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Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters - J.D. Salinger

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Author: JD Salinger / Genre: Fiction

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      13.04.2012 19:04
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      Salinger's last book

      "When I'd checked into the bathroom with Seymour's diary under my arm, and had carefully secured the door behind me, I spotted a message almost immediately. It was not, however, in Seymour's handwriting but, unmistakably, in my sister Boo Boo's. With or without soap, her handwriting was always almost indecipherably minute, and she had easily managed to post the following message up on the mirror; 'Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man. Love, Irving Sappho, formerly under contract to Elysium Studios Ltd. Please be happy happy happy with your beautiful Muriel. This is an order. I outrank everybody on this block." Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour- An Introduction was JD Salinger's fourth and final book and published in 1963. Like Franny & Zooey it collects two stories that were previously published in The New Yorker and revolves around Salinger's fictional Glass family. Buddy Glass is again the principle narrator but the stories are about Seymour Glass - who doesn't appear but looms large offscreen like a Cheshire Cat. Seymour has been built up so much by Salinger as this mystical saint like wise figure that it's almost as if he can't quite bring himself to bring the character centre stage for fear of disappointment and not doing him justice. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is certainly the most controversial and divisive of Salinger's published works - the latter section in particular descending into self-indulgent nonsense as far as some critics were concerned.

      The book begins with Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and starts with a short Chinese parable that has particular significance for the story we are about to read. "Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: "You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?" Po Lo replied: "A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse -- one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks -- is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air..." Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is an entertaining and amusing account by Buddy Glass of attending the wedding of his older brother Seymour. Only Seymour never actually turns up to his own wedding and the story is about what happened to Buddy on that strange day and some of the people he met. This first story is rife with humour and technically brilliant. It often showcases Salinger at his very best. Buddy meets the Matron of Honor, her husband and a deaf and mute elderly uncle amongst others and they travel to the wedding and then the bride's parents' house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When they become stuck in traffic they decide to walk to Buddy's New York apartment. Buddy Glass is essentially Salinger so his thoughts have an extra fascination that makes one take them in with great care. One thing that is wonderful about this story is the way we get much information about the rest of the Glass family when Buddy speaks about his siblings and relatives.

      Salinger always seems on good form here when he does this. "Franny has the measles, for one thing. Incidentally, did you hear her last week? She went on at beautiful length about how she used to fly all around the apartment when she was four and no one was home. The new announcer is worse than Grant -- if possible, even worse than Sullivan in the old days. He said she surely dreamt that she was able to fly. The baby stood her ground like an angel. She said she knew she was able to fly because when she came down she always had dust on her fingers from touching the lightbulbs." The story evokes the New York of the forties in rich fashion and Salinger's period slang is always enjoyable and very readable. This particular story is fluid and has real energy. It is rather Catcher in the Rye at times and the author paints some wonderful scenes as Buddy describes this eventual day. "At twenty minutes past four - or, to put it another, blunter way, an hour and twenty minutes past what seemed to be all reasonable hope - the unmarried bride...was helped out of the building...It was an excessively graphic moment - a tabloid moment - and, as tabloid moments go, it had its full complement of eyewitnesses, for the wedding guests (myself among them) had already begun to pour out of the building, however decorously, in alert, not to say goggle- eyed, droves." It's a hot day and you feel the stifling sultry conditions when Buddy is trapped in a car with some of these awful people and finds his blood boiling somewhat when he has to listen to attacks on his brother and a discourse of what sort of person could do a thing like this on their wedding day.

      They of course are blissfully unaware at first of Buddy's relationship to the groom. "I mean you lead an absolutely freakish life when you're a kid, so naturally you never learn to grow up. You never learn to relate to normal people or anything...ask any psychiatrist," opines the Matron of Honor in reference to the Glass family and their frequent appearances on the radio quiz show when they were growing up. Salinger makes the characters vivid and jump off the page and is clearly enjoying himself here with the humour he splices in. There are lines in this book that Woody Allen would have killed for ("I'm a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.") I also like the line - "I was not only twenty-three, but a conspicuously retarded twenty-three." Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is a superb short story and one leaves it feeling sad that Salinger - despite still being so young in literary terms - published almost nothing thereafter despite living on for several more decades.

      "The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I've written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly but loses itself dully in this love that will never be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting the actors by preventing this ability from exercising itself. It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for Iron, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, 'No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer.'" Salinger's preface begins Seymour: An Introduction - which is another kettle of fish altogether and a story that has recieved more than its fair share of brickbats (most of them when it was first published of course). This is a stream of consciousness narrative by Buddy where he remembers his brother and tries to deal with his death. It's about art and the artist and again touches on Zen Buddhism.

      It is unquestionably pretentious at times, very indulgent, but also exquisite at its best. "You can't argue with someone who believes, or just passionately suspects, that the poet's function is not to write what he must write but rather, to write what he would write if his life depended on his taking responsibility for writing what he must in a style designed to shut out as few of his old librarians as humanly possible." Buddy talks about Seymour's childhood, his double haikus in English, German, Italian and Japanese. How he was a genius at a young age (professor at nineteen!). The story is constructed as a series of disjointed rambling diary entries by a grieving Buddy at he deals with his loss.

      The entries are sometimes obtuse and prone to veering off to unusual tangents. "Please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((())))." Salinger's experimentation with language doesn't always work but there are some brilliant passages for those who are game enough to stick with it. This is Salinger as his most impenetrable and indulgent but willing to stick his head on the block even at the risk of losing the reader. It's a fascinating glimpse nonetheless at his frame of mind at the time. The story is more dense to read, incoherent and experimental than his other stories and certainly an acquired taste even if you are a fan. This would definitely not be the place to start for anyone new to the author. You do though pick up some fascinating details about Seymour - who is essentially an urban saint. There are autobiographical tracts too as Salinger becomes firmly embedded in the character of Buddy, his literary alter ego. We even learn that Buddy apparently wrote some of the Salinger short stories! The author diffusing his ego and acting as if his characters are real. Seymour will seem turgid and pretentious to some but it's worth the effort if you've managed to get this far in the work of Salinger.

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