There’s not a bum note in Salinger’s collection For Esme with Love and Squalor, but the closing story is the best. Set on a cruise ship, it centres around Teddy McArdle, a ten-year-old blessed with a universal wisdom far beyond his years. He rises above his sniping family’s emotional, easily riled American excesses, calmly musing on concepts of permanence, reality and reincarnation.
As the story gently leads us towards his 10:30am swimming lesson Teddy, we learn that he a cause célèbre among high ranking professors of religion and philosophy in various countries. Before this trip to Europe, he left some deeply ruffled feathers among an examination group in Boston. The tape of the occasion has been heard by a fellow traveller who corners Teddy, anxious to interrogate him on his views about life, God, death and existence.
‘I understand you left a pretty disturbed bunch–’
‘“Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die,”’ Teddy said suddenly. ‘“Along this road goes no one, this Autumn eve.”’
‘What was that?’ Nicholson asked, smiling. ‘Say that again.’
‘Those are two Japanese poems. They’re not full of a lot of emotional stuff,’ Teddy said.
The lightness with which Teddy embodies this enlightenment makes the impact of the final, inevitable scene – to which we’ve been inexorably drawn throughout – all the more devastating.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1953 and collected in Nine Stories, a.k.a. For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, Little, Brown/Penguin, 1953