Monday, July 13, 2015

Do it for the Fat Lady

J.D. Salinger's "Zooey" was published in The New Yorker in May 1957, more than two years after the magazine published his much shorter story "Franny." Since 1961 the two have been in print in book form as Franny and Zooey. Although technically two separate stories, they read more like a novel in two parts. "Zooey" is simply a continuation of "Franny," a few hours later.

I commented on "Franny" on June 22, but in brief the story is about a college girl's spiritual/mental/physical breakdown while she's having dinner with her boyfriend. In "Zooey," Franny, the youngest child in the Glass family, has returned to the family home and collapsed in the living room. Worried about her, Bessie, her mother, invades the bathroom while Zooey, her youngest son, is relaxing in the tub and talks him into trying to help Franny out of her funk and, perhaps more important in Bessie's mind, to get her to consume some of her all-purpose chicken broth.

Although he claims to have other things he needs to do, Zooey nevertheless does speak with his sister, seemingly only succeeding in increasing Franny's despair. The gist of her turmoil seems to be that nobody measures up to her own high standards of how people should live their lives. Everyone, including her college professors and members of her own family, are shallow, conceited, hypocritical, etc. Although she is continually repeating the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me"), she thinks Jesus himself was a bit rude when he upset the tables in the temple.

The initial breakthrough, in the story at least, comes not with something Zooey says but with something Franny herself says, "I don't think it (college) would have all got me so down if just once in a while -- just once in a while -- there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and if it doesn't, it's just a disgusting waste of time!"

Each of the seven Glass children had appeared in turn on a radio program called "It's a Wise Child" on which, ironically enough, the emphasis was on a child's knowledge rather than wisdom. Each of the seven excelled academically. As for wisdom, the eldest, Seymour and Buddy, are highly regarded, except that Seymour committed suicide at a young age and Buddy, a college professor, never seems to be available when needed, such as right now. That's why Zooey, a successful television actor, gets the call.

Failing in his first attempt, Zooey calls from Seymour's old room, pretending to be Buddy, and tries a different approach with Franny, but she quickly sees through the ruse. Yet, perhaps inspired by his surroundings, Zooey reminds his sister of what Seymour used to tell them before they went on the air. He would tell Zooey to shine his shoes, never mind that it was radio, for the Fat Lady. He once told Franny to be funny for the Fat Lady. Who is the Fat Lady? "Ah, buddy. Ah. buddy," Zooey says. "It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy."

We must do our best, whether on a radio quiz show, in a college classroom, in a TV production or wherever we are and whatever it is we do, for fat ladies, pompous professors, vain siblings, imperfect people everywhere. Bessie's chicken soup is consecrated, Zooey says, and so, he suggests, are those very imperfect people we share our lives with.

That, from the youngest male in the Glass household, is not knowledge, but wisdom.

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