Sex in the Salinger archives?

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 4 2010 9:30 AM

Sex in the Salinger Archives?

A little-known short story might be a clue.

Also in Slate: Joanna Smith Rakoff on answering Salinger's mail; Troy Patterson on the two Salingers; Stephen Metcalf on Salinger's genius; Nathan Heller on Nine Stories; Chris Wilson on " Seymour: An Introduction"; Jody Rosen on Salinger's New York; Dana Stevens on Hollywood Holdens; Donald Fagen on his love for Franny Glass.

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Salinger has a knack for what you might call the erotics of indirection. We only learn that she's naked and has red hair after she calls her maid for a robe whose royal blue we're told contrasts with her red and because a man is calling on her.

Maybe it's a John O'Hara vibe, Butterfield 8. (Check it out; it's great; it's O'Hara's House of Mirth.)

The man is her brother, and they conduct a long conversation that keeps coming back to her complicated love life and what the brother overheard some tough guys saying about her in Chicago, from which he's just returned, and the brother's refrain: "Go see Eddie."

Eddie has a job for her, he maintains, some kind of chorus-girl gig. But you get the feeling from her repeated hostile response to the suggestion that Eddie wants more than a chorus girl and that what's unspoken—not explicit, but not in doubt—is that the brother has promised to pimp her out to Eddie, maybe to get out of a jam or debt.

It sure seems that way when he loses his temper over her obstinacy and a nasty little touch of violence enters the picture with the brother knocking the sister's nail file out of her hand across the room and threatening to "push in" her glamorous face.

Meanwhile, she's lying to him about having an affair with a married man that's "the real thing" while actually using that lie to disguise an affair with one of the tough guys from Chicago. You're not sure whether she's quite in control of the whole complicated situation; you get the sense she's not sure, that behind her bravado is a terror about the insecurity of her existence and the abyss she could easily fall into with all this erotic maneuvering.

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You can see the stakes of self-definition in the choice of whether to "go see Eddie" or not, and you care. It's almost all dialogue, andit reads like a Raymond Carver story, now that I think about it, the old Gordon Lish-edited, carved-to-the-bone Raymond Carver stories.

I must admit, I'm not a big fan of the so called "juvenilia" of authors I admire. I loved the two-hundred-plus pages of footnotes Christopher Ricks appended to T.S. Eliot's Inventions of the March Hare juvenilia, an unforgettable glimpse of the fevered Symbolist milieu, but I really couldn't stand the poems themselves. I'd read one or two of the unpublished early Salinger stories and didn't find much above the generic mass-market magazine short story of the time.

Like the first one he published, "The Young Folks," which appeared in the March/April 1940 issue of Story magazine and almost seemed like a reverse-time-warp thing: Salinger channeling the Whit Stillman of Metropolitan, a story about two unhappy losers making each other unhappier at a deb party.

Most of the other unpublished stories on the now-Hungarian site were variations on that theme or scene. And then there was "Go See Eddie" which, to use a Holden Caulfield phrase, knocked me out. It was unmistakably Salinger but it was unlike anything else Salinger had written. For one thing it was sexy. Sexy in a film-noir satin dressing-gown-dame way.

It was set in a sinister, louche world of sex, violence, gangsters, and hard-partying bad girls. It had the ring of hardboiled Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett (the Hammett of the amazing Red Harvest). Indeed, I first found myself wondering whether Salinger was sending up Hemingway in the way Hemingway had sent up his predecessor Sherwood Anderson in The Torrents of Spring. (The fact that it appeared in the Kansas City Review and Hemingway started out as a reporter for The Kansas City Star was suggestive but proves nothing, since Salinger submitted it first to Story and Esquire, both of which rejected it.)

But then I read it again and the sexual innuendo in the dialogue seemed cutting, not parodic. And there was that ugly bit of violence and a brother who might have been pimping out his sister, and I thought, no, this may be more than a pastiche or a parody. He could have done this for a living. This may have been the road not taken. Hard-boiled Salinger: It sounds like an oxymoron.

And—speaking of torrents of spring—in the torrents of verbiage that poured forth after his death, so much of it was devoted to regurgitating old arguments about the direction of his later work—was it admirably exquisite or tiresomely solipsistic?—that I might offer this little freshet of thought about a neglected way of looking at him, by speculating on the path he chose not to take. A thought about Salinger and sex. Because "Go See Eddie" is, how shall I put it, in an exquisite, deliberate way: hot.

And when I say it's the road not taken by Salinger, a road to a different Salinger than the deliquescent Zen-tea-ceremony pointillist and mystic he became, I mean that for all we know, it's the road that he has taken—that in the work he left behind to be published, he may well have given us the sex that he drained out of his hermetic world in his later published fiction, leaving it more desiccated than delicate.

The road, he hinted to Renata Adler, he might want to take. She recounts in her memoir Gonethat Salinger told her he stopped publishing in The New Yorker because he wanted to write about sex, and he felt embarrassed to show such material to the ostensibly shy and prudish "Mr. Shawn."

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