I read J. D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish" aloud to the creative writing class I teach last Monday, and I can still feel the story swimming anxiously around in my head, like the banana fish stuffing themselves on bananas in a hole they won't be able to get out of. "Perfection" isn't the word. It's a tawdry sad little story that somehow sprouts as you read it into epic mythology. Reading it aloud made it even grander somehow. That hotel room telephone dialog between Muriel and her mother at the beginning really does have a dark mean bite cutting through the comedy, and then the scene with Seymour and the little girl at the beach. Something so innocent it's menacing is happening there, with Seymour's ghostlike presence, his disconnected singsongy voice, moving the story into regions outside of setting and plot. The humor isn't sarcasm or slapstick. It's just sadness giving us its last little dance. By the time you are in the elevator with Seymour and he's pissed because the lady is looking at his feet, you begin to understand what a short story, what all art maybe, is supposed to do: bring you closer to what you dread, bring you closer so you can love everything you fear. The last little scene in the hotel room with Muriel is a coda, a collapse, but sometimes you just need a bullet to set a broken heart free.
Salinger's clean mean words just came out of my mouth as I read as if I knew what I was saying even though I was just a stupid microphone. I was an authority on how to keep my mouth shut, reading that story aloud. I almost want to do it in every class I teach. Maybe it's all any writer needs to know.