In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” a woman named Muriel argues on the phone with her mother, who is worried about the girl’s apparently unstable husband – war veteran Seymour Glass. Muriel and Seymour, meanwhile, are on vacation at a seaside hotel. When we meet Seymour, he is on the beach in a bathrobe, chatting with a young girl named Sybil. He tells Sybil they should go into the water and look for “bananafish” – peculiar creatures who have a habit of getting stuck in banana-filled holes after eating too much and growing too fat to move. After the dip in the water, Seymour returns to his hotel room and, next to his sleeping wife, shoots himself with a pistol.
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” involves two middle-aged women by the names of Mary Jane and Eloise. They were roommates in college, and have met up to gossip and share memories at Eloise’s house. The conversation touches upon Walt, a man who Eloise loved and who was killed in the war. Eloise is now unhappily married to a man named Lew. She reminisces about the past, about the jokes Walt used to tell, and dissolves into tears. In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” a young girl named Virginia Maddox – Ginnie, for short – insists to her tennis partner Selena that she be reimbursed for cab fares. Selena throws a fit, noting that her ill mother will need to be awakened for the money while marching Ginnie up to her apartment. Ginnie waits for Selena in the living room, and there chats with Selena’s older brother Franklin – who has a weak heart, served during the war in an airplane factory in Ohio, has a crush on Ginnie’s sister and is pained to learn (though he tries to hide it) that she is engaged to Franklin’s friend Eric, a well-dressed dandy with a taste for Cocteau. When Selena reemerges with the money, Ginnie tells her she has thought about it and no longer needs or wants it.
“The Laughing Man” is told in the first-person, by a narrator who, back in 1928, participated in an after-school organization called the Comanche Club. This club consisted of a group of young boys, led by an NYU law student, named John Gedsudski but known to the kids as “the Chief.” Every school-day afternoon, the kids would play sports in the park, then listen to the Chief’s wild tales about the Laughing Man – a deformed criminal in a red poppy-petal mask, an international man of mystery, relentlessly pursued by the Parisian detective Dufarge. One day, a girl named Mary Hudson joins the boys and plays baseball with him. The Chief has had her picture in his bus for some time; the two seem to be in a relationship. A few days later, Mary does not arrive at the normal pick-up spot, and, when she appears later at the park, refuses to play. She and the Chief talk. She breaks into tears and runs away. That evening, Chief finishes his Laughing Man saga by killing off the protagonist, to the shock of his youthful audience.
In “Down at the Dinghy,” Boo Boo Tannenbaum, a rich woman of the Glass family, tries to lure her son Lionel from off his father’s boat. Lionel is prone to fits, and is now upset because, as we learn at the tale’s end, he overheard one of the maids call his father a “kike.” Boo Boo asks Lionel if he knows what the word means. He says he does, and proffers the definition of a kite. Boo Boo wins him over, and, after crying in her arms, Lionel gleefully races her back to the house – and wins.
“For Esme – with Love and Squalor” recounts an encounter a soldier has with a bright thirteen year-old girl named Esme, in Devon, England, shortly before the D Day Invasion. He first sees her at choir practice in a church, then runs into her in a tearoom. The two strike up a conversation, as Esme is preternaturally gregarious and affable. We can sense there is an immediate connection between them – not romantic, but affectionate in a perhaps even more profound way. Esme’s father was killed in war, and she seems to mask her loneliness and fear with an arrogant (albeit youthfully charming) façade, showing off with words she clearly does not know the meanings of (such as “prolific”) and acting much like a self-appointed princess. She asks the narrator, upon learning that he is a short-story writer, if he can write a story for her. She then tells him she will write him a letter. This letter he receives much later – after having participated in D-Day and five successive campaigns and subsequently suffered a nervous collapse. Recuperating in Germany on V-E Day, he reads Esme’s letter and feels more at ease than he has felt for a long while.
“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” hinges on a simple deception. A man named Arthur calls a man named Lee, a colleague and friend of his, to ask him if he knows where his wife is. Little does Arthur know that Joanie, the wife, is in Lee’s room, carrying on either an affair or a one-night stand with him. Lee tries to console Arthur and calm him down, telling him that Joanie probably got waylaid by the “Ellenbogens” and that any minute she will come “barging” back home. After a long talk, Arthur accepts these consolations and hangs up. He calls again just a few moments later – to tell Lee that he was right after all, that Joanie has just come home, and that there’s nothing left to worry about.
In “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” a nineteen year-old boy travels from New York to Montreal to work as an instructor at a new correspondence art school. There he is beset with talentless students – until he happens upon one pupil’s envelope, and is struck by the work he sees. The student’s name is Sister Irma, and she is a nun at a convent near Toronto, assigned to teach “cooking and drawing” to children. The narrator sees in her a real talent and writes to her in gushing prose of her abilities and his desires to help her. The next letter from the convent, however, is from the administration, informing the school that Sister Irma can no longer be a student. The narrator is crestfallen, writes frantically to Sister Irma but doesn’t mail his letter. He then experiences an epiphany, when standing outside the orthopedic appliances store underneath the correspondence school, and writes in his diary: “I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everybody is a nun.”
The last story in the collection, “Teddy,” involves a ten year-old boy genius, known by professors across Europe and America for “tapes” he has made. He is on a boat with his family, on their way back from Europe, and engages in a conversation with a young man named Bob Nicholson – who is intensely interested in the boy and presses him with questions, particularly regarding a series of “disturbing” statements Teddy apparently made to a group of professors, hinting at the circumstances of their coming deaths. After remarking that death is not a big deal, that people die and are reincarnated all the time, and that he could die today at his swimming lesson, Teddy steals away to the pool. Nicholson, on his own time, strolls down to the pool, only to hear a piercing scream.