There are some books that are made for certain times in your life. The Bell Jar is an example, and so – of course – is Salinger’s anti-phony manifesto, Catcher in the Rye. I’m sad to say I missed the window on that one. Despite my mother’s needling (I also avoided Joni Mitchell for far too many years out of similar mulishness), I never made it to Catcher during those oh-so-important teenage years of self-absorption and angst. I read it later, and while I still liked it quite a bit, I could tell what I was missing. It just didn’t strike the right note with me, and so, sadly, I missed the boat on Holden Caufield. But not so with the siblings Glass. I came across them at just the right time. In my years just out of college, when I was feeling completely baffled and not just a trifle miffed about what “life after college” really is. Okay! You’ve had the expensive preparation and the “essential college experience”! Go forth! Fully formed! Live all those dreams and achieve all those goals! Go! What are you waiting for? Why are you curling up on the couch?
I read Franny and Zooey first, and felt transformed. I have quite enough feelings on that one to fill its own post, and I’m sure I will, so suffice it to say that I loved, loved, LOVED it and moved on as quickly as possible to Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, the first of which we’ll be dealing with today.
For any of you unfamiliar with the Glass clan, here’s a primer. Raised in New York City, Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt and Waker (Twins), Zooey, and Franny, are the children of retired Vaudeville performers Les and Bessie. Brilliant, precocious, and ultimately troubled, all of them appeared under false names on a very popular radio program, A Wise Child, which subsequently paid their way through college. Almost all of Salinger’s Glass Family stories were originally published in the New Yorker. Now, you can find the longer tales in the volumes mentioned above, and a few in Nine Stories.
Raise High the Roof Beef, Carpenters is narrated, as many of the Glass stories are, by the second eldest, Buddy Glass, who is often considered to be Salinger’s alter ego (it’s insinuated in Seymour that he wrote Catcher in the Rye). The year is 1942, and Buddy is serving in Fort Benning, and trying to recover from a bad case of pleurisy. He’s gotten leave to go to Seymour’s wedding, an event none of the remaining family can attend, mostly due to war assignments, but that all are pretty concerned about.
And well they should be. The wedding doesn’t go as planned. Seymour’s a no show, leaving Buddy alone with a very unhappy contingent of the bride’s family. They’re all shoved in a sweltering cab, stuck in traffic on the way to what is looking to be a depressing reception. The (very formidable) Matron of Honor needs to get to a phone and they all need a break from the heat, so Buddy invites the group to his apartment where—to cut the ice and deal with his shredded nerves—he fixes a huge pitcher of Tom Collins cocktails.
The drinks—made with a syrup of lemon juice and sugar, gin, and club soda— are cool and refreshing and strong, and diffuse the tension from the little party. Buddy is finally able to seek some refuge and reflect on the day. As we sit a bit with his thoughts, as well as with the journal he found in Seymour’s luggage, it becomes clear that war has not been kind the most remarkable, the most sensitive of the Glass children.
A touching portrayal of how war can twist and warp the best in all of us, and told with Salinger’s signature desperate shrug, Raise High the Room Beam, Carpenters exposes our response to those experiencing extreme mental and emotional strain and betrays the gutting lack of empathy even “good people” can display. Especially to those who need it most, the sensitive, the vulnerable. Reacting to one too many snide comments regarding Seymour’s erratic behavior and supposed brilliance—implying that a person smart enough to be a child prodigy should by able to better handle the strains of combat and marriage, Buddy snaps:
“I said I didn’t give a good God damn what Mrs. Fedder had to say on the subject of Seymour. Or, for that matter, what any professional dilettante or amateur bitch had to say. I said that from the time Seymour was ten years old, every summa-cum-laude Thinker and intellectual men’s room attendant in the country had been having a go at him. I said it might be different if Seymour had been some nasty little high-I.Q. show off. I said he hadn’t ever been an exhibitionist. He went down to the broadcast every Wednesday night as if he were going to his own funeral. He didn’t even talk to you, for God’s sakes, the whole way down on the bus or subway. I said that not one God-damn person, of all the patronizing, fourth rate critics and column writers, had ever seen him for what he really was. A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had out at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.”
And so, as an antidote to all the unsolicited advice, petty sniping, and snarky judgments you may find at holiday parties this week, or simply because this classic cocktail—originally created to make some money at the expense of an irritating hoax—is easy, refreshing and delicious, I give you the Tom Collins.
Makes 1 pitcher – 6 to 8 glasses
1 cup lemon juice,(about 6 lemons)
3 tbsp granulated sugar
3 cups club soda
1-3/4 cups gin (extra points if it’s of the Old Tom variety)
In microwave-safe dish, microwave lemon juice with sugar at high for 1 minute. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add all ingredients to the pitcher, stir to blend and chill. Garnish with a lemon slice, or, if you prefer, a maraschino cherry.