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'Salinger' gets the goods on an author's reclusive life

August 28, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • J.D. Salinger sitting on his bed at home in 1968.
J.D. Salinger sitting on his bed at home in 1968. (The Story Factory )

When 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.

What had he been doing for all that time at his hilltop retreat in Cornish, N.H.? Writing, certainly: Witnesses, including his 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?

The 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 less stories per se than parables, or koans.

When 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.

Salerno 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.

The 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 last.

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.

Don't 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 Bananafish.” Stilted, pedantic, it is, Shields observes, “dead on arrival — deliberately, angrily, fascinatingly so.”

The question is why — why Salinger deliberately 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 human being.

“Salinger” argues that it begins and ends with World War II.

This 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.

“You 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 disorder.

“He put his arms on the table and rested his head upon them,” Salinger writes in “For Esmé — 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 defective.”

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