Despite the fact that their sprawling oral biography of J.D. Salinger is filled with innuendo, speculation, and hearsay, David Shields and Shane Salerno have created a very accessible and entertaining peek into the late author’s fascinating life. Mr. Salinger would have despised it.
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Published in September, 2013, “Salinger” is the first major work about the mysterious and elusive artist since his death in Cornish, New Hampshire, in 2010, at age 91. During his lifetime, Mr. Salinger published only one novel and a relative hand full of short stories, and yet he became one of the most famous authors of his generation. His novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” was an instant sensation and J.D. Salinger became an unwilling celebrity. Since its publication in 1951, the novel has sold over 65 million copies and is one of the top selling books of all time. Mr. Salinger would live to regret ever writing the book.
Born and raised in Park Avenue privilege, Jerome D. Salinger was a wise cracking college dropout. In their introduction, the authors disclose that he was born with “...an embarrassing congenital deformity” (he had only one testicle). This, they assert, “...shadowed his entire life.” Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno cite two unnamed females as conformation of their deformity claim.
But it was his Army service during World War II (and an “undiagnosed” case of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), the authors claim, and later a zealous obsession with Eastern religion, that truly informed Mr. Salinger’s life. According to the authors, their book is “an investigation into the process by which a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed his art.”
Nine years in the making, “Salinger” opens when his 12th Infantry Regiment lands on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. The stories incorporated in the book are told through personal first-person accounts, diaries, letters, legal records and private documents. It did not take me long to fall into the fast-paced rhythm of the book as it zigs and zags through Mr. Salinger’s tumultuous life. I confess, I was not a particular fan of J.D. Salinger before I read this book, but I must also admit that I have since developed a certain sympathy for the man.
Many pages of “Salinger” are devoted to his interest in young girls. Highlighted in the book are three such affairs: sixteen year old Oona O’Neill (the daughter of the Nobel Laureate Eugene O’Neill); fourteen year old Jean Miller; and eighteen year old Joyce Maynard. It’s interesting that Mr. Salinger was not attracted to troubled teens or runaways, but very intelligent young girls from sophisticated families. His relationships with these children were always conducted in public and condoned buy their parents.
I also believe the authors wasted much time trying to connect the treacherous actions of Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, and Robert Bardo to their interest in “The Catcher in the Rye.” The assertions are simply fall flat.
Interspersed throughout the book are 12 random chapters titled “Conversations with Salinger.” They are some of the book’s most interesting. Several chapters feature first-hand accounts of individuals seeking personal contact with J.D. Salinger...some under less than ideal conditions. After dropping out of the public arena in 1965, Mr. Salinger was besieged constantly by people violating his privacy. “Conversations with Salinger” are fascinating insights into the downside of celebrity culture. And yet, scattered throughout the book, are observations by those who feel that Mr. Salinger himself subtly encouraged the intrusions by deliberate design.
“Salinger” is published by Simon and Schuster. It’s 698 pages and contains a surprising number of typos. Davis Shields is the author of fifteen books including “The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.” Shane Salerno is the director, producer, and writer of “Salinger,” the documentary film that premiered in September 2013 from the Weinstein Company and debuts on American Masters on PBS in January 2014.