Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno (Simon & Schuster, 720 pp., $22.50)
The austere dust jacket displays nothing but the title: Salinger. This is a deep bow to its subject—J(erome) D(avid) Salinger insisted that the covers of his books bear no illustrations, no “money quotes,” no encomia, no come-ons of any kind. But there the homage ends.
Salinger tumbles into the category of oral biography. At their best—Studs Terkel’s Working, for example—such volumes illuminate history with perceptive and pertinent interviews. At their worst, they recall a vanished celebrity by cutting and pasting a series of scan-deep monologues. Edie, the story of the doomed Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, was one of these; so were nattering biographies of Jerry Garcia and Jack Kerouac. Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, belongs on the same shelf.
As previous biographies have noted, “Jerry” Salinger came from a privileged New York City family. His father was Jewish, his mother Catholic, like Holden Caulfield, the adolescent protagonist of his perennial bestseller, The Catcher in the Rye—as well as Franny, Zoey, Seymour, Buddy, and the other lodestars of the Glass family, featured in his later tales. Salinger was an academic failure in grade school, high school, and college. Undiscouraged, he told friends he would be a novelist. Before his career could gain any traction, however, he was drafted into the army and became Staff Sergeant Salinger. “It was a long way from a Park Avenue apartment to Normandy and to war,” says one of the many talking heads who fill some 700 pages with the obvious.
Salinger had a wretched time overseas. He saw buddies killed, suffered from physical and psychological wounds, helped to liberate a Nazi death camp and, postwar, suffered a nervous breakdown. He married quickly, divorced even quicker, and settled into a New York City apartment. With shaky hands, he began to type out stories and a novel, published in 1951. Almost overnight, Holden Caulfield became the voice of a generation. There would be no other Salinger novels, but there would be plenty of short stories, and these attracted a different demographic—the upper middle-class readers of the New Yorker, then a trend-making magazine.
A fanatical cult sprang up, parsing every new work for hidden meanings. Most of the stories had a sly wit, a perfect pitch for contemporary backchat, and a whiff of Eastern mysticism that readers and reviewers found irresistible. The later tales concentrated on the Glasses, a group of seven superannuated wunderkinder—all brilliant, some hilarious, some doomed. The siblings evoked vigorous responses from fans and stronger ones from writers. Philip Roth wrote that Salinger “has managed to put his finger on what is most significant in the struggle going on between the self (all selves, not just the writer’s) and the culture.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, Mary McCarthy complained that “To be confronted with these seven faces of Salinger, all wise and loveable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool; Salinger’s world contains nothing but Salinger, his teachers, and his tolerantly cherished audience.”
In any case, after Catcher caught on, filmmakers came knocking. Salinger slammed the door in their faces. His agent had peddled one story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” to Samuel Goldwyn. Salinger detested the result—My Foolish Heart, a 1949 melodrama starring Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews—and now regarded the word “Hollywood” as a synonym for selling out. Besides, he didn’t need celluloid versions of his oeuvre; he was collecting major royalties from clothbound and paperback editions.
In early middle age, the author remarried and abandoned New York City for a Cornish, New Hampshire retreat. He fathered two children, divorced again, and commenced a series of short-lived affairs, most of them with young admirers. Joyce Maynard, 34 years Salinger’s junior when they met, was an aspiring writer. She offers a revealing glimpse of the petulant lover warning her off: “The minute you publish a book, you’d better understand, it’s out of your hands. In come the reviewers, aiming to make a name for themselves by destroying your own. And they will. Make no mistake about it. It’s a goddam embarrassment, publishing. The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down.” (Nonetheless, Salinger continued to write; according to Shields and Salerno, a trove of manuscripts awaits posthumous publication, beginning in 2015.)
Alas, far too many of Salinger’s speakers amount to comic book characters, with balloons over their heads filled with white space and a few ill-chosen words. Biographer A. Scott Berg (Charles Lindbergh) queries Salinger’s 80-year-old neighbor in Cornish, New Hampshire. Is the author okay? “‘He’s fine. So there is no reason for you to ever to see him is there?’ Dinner was over. That was that. It’s the closest I got to J.D. Salinger.” In Jake Gyllenhaal’s opinion, Holden Caulfield is “the Malcolm X of white suburban boys.” Ed Norton and John Cusack announce their own kinship with Holden. Millions of youths share the same feelings—Catcher still sells 250,000 copies per year, more than half a century after its debut—but no doubt the actors were chosen because of their marquee value.
Ironically, gossip-column celebrity is the last thing Salinger desired. He wanted worldwide recognition as a writer and got it. He wanted financial independence and achieved it. But he also craved privacy, a chance to write in isolation and to study Vedanta Hinduism in peace. Those were denied him. His last short story was published in 1965. Even so, until his death in 2010 at 91, strangers kept appearing on his front steps, waylaying him in local markets, taking his picture with telescopic lenses. Now, in death, he has been violated again.
David Shields, author of 15 books, poses as an intellectual researcher but displays the prying attitude of People magazine. His collaborator, Shane Salerno, is the director of the concurrent Salinger film. Given the oral biographers’ approach, it’s not surprising that they make dubious assertions about Salinger’s fate. War broke him “as a man and made him a great artist,” while religion “offered him postwar spiritual solace and killed his art.” Salinger dated Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill; when the 18-year-old threw him over to marry Charlie Chaplin, the event triggered his lifelong obsession, we’re told, with immature women. Oh, and Salinger may have had only one testicle. Shields and Salerno seem to regard this abnormality as comparable to the festering wound of the ancient Greek hero Philoctetes. Their coup de grace: The bloody-minded stalkers of John Lennon and Ronald Reagan were Holden Caulfields gone wrong. The young men’s lethal intentions were “not a coincidence; they constitute frighteningly clairvoyant readers of Catcher—the assassins intuiting the underlying postwar anger and violence in the book.”
Of course, one could argue that J. D. Salinger brought all this on himself. By ostentatiously withdrawing from society, the man dubbed the Greta Garbo of American letters invited rumors about his life and work, just as the camera-shy actress did about hers. But even the great tale spinner could hardly have imagined this mélange of psychobabble and pseudo-scholarship. Salinger will come and go; Salinger will endure, at least until those unpublished stories go on sale. Then the wild speculation will begin all over again. That, too, is Jerry’s fate.