Listen. Holden Caulfield is talking. His voice -- wised-up yet wary, guarded yet glib, profane yet pure -- wafts across the six decades since "The Catcher in the Rye" was published.

"What really knocks me out," Holden is saying, "is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished 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."

That voice makes J.D. Salinger's famous novel as immediate as the latest tweet, as irresistible as a new text message from your best friend.

And the lure of Holden Caulfield's voice, along with those of other Salinger characters, has convinced many a reader that the author speaks directly to them: their souls, their pain, their joy. The connection is that compelling and intense.

But after reading Kenneth Slawenski's worthwhile and often captivating new biography of J.D. Salinger, you probably won't want to make that phone call. You'd think twice, no matter how devoted you might be to the Caulfields -- or to Salinger's other great creation, the Glass family.

While Salinger surely was a huge literary talent, far ahead of his time in his beliefs and his art, the best of him is in his written words, not in his life.

Salinger-the-author was brilliant, funny, original and spiritual.

Salinger-the-man was difficult, self-absorbed, thin-skinned and driven. Not to mention cranky, weird and litigious.

In the hands of Slawenski, we understand Salinger as never before.

A kind and empathetic biographer, Slawenski shows us, in clear prose, with meticulous research, the author's abundant flaws and virtues. (This biography is Slawenski's first book; he is best known, otherwise, as the founder of an all-about-Salinger website,

What Slawenski does not do, though, is answer the big questions: "How much unpublished material did Salinger leave behind? Will we ever get to read it? If so, when and how?"

And that is disappointing. Salinger, who died Jan. 27, 2010, published far too little to satisfy his fervent fans.

Beyond the novel that changed the world, he published only three other books: "Nine Stories," "Franny and Zooey," and "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: An Introduction" (the latter two are novellas published as one volume), plus a smattering of short stories

What Slawenski does do is answer questions we didn't know to ask.

For example: Is it true that Holden Caulfield went to war?

In a sense, yes. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Salinger not only served in a counterintelligence role but also saw combat in some of the most searing moments of World War II. By the mid-1940s, he had written portions of "Catcher," and, never wanting to be separated from their "support and inspiration," he carried them on his person:

"Pages of 'The Catcher in the Rye' had stormed the beach at Normandy; they had paraded down the streets of Paris, been present at the deaths of countless soldiers in countless places, and been carried through the death camps of Nazi Germany," Slawenski writes.

Those who admire Salinger's short story, "For Esme -- with Love and Squalor," with its shattered Army sergeant redeemed through an encounter with two British children, will better understand its roots in the author's own postwar trauma.

The war portions of Slawenski's biography, dramatically written and deeply felt, may be its finest achievement.

Slawenski also provides new nuggets of information on Salinger's romance with Oona O'Neill (the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, she would later become Mrs. Charlie Chaplin); the author's off-and-on friendship with Ernest Hemingway; his stormy relationships with editors at the New Yorker magazine; his ahead-of-the-curve embrace of Eastern spirituality.

But what makes this biography most different from others (particularly 1988's hollow "In Search of J.D. Salinger," whose major findings were edited out after Salinger successfully sued author Ian Hamilton for the unauthorized use of his letters) is Slawenski's effective use of Salinger's fiction to illuminate his life, and vice versa.

Is Sergeant X in "Esme" really Salinger in disguise? What about the writer and teacher Buddy Glass? Just another Salinger stand-in? Sometimes, it's hard to tell who is who. Slawenski explores this interweaving and understands it.

Buddy Glass once defended the closeness and symbiosis between him and his brother, Seymour, the family's poet-savant:

"Is it so bad that we sometimes sound like each other? The membrane is so thin between us. Is it so important for us to keep in mind which is whose?"

Slawenski, similarly, sees only the thinnest of membranes separating Salinger from his fictional characters, and he constantly shows us the ties between Salinger's life and his art.

We come away from Slawenski's book with a new notion about Salinger: That what he gave the world was enough.

The hordes of fans who confused the characters with the author, hunting Salinger down in the chosen isolation of his later years, were misguided -- but understandably so.

They were right about the bond between author and his characters; they were dead wrong about what Salinger owed them.

Salinger didn't need to grant interviews or sit for photos or show up for awards presentations.

He didn't need to cough up a dozen, or a hundred, more Glass family stories.

He gave his art -- including what is possibly the Great American Novel, three brilliant novellas, and more than two dozen short stories, a few of which, like "Esme," are as good as fiction gets. (Is 'Catcher' the Great American Novel? Maybe not, but Holden Caulfield -- challenged only by Huck Finn, Atticus Finch, and a whale -- is American fiction's most memorable character.)

Salinger has made us laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page. He has revealed the beauty that can arise from moments of human connection -- a brother watching his sister ride a carousel, a girl's bequeathing her father's wristwatch to a traumatized soldier, a neighborhood game of marbles at twilight.

And should we begin to resent the author's death, feeling cheated that he didn't share enough, Slawenski's book guides us back to Salinger's abiding gift: his published work.

There, once again -- sounding clearly down the decades -- we can hear Holden Caulfield's voice, like none other:

"I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something," Holden is saying.

"Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody."

Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The News.



Salinger: A Life

By Kenneth Slawenski

Random House

450 pages, $27