Salinger would have hated ‘Salinger’
What really knocks me out,” Holden Caulfield says, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
J.D. Salinger wasn’t much for phone calls, and when admiring readers came slouching toward Cornish, N.H., seeking an audience, he did his very best to discourage them. He had a perfect hatred for photographers and reporters and critics and ex-lovers and most anybody else who failed his test of purity. Like Garbo, he wanted to be alone, and like Garbo, he made it impossible because, in one novel, he created a voice of such disarming intimacy that generations of teenage readers be-
lieved he was talking directly to them. And the more they talked back, the more he ran.
Imagine how fleetly he would fly before the spectacle of Salinger, an oral biography clothed in the distressed brick-red jacket of an old Catcher in the Rye paperback – but really just one pincer in a multimedia Anschluss that includes surgical strafings of advance press, followed by the rumbling tank of a documentary film and, one imagines, a carpet bombing of magazine features and book-festival appearances and morning TV and afternoon NPR.
Grant co-authors David Shields and Shane Salerno their moment of effulgence. Together, they logged nine years of research, collected 200 interviews across five continents, disinterred lost photographs, military records and billets-doux, and even unearthed a secret cache of soon-to-be-published Salinger novels.
These guys are bucking for the big show. And bucking a bit too hard, if we may judge from their most prized “find”: Salinger’s undescended testicle, an “anatomical deformity” that apparently didn’t stop him from engaging in multiple affairs or fathering children but that, in the eyes of Shields and Salerno, becomes his wound of Philoctetes, shaming him into seclusion and art.
Salinger has some undescended elements of its own. It contains no index. Its end notes are incomplete. Its passing errors suggest a book rushed to market. The absence of connective prose leaves the pages echoing with voices and counter-voices and no clear way to distinguish between them.
And now let the grumbling cease because Salinger is the thorny, complicated portrait that its thorny, complicated subject deserves. It offers the most complete rendering yet of Salinger’s World War II service, the transformative trauma that began with the D-Day invasion and carried through the horrific Battle of Hürtgen Forest and the liberation of a Dachau subcamp. “What a tricky, dreary farce,” Salinger said after receiving a citation for valor, “and how many men are dead.”
It was more farce than he could handle. He was hospitalized for shell shock. He married a German woman who may have been a Gestapo informant, divorced her in short order and rematriculated uneasily into the Park Avenue of his childhood. Always a facile writer, he was now a serious one, and he began publishing to great acclaim in the New Yorker.
For years, he had been lugging around the kernel of a novel. It had nothing much in the way of plot – an expelled prep-school student wanders around Manhattan, raging against phonies – and its charms eluded his pals at the New Yorker. But Little, Brown liked it, and when it came out in 1951, it found its audience. And never lost it.
The Catcher in the Rye sold 65 million copies and, for good or ill, it recombined our cultural DNA. Every teen malcontent in pop culture owes something to Holden Caulfield, his restiveness, his conviction that the world he’s inheriting is a sham.
And no one seemed to share that conviction more than Holden’s creator. Having achieved the American dream, Salinger turned heel. He moved to New Hampshire, where he sequestered himself and wrote – day after day. He married and had a family, but the claims of his fictional families were every bit as pressing. His work grew denser, less frequent. After 1965, he stopped publishing altogether.
The authors of Salinger attribute this long silence to his embrace of Vedanta Hinduism, which “transformed him from a writer of fiction into a disseminator of mysticism.”
Yet he was very much of the world. He encouraged film adaptations of his work. He dated a Hollywood actress and a nationally published columnist. He watched TV, traveled and wrote copious letters. Above all, he tended his reputation with great ferocity, reading every review, crying foul on pirated editions and suing to stop a biographer from using old letters.