Reading with the Arena: For Esme with Love and Squalor

353J. D. Salinger is easily the author who has had the largest impact on me as a writer. Which is strange to say as I haven’t read his stuff in a long time. And it’s also odd that it wasn’t Catcher in the Rye that first turned me onto him. I know I read Catcher in high-school, but I don’t remember it. It wasn’t until an old teacher recommended his short stories that Salinger really knocked me for a loop.

His collection, Nine Stories, is a masterclass in the art of short stories. And it is the story “For Esme with Love and Squalor” that has stuck with me the most from this collection.

I suppose the place to start is at the beginning, the title. Just look at that title. What in the hell does it mean? It’s a gibberish mess of words. How can you send something with squalor? And why would you? And yet…and yet it sort of rolls off of the tongue. It has a patter to it that I’ve always loved. There’s meter in the words. Looking at other story titles in this collection, all of these thoughts turn out to be a common theme. “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.” “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.”

None of them mean anything alone, yet they all conjure up…well something. And that last one? That last one makes no sense but after reading it a few times I find myself getting “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” lodged in my head, repeating it over and over again at different angles.

These titles weave powerful words spells, but their real magic is that they all make sense in the context of their stories. All of these crazy phrases actually have real meaning, it’s just that you don’t know the story behind them yet.

Titles like these are what I strive for in my short stories. My work in the arena, granted, has had me scrambling for titles at times, but whenever possible I always want to title my stories in pure gibberish that makes sense after you read the story. And, if possible, means something else entirely upon a second read-through.

Salinger’s titles are brilliant uses of words, and that’s no surprise because Salinger’s use of word choice is almost otherworldly. He paints pictures with words that are, simply, perfect. I can see everything that Salinger writes about, even if I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“For Esme with Love and Squalor” opens with an on-leave soldier having tea in a small English shop where a young girl, her brother, and their nanny are also stopping off to get out of the rain. The soldier interacts with the boy, superficially, and the girl, on a deeper level. He finds her old beyond her years, yet also striving too hard to act like the grown up she feels she needs to be in her war-torn family.

The interactions are as sharp in my imagination as film, maybe sharper than some films, and, although nothing of seeming importance is happening, the interaction is riveting because of this preciseness. With Salinger, every word counts. He was said to often stop writing and then jot down lists of words until he found the right one, then continue on with his sentence. This is not a writer who says “black” when they mean “charcoal.”

And it was through reading Salinger that this notion finally took root in my head. Why wouldn’t I make very word count? What the hell was I doing putting words on a page if I wasn’t thinking about them and trying to make them matter? I mean it’s not like there was anything else for my reader to interact with. I wasn’t sneaking an oboe concerto into the room every time someone read my story. I had words. I have words. And that is it. Sure I wanted interesting plots and riveting characters, but if I wasn’t focusing on the words to produce these things, if I wasn’t paying attention to every word, then what was I doing?

“For Esme with Love and Squalor” continues on. There’s a twist and a return to the front and our faithful narrator starts sounding a little different. I won’t give away too many things, but everything comes back around in the most satisfying way.

And then you glance back over the title and that jumbled mix of oddness that sounded like a placeholder earlier suddenly comes to life. It takes on real meaning. It becomes a wonderful doorway into the core of the story and sets you ruminating on what you’ve just read.

And this all gets accomplished because every single word in there matters.

Because every word deserves to be pondered.


Joseph Devon: Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

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  1. I ordered my copy. Somehow I haven’t read this one before bf you can cite this as an inspiration then it must be good.

    Great essay!

    • Wow. That’s quite a compliment, thanks, Rich. Looking forward to what you think. I know some of them are…not what you’d expect at first, especially if you don’t know the Glass Family from Salinger’s other stuff. But there’s a ton of solid stories overall.

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