Given that our most recent issue of The Mockingbird magazine opens with a quote from J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, I figured I would share something from one of his lesser-known pieces in print, the novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.

In the novella, Salinger has a way of playfully getting at the darkest of human truths. The plot encapsulates this style; it is light-heartedly sad. The narrator, Buddy, goes to his brother Seymour’s wedding and knows no one else there. Seymour doesn’t show up, and Buddy spends the rest of the afternoon with the bride’s family, who, for most of the story, are unaware of his relation to the absent groom.

Buddy takes some of the bride’s family and friends to Seymour’s apartment, where Buddy reads an excerpt of Seymour’s diary. In the entry, he is stationed at an army base and writes about his wife-to-be. Look out for this sugarcoated melancholy business I’m talking about:

raise-high-and_-seymour-penguin-front_-cover_We got passes, till midnight after the parade. I met Muriel at the Biltmore at seven. Two drinks, two drugstore tuna-fish sandwiches, then a movie she wanted to see, something with Greer Garson in it. I looked at her several times in the dark when Greer Garson’s son’s plane was missing in action. Her mouth was opened. Absorbed, worried. The identification with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer tragedy complete. I felt awe and happiness. How I love and need her undiscriminating heart. She looked over at me when the children in the picture brought in the kitten to show to their mother. M. loved the kitten and wanted me to love it. Even in the dark, I could sense that she felt the usual estrangement from me when I don’t automatically love what she loves. Later, when we were having a drink at the station, she asked me if I didn’t think that kitten was ‘rather nice.’ She doesn’t use the word ‘cute’ any more. When did I ever frighten her out of her normal vocabulary? Bore that I am, I mentioned R. H. Blyth’s definition of sentimentality: that we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it. I said (sententiously?) that God undoubtedly loves kittens, but not, in all probability, with Technicolor bootees on their paws. He leaves that creative touch to script writers. M. thought this over, seemed to agree with me, but the ‘knowledge’ wasn’t too very welcome. She sat stirring her drink and feeling unclose to me. She worries over the way her love for me comes and goes, appears and disappears. She doubts its reality simply because it isn’t as steadily pleasurable as a kitten. God knows it is sad. The human voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth…

Seymour begins the passage with an idyllic description of his date. The reader can feel the joyful innocence of the setting when Seymour looks over at Muriel in the movie theater and says that he feels “awe and happiness.” The innocence of the date does not pervade. Instead, innocence sparks dissent. The kitten in the movie, a symbol of harmlessness, creates a divide between Seymour and Muriel. He does not love it as she does, and he pedantically undermines her affinity for it. He recognizes how much what he says hurts her and distances her from him. His regret for what he has said reverberates powerfully in the last line: “The human voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth”.

Salinger paints a perfect picture. He then sullies it with reality. He illustrates that no one can maintain a veneer of perfection, that we, as human beings, hurt those we love with the pangs of our words.