Zooey Glass is an incredibly compelling, magnetic character. He's got a brain akin to da Vinci, a verbal wit like Shakespeare, a coolness factor on par with James Bond and the good looks to compete with Christian Bale. Zooey also has the I-couldn't-care-less, James Dean dark-and-brooding-tortured-soul routine down pat. Or, to put it in Salinger's words, he is "surpassingly handsome, even spectacularly so" (Zooey.2.2); he looks like "the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo" (Zooey.2.2). His eyes are "a day's work to look into" (Zooey.6.15). At the age of twelve, he "had an English vocabulary on an exact par with Mary Baker Eddy's, if he could be urged to use it" (Zooey.2.5). He doesn't want to get married because he likes the window seat on trains too much. He refuses to waste his time on people he doesn't like – "which is most of them" (Zooey.5.33). And he's the "verbal stunt pilot" who puts all other daring Glass verbalists to shame (Zooey.8.41).
Franny and Zooey are quite a bit alike. As Franny says, she and her brother are "not bothered by exactly the same things, but by the same kind of things, […] and for the same reasons" (Zooey.6.70). Indeed these two have a lot in common: Buddy's four-year-old letter to Zooey is Salinger's brilliant way of letting us know that Zooey was wearing Franny's shoes not too long ago. He, too, was deciding whether or not to continue his education (grad school in his case, while Franny is still an undergrad), and whether or not to pursue acting (professionally, in his case, whereas Franny is still acting as an amateur). Also keep in mind that Franny and Zooey are the babies in the family, and the only two really good looking Glass children. They were both educated by their older brothers, and the both suffer from being too judgmental.
So Zooey has his own laundry list of issues – not identical, but similar to, Franny's. "Zooey" does a lot to flesh out and explain many of the concepts raised in "Franny." Who is the Glass family? What makes them different? Why is Franny freaking out? The character of Zooey – through his conversations with his mother, his advice to his sister, and most interestingly, his own, parallel problems – helps to answer these questions. Zooey discusses in detail all that seems impenetrable and cryptic with Franny. We can think of Zooey, then, as Franny plus a half-decade of experience plus a heck of a lot more self-awareness. By looking carefully at Zooey's issues, we understand Franny and the novel as a whole lot better.
We'll start with Zooey's good looks. Buddy informs us that Zooey has been "fighting a private war against narcissism he had been fighting since he was seven or eight years old" (Zooey.5.1). That's why he tries to shave without really looking at himself in the mirror. Just like Franny, Zooey is careful to avoid the sort of egotism that he's learned to hate in those around him. This is probably why he flips out when his mother touches his back and comments on how lovely he looks. ("Don't, willya?" he yells, "sharply recoiling" from her touch. "Don't admire my goddam back" [Z.5.86, 88].) Zooey doesn't want to be admired physically, because he spends most of his time trying not to think about his looks in the first place.
Another of Zooey's concerns is his own cynicism and negativity. Like Franny, he's inclined to pass judgment on those around him, and also like Franny, he beats up on himself for doing so. "I'm tired as hell of getting up furious in the morning and going to bed furious at night," he says. "I sit in judgment on every poor, ulcerous bastard I know. […] There's something I do to people's morale downtown that I can't stand to watch much longer. I can tell you exactly what I do. I make everybody feel that he doesn't really want to do any good work but that he just wants to get work done that will be thought good by everyone he knows […]. That's what I do. That's the worst I do" (Zooey.6.57). While Zooey has made some attempts to chill himself out, and to stop being so judgmental (we'll get to this in a minute), he's still suffering from the same Glass family aversion to imperfect, non-Glass family members.
Unlike Franny, Zooey has taken a long hard look into why he is the way he is. His biggest complaint seems to be the education he and Franny received from their older brothers when they were kids. In Zooey's words:
"We're freaks, the two of us, Franny and I," he announced, standing up. "I'm a twenty-five-year-old freak and she's a twenty-year-old freak, and both those bastards are responsible. […] I swear to you, I could murder them both without even batting an eyelash. The great teachers. The great emancipators. My God. I can't even sit down to lunch with a man any more and hold up my end of a decent conversation. I either get so bored or so goddam preachy that if the son of a bitch had any sense, he'd break his chair over my head." (Zooey.5.54).
Zooey also blames his childhood celebrity for his adult personality. "On top of everything else," he tells his mother, "we've got 'Wise Child' complexes. We've never really got off the goddam air. Not one of us. We don't talk, we hold forth. We don't converse, we expound. At least I do" (Zooey.6.63). This turns out to be very true throughout the course of Franny and Zooey. Zooey lectures at his mother; he expounds for his sister; he holds forth over the phone in the novel's final scene. If Zooey can't converse, it means that he isn't great at interacting with people – which, if you've been paying attention, is no news at all.
The first half of "Zooey" consists of Bessie arguing with her son about talking to Franny. At first look, Zooey might even seem like a bit of a jerk. He mocks his mother and doesn't seem to care about his sister. But it's not long before we realize this is all an act.
First of all, Zooey is only teasing (as evidenced by Bessie's revealing her "connoisseurlike […] relish for her youngest, and only handsome, son's style of bullying" [Z.4.46]), and second of all, this entire bathtub retreat has been about finding a way to help Franny. We know that Zooey blames Buddy and Seymour's teachings for Franny's crisis – so this is why he brought out the four-year-old letter in which Buddy finally explains why he and Seymour instructed the two of them this way. We realize that Zooey is trying to work things out in his head before going in to talk to his sister.
Of course, when Zooey finally does make his way to the living room to chat with Franny, we might be tempted, again, to think of him as somewhat of a jerk. Here Franny is all prostrate with grief on the tear-soaked couch, and all he manages to do is criticize her. He criticizes her faith, her understanding of religious philosophy, even her very crisis itself. "You're up to your neck at this minute in tenth-rate thinking," he tells her. "Not only is the way you're going at your prayer tenth-rate religion but, whether you know it or not, you're having a tenth-rate nervous breakdown" (Zooey.6.120). He gets downright mean about it: "You're beginning to give off a little stink of piousness," he says. "All this hysteria business is unattractive as hell. […] If you're going to go on with this breakdown business, I wish to hell you'd go back to college to have it." (Zooey.6.108-110).
But we see soon enough that this isn't cruelty or even mean-spiritedness – rather, it's Zooey's own brand of tough love. This is what Franny needs to hear in order to snap out of it, and it's through the tough language that the real lessons of Zooey's lecture, and perhaps the real lessons of Salinger's novel, are to be found. We can distill Zooey's argument down into a few basic principles: