Review: ‘Salinger’ by David Shields and Shane Salerno

Categories: Chicago Tribune

New biography weighs in at 700 pages, but offers little insight

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

September 15, 2013

Talismans of high school life come and go but one has remained steadfast for generations: that slim ruby red paperback known as J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.”

First published in 1951, the coming-of-age novel sells about a quarter of a million copies a year; more than 65 million have been sold globally to date. Protagonist Holden Caulfield’s disdain of phonies on New York City’s Upper West Side might sound quaint in today’s social media age, where even the most alienated youth operate with the marketing savvy of Fortune 500 brand managers. Nevertheless, Caulfield’s voice squares perfectly with other distinctly American boys-to-men, such as Huckleberry Finn, Tom Wingfield, Benjamin Braddock and Kurt Cobain.

While the novel continues to enchant teenagers, adults have focused their attention on its author. Salinger famously withdrew from the public eye about 10 years after the publication of "Catcher." A World War II combat veteran who was one of the early emancipators of the Nazi death camps, Salinger railed against critics and admirers in a way that made it appear fame was worse than war. He published just one novel and three collections of stories and novellas in his lifetime, but reportedly spent the decades until his 2010 death writing volumes more — a scenario that has launched countless grad school dissertations, biographical works and a number of stalkers outside Salinger's home in Cornish, N.H.

Deciphering Salinger's motives has become the literary equivalent of the archaeological world puzzling out the pyramids: Just who was the man who wrote these books? Why did he become a recluse? And, a question apparently most vital to the latest pair of Salinger theorists, how did his single testicle contribute to his creativity?

David Shields and Shane Salerno may not have answered the first two questions, but they made much ado of the last. No salacious detail is omitted in their "Salinger," mostly because this pair has many pages to fill — nearly 700 of them. A word count that hefty is designed to announce itself as a major work, and indeed, marketing copy for the book calls it "monumental," "definitive," "a global cultural event." Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp told The New York Times that the book, which is a companion to a documentary that was scheduled to open Friday in Chicago, is "one of the biggest publishing events of the year, if not the decade."

Not really.

The insights of "Salinger" little match its heft. This oral biography is essentially a clip job of hundreds of sources, the majority cited in other works, others purely inconsequential to the story being told. This is a thick swamp to wade through, and Shields and Salerno do not make it easy. To understand who is talking and why, the authors force the readers to continually flip to a glossary at the book's end, and even when some names are recognizable, serious questions emerge about their ultimate purpose other than Rolodex flexing.

Are lengthy passages from historian Stephen Ambrose required to describe the horrors of the Great War? Do readers really need to hear the merits of "Catcher" from actors such as Edward Norton or John Cusack? (Actor Jake Gyllenhaal tells us Caulfield is "the Malcolm X of white suburban boys.") And what about previous Salinger biographers and memoirists, such as Ian Hamilton, Joseph Blotner, Paul Alexander, Joyce Maynard and others? In their preface, Shields and Salerno dismiss all previous Salinger biographies as shallow, resentful, too reverential or merely academic, but then go to great lengths to quote these same works directly in their own text to provide insight and authority.

The same is true with the use of Margaret Salinger, the author's daughter, whose quotes surface from secondary sources but whose own tell-all memoir from 2000 is tossed off as irrelevant.

An editor with a stronger controlling hand would have helped trim this deluge of raw material to shape a more concise story of the title subject. Instead the compilers appear more invested in overloading the reader with passages that confirm their armchair diagnosis: that Salinger suffered post-traumatic stress from a nightmarish war experience and, combined with the alienation he felt from a cold father and that defective testicle, could not feel arousal around women and instead felt most comfortable consumed in his writing. The compilers often chime in to offer their own assessment of Salinger's brokenness, but much of their purple prose reeks of conjecture.

"Salinger needed war, the experience of war, to become a better writer, and he was becoming a more substantial and more serious writer, almost literally story by story," writes Shields. "It was all one big bloody mess in his mind and psyche — the war and the writing and the surviving and the survivor's guilt and the artist's guilt and the ecstasy of artistic creation. He was a twenty-five-year-old ghost, looking for rebirth, placing stamps on envelopes sent stateside. Writing about the war was the only way for Salinger to survive the war. He was seeking oblivion, but he was also seeking fame."

Or maybe not. There is no doubt the war weighed heavily on Salinger's re-entry into society, as it did any veteran of his age, and it's difficult to think of "Catcher" not as a product of the postwar era. The wounds Salinger suffered, however, are presented by observers, distant friends and others who intersected with the writer, sometimes tangentially. Scholars have only letters and few interviews, which suggests that anyone attempting to draw conclusions might tread lightly. Instead, this book stomps loudly and proudly, making assertions that are not necessarily new, and are oftentimes frail at best.

The same questionable conclusions emerge from another revelation in the book, that Salinger sent his first wife back to Germany because she was an informant for the Gestapo. Their evidence is speculation: The annulment certificate that accuses his wife of "false representations," and claims from an investigator the authors hired that cannot be substantiated.

Both compilers trumpet new interviews with 200 new sources, but if you discount the peripheral cast of characters, the newness of their claims does not appear revelatory. The biggest coup is Jean Miller, the 14-year-old Salinger befriends in 1949 on a Florida beach and then begins a six-year pen-pal relationship with until cutting it off immediately after taking her virginity. Until that point, Miller describes what could best be described as an awkward friendship; she later is thought to serve as the subject of the story "For Esmé — With Love and Squalor." She exposes his lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism.

"Zen was something that he talked about a lot," she tells the authors. "In one of his letters, he said, 'I'm sorry you couldn't go to the basketball game tonight. There was Zen there.' Zen is where you find it. These were perfect moments for him."

Both compilers do not let Miller speak on her own, but, once again, insert commentary that often feels written in the breathless air we so often hear in those television shows about Bigfoot and alien abduction.

"Salinger's seduction process: adore childhood innocence in a pubescent girl, seduce it and her into (barely) adulthood, reproduce the assignation in his writing, and compare actual physical contact to Esmé or Zen — a comparison no human can survive," Shields writes.

Their interruptions slow down the momentum of these stories, some of which deserve solitary telling. The more pointed descriptions of Salinger's greatest work come from his contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, all of whom considered him a new-generation artist of their caliber.

The payoff for finishing this marathon of a book is supposed to be the ending section, where Salerno says he has proof from "two independent and separate sources" that Salinger left behind five new Glass family stories, a novel, a novella and other work, all of which will be published "starting between 2015 and 2020."

Talk about hedging your bets. The authors detail each of these supposed new works, but like most of this biography, the stories are unverified.

For all the foibles and flaws, the most compelling portrait of Salinger in these pages is the one who pleas for his privacy to those stalking his driveway, hiding in the woods of his home, and biding time among his favorite hometown haunts. One such seeker, Michael Clarkson, describes showing up unannounced at Salinger's home many times, where he pushes Salinger into a dialogue about fame.

"Being a public writer interferes with a right to a private life. I write for myself," Clarkson claims Salinger says.

"I remember him pointing his finger at me like a gun," Clarkson says.

Or maybe he was just pointing his finger. No doubt among the club of literary stalkers, nuance matters least.

Mark Guarino is a staff writer with The Christian Science Monitor, where he covers national news out of the Midwest.


By David Shields and Shane Salerno, Simon & Schuster, 699 pages, $37.50

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