Salinger by Shane Salerno and David Shields is not so much a biography of J.D. Salinger as it is an assortment of press clips and interview excerpts about Salinger. None of the pieces are properly dated or sourced in the main text, aside from the name of the person speaking or writing, so fifty-year-old articles are lined up next to commentary from academics and the thoughts of the actor Edward Norton. Somewhere in between are words from people who actually knew Salinger. In the book’s 500-plus pages, the “authors” contribute maybe 50 pages of text.
The result is something like a J.D. Salinger Facebook news feed. This is not optimal, but it’s not the biggest problem with Salinger.
The biggest problem is that on a subject where nuance and understanding are required, Salinger is sloppy and lazy. Its flood of information ends up being a mile wide and an inch deep. Even when presenting new details that are valuable and intriguing, Salinger manages to tell a story that is less than the sum of its parts. Then there is David Shields, who I will deal with in a moment. But for these reasons and more, this is about to get ugly.
Salinger bills itself as the companion to the “acclaimed documentary film,” which had yet to be released as of the book’s publication. Now that it’s out, most of the “acclaim” is along the lines of The Dissolve’s verdict that “Saying the film provides a CliffsNotes version of Salinger’s career would give it too much credit,” or Peter Travers at Rolling Stone calling it “processed cheese” and “a suck job.”
While trudging through the book, I’ve been using post-it notes to mark the sections where I was forced to sit up and/or smack my forehead in disgust, disagreement or sheer disbelief. For example, the chapter “Conversation with Salinger #4” that features no conversation whatsoever with Salinger, and just retells the tale of Gordon Lish at Esquire, writing and publishing an anonymous story that people thought was written by Salinger. Or, at the beginning of the chapter “Conversation with Salinger #9” which opens with its narrator saying, “I never met Salinger…”
It is true that, while Salinger has some exceptional failings, not everything in it is terrible. The opening chapters get it mostly right about how deeply scarred Salinger was from World War II. The short burst, interview-and-clippings format works when describing the horrors that Salinger faced storming Utah Beach, fighting in Hurtgen Forest, and liberating the Kaufering IV concentration camp. Relentless, repetitive details and anecdotes drive home how terrible it must have been.
One of the “Conversations with Salinger” sections (actually told by someone who spoke to Salinger) comes from a seemingly unbalanced man who drove 450 miles to New Hampshire, more than once, to question the author.
“A man is in Cornish. Amateur, perhaps, but sentimentally connected. The saddest — a tragic figure without a background. Needing a future as much of your past. Let me.” That was the note I wrote to J.D. Salinger. It took me two months to write it.
Reading his incoherent letter and hearing him describe Salinger as “a missing father figure in my life, a soul mate,” it’s clear what kind of trouble fame brought to the author, literally to his doorstep. (For some reason, this man’s commentary shows up later in the book, added without qualification right alongside credible sources.)
In another case, a long letter to Joyce Maynard (or a long section made up of letters strung together; the arrangement is unclear) is a fascinating artifact. Salerno and Shields reproduce it without commentary, which is the right move. The follow-up to the letter(s), a long section from Joyce Maynard — who sat for 18 hours of interviews for the book and movie — turns out to be an enlightening look at one of the darker areas of Salinger’s history.
Most importantly, the authors’ detailed claims that five new books are forthcoming is fantastic news, if it ends up being true.
But these moments of clarity can’t overcome the book’s overall weaknesses. Most of which appear to be the work of David Shields.
Shields is the author of 15 books, including Reality Hunger, a “manifesto” about changing literature or some such ambition. The book is comprised of short sections, many of which are culled from other writers, whom Shields only credits grudgingly (tell me if this sounds familiar). I’ve been in enough undergraduate writing workshops to be wary of gimmicks that save people from the hard work of actually writing — but Shields seems to be having some success with it. I didn’t read it, but RH was well received. Whatever its virtues might have been, in Salinger the cut-and-paste method absolves the authors of responsibility for what they present, which clears the way for the worst possible conclusions. This is, unfortunately, right where Shields (and Salerno, to a lesser degree) want to take us.
Shields follows the path of Paul Alexander, a previous biographer (also featured in Salinger) who indulged the most lurid speculation about Salinger’s exile. Like bad fiction, Shields can’t seem to interpret Salinger’s actions or writings as anything other than responses to a few big deal events from his past. Every speculation runs on a clear line from Salinger’s spurning by Oona O’Neill, or his shame from having an undescended testicle, or his hatred of ego. (Can we please — please — start recognizing that there is a little more to Salinger’s theology — and Eastern religion in general — than animosity to ego?)
