The Private War of J. D. Salinger (No)

Image of Salinger
Release Date: 
September 3, 2013
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

Somehow, it does not seem quite prudent, fair, or even possible to assess Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno’s Double-Whopper-with-Cheese biography of J. D. Salinger any time soon after ingesting it.

It’s rather like assessing a tidal wave before the waters have quite receded.

Worse, it’s like being asked to watch the first two seasons of Homeland and then immediately and coherently explain the plot in a thousand words or fewer.

Perhaps if the reader could simply be allowed to gain perspective, be allowed simply to move to a cabin in the New Hampshire woods, say to a place of great acreage with an eight-foot fence surrounding it and a concrete bunker that allowed for complete privacy for forty years or so before rendering his opinion . . .

Suffice to say that the reader experiences Salinger (the book most definitely, the man himself quite likely, given what has been gleaned from this text) in a manner not unlike that with which Elisabeth Kubler-Ross informs us all that we will one day undergo when our mortality comes to call. Multistaged processes, both of them, both ending in “Acceptance.”

The first stage of experiencing Salinger could best be called “Exhilaration.” The reader grasps the book and absorbs the beauty of its cover: a perfect reproduction of the hand-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye, all oxblood and urine-yellow, just like the one over there on the bookshelf.

But this one says Salinger on it, as title, not author. And the damned thing is over 700 pages long.

The second stage “Reluctance,” begins more or less immediately, with the reader first noticing the book’s format.

Salinger, you see, is what might be called an “oral biography.” Its authors have chosen to structure their work in a manner very similar to a documentary film, perhaps not unlike the documentary film that Mr. Salerno has made to accompany this book.

(As the book jacket puts it: “Shane Salerno is the director, producer, and writer of Salinger, the documentary film about Salinger that premiered in September 2013 from the Weinstein Company and debuts on American Masters of PBS in January 2014.)

Thus the book is told to the reader by various “talking heads,” the heads being invisible to the reader in the medium of the printed page. Instead of a flowing narrative with quotations studded throughout, Salinger is a necklace comprised of myriad pieces in which some bits are surprisingly ill fitting.

This technique is nothing new.

It was used in great effect by George Plimpton (who, interestingly, is among the many persons who offer commentary in this book) and Jean Stein a couple of decades ago in their biography of Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick in Edie: An American Biography, which managed to use this “shared mike” method to great effect wherein the multiple voices created something of a tapestry displaying the many colors, sights and sounds that shaped the ’60s art world in which Sedgwick frolicked.

It was used to lesser effect in biographies of notables ranging from Truman Capote and Robert Kennedy to Axl Rose, and it added a layer of texture to the movie Reds, wherein director Warren Beatty used a heavy sprinkling of we-were-there “witnesses,” including Adela Rogers St. Johns, George Jessel and Will Durant to add to the historical realism of his biographical film.

Here the oral technique seems lacking, in that the narrative (for lack of a better word) feels choppy, disjointed, the jump from one quote to the next jars.

To say nothing of the fact that many of the witness statements seem questionable at best. Why, for instance, is actress Lindsay Crouse, gifted thespian that she is, to be considered expert enough on the subject of Margaret Salinger (the author’s daughter) to be brought in here to assess the book Dream Catcher, in which Ms. Salinger wrote rather despairingly about life with father? And why is Glenn Cordon Caron, creator of TV’s Moonlighting, appearing here at all, as a witness to the literary history unfolding in Salinger?

Biographical notes are provided, but explain nothing.

And worst of all who is “A Man [Joyce] Maynard Dated,” and why the hell should we care about anything he has to say on the subject of J. D. Salinger, much less Joyce Maynard, given the fact that they apparently had only one date?

This technique of oral biography is sort of a literary pointillism in which the direct quotes are the brushstrokes that, when we step back from the individual statements to see the whole allow for the complete image—be it of Edie Sedgwick or J. D. Salinger—to appear.

Here, however, it offers nothing more than a staccato drumbeat, such as in this moment, where we are given testimony about the Allies march into Paris:

“JOHN WORTHMAN: The people cheered and laughed and cried and wanted to embrace us, give us a drink, feed us newly ripe tomatoes . . . and just try to believe that we were really there and the Germans gone. I kissed babies, children, young women, and women in between.

