news emerged three years ago that filmmaker Shane
Salerno and writer David Shields were working on a
lengthy oral biography (with accompanying documentary)
about J.D. Salinger, I assumed it would be all smoke and
no fire. Salinger, after all, had gone to ground after
the publication of his novella "Hapworth 16,
1924" in the June 19, 1965, issue of the New
Yorker; even in the wake of his death, in January 2010
at age 91, his estate had preserved the silence of his
final 45 years.
had he been doing for all that time at his hilltop
retreat in Cornish, N.H.? Writing, certainly: Witnesses,
including former lover Joyce Maynard and his daughter,
Margaret, who published back-to-back memoirs in 1998 and
2000, had already told us that. But what, exactly, had
he written? And how had he persevered?
latter question is perhaps more essential in regard to
Salinger than any other 20th-century American writer,
for in his four slim books — "The Catcher in the
Rye," "Nine Stories," "Franny and
Zooey" and "Raise High the Roof Beam,
Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction" — he
sought to offer instructions for living, producing fewer
stories per se than parables, or koans.
Franny Glass, the youngest sibling in his fictional
family of saints and martyrs, declares, "I used to
hate myself so, when I was in a play, to be backstage
after the play was over. All those egos running around
feeling terribly charitable and warm," she is
speaking for Salinger, without question. But she is also
sending a message he wants the rest of us to hear.
and Shields’ book "Salinger," it turns out,
is an exploration of those messages, which Salinger
seeded throughout his life and work. At nearly 700
pages, it’s a bit of a shaggy monster, yet what may be
most astonishing about it is its (largely) even tone.
idea is to present a portrait of Salinger as both his
own savior and something considerably darker; among its
most troubling revelations is that Salinger pursued and
even (in some cases) seduced teenage women; Maynard, who
was 18 when he wooed her, was neither the first nor the
book has already been in the news for uncovering, in the
closing pages, plans to publish five new volumes of
Salinger’s writing, beginning in 2015. It’s a mark
of Salerno and Shields’ achievement, however, that
this seems in the end beside the point. Of course, if
there were work, it would emerge eventually, although I
fear that may be a mixed blessing at best.
get me wrong: I’d read a laundry list if Salinger had
a hand in it, but in the last years before his retreat,
his writing began to grow increasingly insular, as if,
the authors suggest here, he were writing for an
audience of one. "Hapworth" is, to be frank, a
disaster, a 20,000-plus-word letter narrated by Seymour
Glass, then 7, who famously kills himself at the end of
the 1948 story "A Perfect Day for
Banana-fish." Stilted, pedantic, it is, Shields
observes, "dead on arrival — deliberately,
angrily, fascinatingly so."
question is why — why Salinger set out to embrace
anger and renunciation (or, perhaps, the Joycean trinity
of "silence, exile and cunning") and what this
tells us about him not only as a writer but also as a
argues that it begins and ends with World War II.
is not a new theory; it was explored in Kenneth
Slawenski’s disappointing 2011 biography "J.D.
Salinger: A Life," which relies more on conjecture
than reporting to make its case. But Salerno and Shields
get the goods, digging up information on Salinger’s
war buddies, including Paul Fitzgerald, with whom he
maintained a lifelong friendship and correspondence, and
tracing the shattering sequence of his service on the
battlefield, which began with D-Day and ended nine
months later with the liberation of the concentration
camp Kaufering IV.
can never really get the smell of burning flesh out of
your nose entirely, no matter how long you live,"
Salinger once told his daughter Margaret. In Europe, in
summer 1945, he had a breakdown, and returned home with
what we now would identify as post-traumatic stress
put his arms on the table and rested his head upon
them," Salinger writes in "For Esme — With
Love and Squalor," a rare fictional evocation of
his war experience. "He ached from head to foot,
all zones of pain seemingly interdependent. He was
rather like a Christmas tree whose lights, wired in
series, must all go out if even one bulb is
through such a filter, Salinger’s life becomes a saga
defined by its own trauma and the books a series of
small miracles that, by all rights maybe, never should
have existed at all. It’s a point Salerno and Shields
make explicit late in their own book, suggesting that
"the wounds made him; for nearly a decade, he
transformed the wounds into agony-fueled art, and then
— because he could not abide his own body, himself,
his own war-ruined mind, the attention, the criticism,
the love — he came to revile the world."
the same time, they argue, this was a double-edged
process, in which he did an odd dance with his solitude,
offering occasional interviews (most tellingly a 1974
conversation with the New York Times’ Lacey Fosburgh)
and even appearing in court in 1986 to give a deposition
in his lawsuit against biographer Ian Hamilton.
a part of him," observes Salinger scholar John
Wenke, "that enjoys the power game that went on
when the Ian Hamilton biography was making its way
through the courts. ... An actual recluse or mystic
right, which is why Salinger continues to fascinate us,
half a century after his last published words. "Salinger"
is at its best in tracing these contradictions — the
litigious tender of his public image and the man whose
last words were, reportedly, "I am in this world
but not of it" — and in using them to humanize
the author by revealing the depths of his flaws.
for what’s missing, I wish Salerno and Shields had
given more information about who is speaking: Each
chapter is a litany of names without attribution,
leaving us unsure from whom we’re hearing and why.
There is also an unfortunate tendency to mix interview
material with passages from published works, without
distinguishing between them on the page. Interpretive
chapters on "The Catcher in the Rye" and
"Nine Stories," as well as one on the role of
"Catcher" in the crimes of Mark David Chapman,
John Hinckley Jr. and Robert Bardo, fall flat.
yet I think this is as it should be, for if "Salinger"
has anything to tell us, it’s that its subject was
just a man. He lived, he saw some horrible things and
spent the rest of his years trying to crawl out from
under them, and then eventually he died. It’s the most
common story in the world, and it strips away the sheen
of his exceptionalism, trading in his genius for
something much more real.
for cures," Salerno and Shields write, "he
destroyed himself: withdrawal, silence, inward collapse.
The wounds undid him, and he went under."