To remind us that Salinger is a favorite of adolescents, Shields writes with the style and insight of a high school term paper. At one point, he somehow thinks it’s reasonable to claim that a reference Salinger made in the late 1940s, to Hemingway’s fictional nurse Catherine Barclay, is “uncannily prescient” about his marriage decades later to his third wife, a former nurse. A chapter in which he retells each of the Nine Stories in the second person should not be read under any circumstances. After a few hundred pages, his contributions become the equivalent of that annoying kid in class, who raises his hand every few minutes to interject something you already thought about and dismissed:
- On the odd premise that Salinger went to war to improve his art: “He wasn’t interested in guns for guns’ sake. He was interested in guns for art’s sake.” (81)
- On Franny: “If pregnancy is not the main idea here, what is? That Franny, a mythological female [what the hell is a mythological female?], is suffering a postwar nervous breakdown? The mystic’s confused searching for meaning is fulfilled through the use of young girls’ bodies [meaningless statement with inference to a scandalous issue]. The womb is the reincarnated war wound [I thought pregnancy was not the main idea, remember from two sentences ago?]. Franny is prayerful witness to the necessity of her creator’s war survival [gibberish].” (326)
- On Salinger’s exile (I guess): “Salinger’s life is a failed Salinger novel: he never truly re-embraces existence.” (506)
- Apropos of nothing: “He needs life to feel difficult.” (509)
- On Salinger not publishing: “The impulse not to publish seems to be, above all, a futile attempt to transcend the ego. Most of Salinger’s work — certainly everything from Nine Stories onward — is about the Glasses striving to get past the prison of the ego [this is, charitably, a weak reading of the Glass stories].” (556)
- On Salinger’s pursuit of perfection: “The work was perfect because it had to be: Salinger was in such agony that he needed to build an exquisitely beautiful place in which to bury himself.” (558)
This last point is not actually all that bad, but it’s never substantiated in the lead up to the bold — or at least boldly written — conclusion. Shields knows the words he needs to sound like he knows what he’s talking about, and strings them together to plunge into his baseless notion.
Salerno is not entirely off the hook. He joins Shields in observations such as:
- “For no apparent reason, Holden pays the prostitute Sunny but refuses to have sex with her” (562). This point is offered as evidence that Salinger was ashamed of having an undescended testicle. But I think the question it actually raises is, have Shields and Salerno actually read The Catcher in the Rye?
- “The bullet that entered Seymour’s brain in 1949 kept traveling through American history, all the way to John Lennon, Ronald Regan, and beyond. […] The assassinations and attempted assassinations are not a coincidence; they constitute frighteningly clairvoyant readings of Catcher…” (564)
J.D. Salinger spent his brief publishing career writing about people who were consistently misunderstood by the world. Was he never wrong?
Well, yes. He was wrong all the time. At the very least Salinger makes that clear. J.D. Salinger was not a good husband to his second wife. He was not a good boyfriend to Joyce Maynard, or to another woman (presumably not the only one) with whom he engaged in relationships that were emotionally and intellectually penetrating, but sexually chaste. According to one of his kids he was a good father, but not according to the other. He seemed like kind of a pain in the ass in general, although he had loyal friends and professional relations, and was deeply attached to the men who fought with him in World War II.
Salerno and Shields don’t entertain these complications, and thus they miss the struggle at the heart of Salinger’s life and work. They want it to be hatred of phonies and contempt for society, disgust and renunciation of the world and its egos. They can only see the hermit who doesn’t want his picture taken, and not the good neighbor who knew the people in his town, went to local church socials, and watched old movies with his kids and their friends.
If all you can see in Salinger are complaints that the world can’t meet his standards, and that his writing is, as Salerno phrases it, a “big beautiful middle finger to the phonies of the world,” then you’re only getting part of the story. And not the good part. What about Holden missing everybody? What about Seymour being too happy to get married? Forget about the condescension of the Fat Lady. What about Zooey admitting that he and Franny are freaks? What about “Be friendly — you never know”? What about “one little piece of Holy Ground to the next”? What about all the only-slightly-varnished joy you get in Salinger that you don’t get in the adultery and alcoholism and ennui of his literary contemporaries?
Even with the new information in this biography, there is still more reliable evidence that Salinger loved the world and loved people than there is evidence to the contrary. To read his books as the assassin-inspiring works of a pseudo-pedophile who was ashamed of his body is wrong. And to interpret his private life as a clever attempt to manufacture greater fame is wrong. These preoccupations and shoddy speculations had already taken up far too much time and space before being re-hashed in Salinger.
– Michael Moats