“DAVID RODERICK: We rode into Paris in two-and-a-half-ton trucks. The reception we received has been a lifelong memory. People crowded in the streets, clapping and yelling, shaking our hands, passing out wine.

“SHANE SALERNO: Amid the celebration, Salinger and John Keenan arrested a suspected collaborator, but the crowd beat him to death before the two CIC agents could take him in.”

The passage trips up the reader’s eye for several reasons. There is, of course, the sudden death of the supposed collaborator that is barely mentioned before we jump on to the next quotation from Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Sean, who begins to detail the historic meeting between Salinger and Hemingway in Paris (more on that in a moment).

But there is also the name of the man who “witnesses” the death for us: Shane Salerno.

Shane Salerno, the director of the film Salinger and coauthor of the book of the same name?

In one of the strangest decisions associated with this book, both Salerno and David Shields, his coauthor, pop up throughout the text, placing themselves as “witnesses,” filling in the narrative no doubt wherever they were unable to get someone else to say what they felt needed saying. The result calls into question the journalism of the whole crazy-quilted text.

Instead of simply offering a simple narration of events and studding this with the direct evidence of the quotes where they could have effectively painted a picture of the events at hand, Salerno and Shields place themselves central to the action by raising themselves up to the level of eye-witnesses to events that they did not witness.

An oral history rises or falls by the acceptability and believability of its witnesses. By structuring this book as they did and allowing themselves to intrude as they might into the flow of history, the authors undermine their own work.

Which is not to say that the technique fails throughout the book. There are moments, such as this one, in which Hemingway and Salinger meet in a bar in the newly free city of Paris in which the picture is beautifully rendered:

“SEAN HEMINGWAY: My grandfather was staying at the Ritz and receiving all kinds of visitors.

“CARLOS BAKER: Another of Ernest’s visitors at this time was a young, dark-haired sergeant in a CIC outfit. His name was Jerome D. Salinger and he was much impressed with his first sight of Hemingway. Salinger was a writer of short stories, twenty years Ernest’s junior. At 25 he had already sold some of his work to Story magazine and the Saturday Evening Post.

“LEILA HADLEY LUCE: Hemingway was Salinger’s icon; he loved the way Hemingway wrote. At the hotel, he went up to Hemingway and told him of his admiration for his work.

“CARLOS BAKER: He found Hemingway both friendly and generous, not at all impressed by his own eminence, and ‘soft’—as opposed to the hardness and toughness which some of his writing suggested. They got on very well, and Ernest volunteered to look at some of his work.

“LEILA HADLEY LUCE: Jerry asked Hemingway to look at a manuscript, which took a great deal of derring-do on his part, really. And Jerry was not somebody who could easily go up to someone and ask him to do anything.

“SEAN HEMINGWAY: Salinger had with him a copy of the Saturday Evening Post that contained a short story that he had written, ‘Last Day of the Last Furlough,’ which was about World War II. My grandfather was impressed with Salinger as a young soldier, and he was equally impressed with his writing. Upon meeting him, my grandfather told Salinger he had heard of him before, had read the story, and was delighted with it.

“J. D. SALINGER (‘Last Day of the Last Furlough,’ Saturday Evening Post, July 15, 1944):

Vincent smiled. ‘It’s good to see you, Babe. Thanks for asking me. GIs—especially GIs who are friends—belong together these days. It’s no good being with civilians any more. They don’t know what we know and we’re no longer used to what they know. It doesn’t work out so hot . . .’

“EBERHARD ALSEN: It’s reported that Hemingway said to someone, ‘Jesus, he has a helluva talent.’ I’m sure it got around to Salinger, and that must have pleased him very much.”

If only it worked so well elsewhere as here.

Too often, Salinger the book reads like the transcript of Salinger the documentary.

It does, however, in its 700 pages, offer a portrait of sorts of the complex, clumsy, intense, one-testicled, deeply misogynistic, incredibly gifted man who gave the world such works as The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey. And who, if the authors are to be believed, left the world a treasure trove comprised of the results 50 years of his labors, myriad new short stories, and novels that sat in a vault, neatly stacked and lovingly ordered, awaiting the author’s death at age 91 in January, 2011.

Happily, these works—and not this biography—will ultimately stand as testament to the life and work of author J. D. Salinger.