With Love and Squalor

J.D. Salinger died at the age of 91. There is already much speculation about the unpublished manuscripts that may be found at the reclusive author’s house in New Hampshire. This was the man, after all, who said in a 1974 interview: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” So who knows what he wrote and hid from the world. As for the work he did publish, much has been said about the iconic The Catcher in the Rye (a book that resonated with the thirteen-year-old me the way it continues to do with so many teenagers).

But I am especially indebted to Nine Stories. I read the book when I was fourteen and fell in love with short fiction. It made me want to write short stories. I’ve reread those stories countless times since and they still excite me as a reader. Oh, to write dialogue like Salinger did!

Charles McGrath summed up the stories’ appeal in The Times yesterday: “The stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it) and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony.”

As of this morning, Nine Stories was at #43 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Not bad for a book of short stories published in 1953.

I could go on, about how well Salinger’s books are selling since he died (just look at Amazon), about Salinger’s influence on the likes of Wes Anderson, or about how annoyed Mr. Salinger would probably be if he could see all the tweets and Facebook status updates devoted to him. But instead, I’ll just close with the famous last line of “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor”, a story that inspired many people to name their daughters Esmé (and inspired Lemony Snicket’s character, Esmé Squalor):

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac–with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

Issue #120: Pigs

I have a special relationship with my mailman. His name is Paul and his unflagging exactitude is noteworthy. I live in a building owned by my sister and brother-in-law and for a while, all three apartments in that building were rented by members of my family. All three mailboxes had “Holt” on them, which could have led to some confusion, but Paul is a stickler so our letters and bills were never mixed up. I don’t know much about Paul, really, but he is a constant and reassuring presence in my life. And I feel like he knows me, that somehow his knowledge about which magazines I subscribe to and how many wedding invitations I receive might translate into some deeper understanding of my psyche. We exchange the usual pleasantries when I see him and sometimes he rings the doorbell with inquiries. (“Who,” he asked me the other day, “is this person?” about an addressee whose name he didn’t recognize. I explained that it was a friend who is staying with my sister for a month.) Nothing escapes Paul’s attention. The United States Postal Service is lucky to have him in its employ.

And because of my relationship with people like Paul, Craig Hartglass’s “Pigs” really captured my imagination. “Pigs” was an unsolicited submission that arrived in my inbox last fall without a cover note or author bio. Its strong voice hooked me from the very first paragraph and when I passed the story on to other readers, we all agreed that this belonged in One Story. “Pigs” is about the relationships we have with the people we don’t really know. The connections–however limited–we make with the people we see regularly at the gym, the library, the coffee shop or the bank often make up for deficits in our lives. These strangers become regular players in our imaginations and landmarks on our personal maps. Sometimes these relationships are the most stable ones we have. Our marriages may unravel, our parents may die, but if the same barista is steaming our milk, everything seems manageable. And in this digital age,when so many of our connections are made online, the prosaic face-to-face exchange assumes added meaning. In this story, a relationship that is entirely transactional (between a bank teller and a regular customer at the bank) evolves over many years. We never see these two people interact outside the bank and we never know their names. Author Craig Hartglass offers no neat conclusions, but his keen observations about these characters evoke two full lives. Read this Q&A with Craig Hartglass and feel free to share your comments about this story.

Tania James Reading on May 1

taniajIt is fitting that Tania James (who grew up in Kentucky) read for the One Story series the day before the Kentucky Derby. While some people were busy placing bets at OTBs, a large crowd gathered at Pianos to hear Tania read from her excellent debut novel Atlas of Unknowns.Tania’s very first publication was in One Story (Issue #88, “Aerogrammes”); listen to her reading and you’ll see why the odds are so good that she’ll have a long and successful career.

Rebecca Barry Reading

One Story Reading Series Coordinator Elliott Holt, author Rebecca Barry, and Editor Hannah Tinti

One Story Reading Series Coordinator Elliott Holt, author Rebecca Barry, and Editor Hannah Tinti

One Story author Rebecca Barry (Issue #17, “Midnight Soup”) read for a big crowd at Pianos on Friday, April 3rd. Her story collection Later, at the Bar is now out in paperback, but Rebecca read an excerpt of her novel-in-progress. If you missed the reading, listen to our audio archive.

Orange You Curious?

The Orange* Prize for Fiction announced its 2009 longlist. The Orange Prize is awarded annually to the best novel of the year written in English by a woman. (Short story collections and novellas are not eligible.) This year’s longlist includes Toni Morrison for A Mercy, Miriam Toews for The Flying Troutmans and Marilynne Robinson for Home.

*Orange is the mobile phone company in the UK that sponsors the prize. When I lived in London, Orange was famous for its “adverts.” I don’t know anything about their current ad campaign.