented in two linked short stories or a loosely organised novel (whichever way one prefers to take the book), is made ‘different’ by using the religious mysticism now so fashionable in American nihilistic writing, for instance in the work of Kerouac. She is repeating the ‘Jesus Prayer’—learning ‘to pray without ceasing’—in the hope of attaining to an Oriental desirelessness. She is lectured both on Oriental religions and on the nature of Christ by Zooey Glass, her brother, and finally has a Christian illumination and goes happily to sleep. Zooey’s religious talks are full of OK words and phrases from Zen Buddhism, and have the self-consciously intimate ‘human’ tone that marks the whole racket lying between Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen. What is most nauseating is that Salinger, who satirised this very habit so sharply in the figure of Old Ossenburger (‘he told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all’), doesn’t see how cheap and false he is being:

‘. . . my God, who besides Jesus really knew which end was up? Nobody. Not Moses. Don’t tell me Moses. He was a nice man and he kept in beautiful touch with his God, and all that—but that’s exactly the point. He had to keep in touch. Jesus realised there is no separation from God.’

The general pattern of the book runs very much according to the stereotype of the For Esmé stories, except for the religious element, and a general softening-up which accompanies it. There is some diminution in the cold immature delight of those earlier tales in creating odious people and watching them tear each other with viciousness and meanness. One still, however, finds that knowing adroitness in the exposure of human folly which recalls the occasional cruelty of Lawrence in stories like Two Blue Birds. This represents, one cannot help feeling, a decline in the quality of American sophistication—the precise notations of James and Fitzgerald degenerating into mere cattiness. The gusto with which Zooey at several points is shown elaborately insulting the beautiful and weeping Franny—a situation psychologically closer to Mickey Spillane than to Jesus—makes one feel that the reduction in the amount of deliberate cruelty is simply a decline in nervous energy—part of the general softening-up—and not a development towards the humanity of The Catcher.

There is a smugness, too, about these stories—a flattering insinuation that the author and his readers are a little clique of cognoscenti who may laugh and look on—which reminds one that they first appeared in the New Yorker:

‘ “The cigars are ballast, sweetheart. Sheer ballast. If he didn’t have a cigar to hold on to, his feet would leave the ground. We’d never see our Zooey again.”

There were several experienced verbal stunt pilots in the Glass family, but this last little remark perhaps Zooey alone was coordinated well enough to bring in safely over a telephone. Or so this narrator suggests.’