ADVERTISEMENT

NONFICTION

Salinger

By David Shields and Shane Salerno

Simon and Schuster

698 pages, $37.50

By Jeff Simon

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Good God, what on earth did readers THINK J.D. Salinger was doing in the near half-century of literary silence that followed the June 1965 publication of his unloved final published story “Hapworth 16, 1924” in the New Yorker? Of course he was still writing – and stashing it all in a vault (a safe, actually).

It wasn’t writing that he’d so famously abandoned. It was publishing his work, which is a different thing entirely and which he admitted became agony for him. And at the end of this now-irreplaceable book about the greatest enigma of modern American literature comes its biggest bit of news: that by Salinger’s own design for posthumous publication, we will finally see the works of his Cornish, N.H., hermitage beginning in 2015. There will be five new stories about Seymour Glass, whose suicide opens “Nine Stories”; a “manual” of Vedanta, the apparent end point of his religious quests; a novel set in World War II; and new stories about Holden Caulfield, the hero of 20th century American literature’s most beloved and, ultimately, troubling novel “The Catcher in the Rye.”

At the beginning of this book – whose two and a half hour companion film is scheduled to open here Friday – you find the other walloping news story to be found within: a brutally revealing account of Salinger’s horrific experiences in World War II, which, say the authors, “destroyed the man but made him a great artist.”

Salinger was a much-decorated soldier whose first experience of combat was landing on Utah Beach on D-Day. One of his fellow soldiers remembers their briefing from the days before: “Don’t worry if the first wave of you are killed … We shall simply pass over your bodies with more and more men.”

Salinger, as the authors figure, was in the second wave. And D-Day’s worst combat came after the slaughter of the beach landings.

Salinger told Whit Burnett that he’d carried five chapters of “The Catcher in the Rye” on D-Day as an “amulet” for survival. Years later, John Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman would carry it when he murdered Lennon. When police found him afterward, it was what Chapman was reading, his sacred text. Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinkley Jr. treated the book as near-scripture. So did the murderer of actress Rebecca Schaeffer.

Knowledge of how horrifically his book had been read seems to me to have been a source of unimaginable pain to the man who had, arguably, committed his greatest act by experiencing fame and rejecting it utterly.

Whatever the lifelong religious seeker may have to say in his posthumous manual about his religion – which turned out to be Hindu Vedanta – Salinger was perhaps American literature’s greatest nonreligious prophet. It was he, more than anyone, who understood exactly how vulgar, factitious, corrupt, powerful and insupportable celebrity would become in our world. It is that which he turned his back on in literature’s most famous insistence anywhere of a private life.

Authors Shields and Salerno take great and sophisticated pains to make clear that Salinger did not reject the world or suddenly become oblivious to it. Nor had he ceased to care about his own place in that world. It was his art and his fame he could never reconcile. After 1965, he became, as far as he was concerned, a private citizen who’d do his writing for posterity.

And that act became, I think, the aesthetic act which can’t help but overshadow all the others. It was his greatest work of art.

He was far from unusual in American literature. “How dreary to be somebody,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “how public like a frog.” Salinger was an “Isolato” who might have surprised Melville himself (whose fame, such as it was, was fleeting).

Salinger’s rejection of the “admiring bog” was, it seems to the authors, less of an insistence on the world’s knowing he was no “frog” than a symptom of what the authors, quite persuasively, argue may be a kind of lifelong case of PTSD. It’s the crucial thing that links the first pages on D-Day in this amazingly informative book’s pages to its last pages on his 21st century reputation.

Shane Salerno is a film director, writer and producer. “Salinger,” film and book, was his inspiration. David Shields – one of the most remarkable writers we have today – seems to serve as Salerno’s crucial literary and psychological interpreter. To be frank, I have immense regard for Shields. Three of his books are among the great works of the past 30 years – “The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead,” “How Literature Saved My Life,” and, especially, “Reality Hunger.”

What they’ve produced here is an “oral biography” – a complex but well-constructed narrative composed of fragments of history, anecdote and commentary by others as well as themselves. More than 200 were interviewed for book and film, including fellow soldiers and the young women whom Salinger, either famously or notoriously, found and idealized as underage girls and then proceeded to treat coldly once they became women. Most famous among them was Joyce Maynard, whose new book “After Her” is being published at almost the same time as this one. (Not an accident, you can bet.) One of those girls might include among them Salinger’s own daughter Peggy, whose serpent’s tooth invasion of her father’s holy privacy in her memoir is as revealing about her rebellious Holden Caulfield nature as it is of her father’s painful adoption of cruel, narcissistic detachment as the avenue to Revealed Truth.

There is, to be sure, nothing rare about the idealization of underage female innocence among brilliant men of varied and occasionally invidious motive, whether we’re talking about Lewis Carroll or Vladimir Nabokov (for whom the subject was purely literary, which seems to make it perverse rather than perverted) or Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. (The latter two were diametric opposites among current filmmakers: Woody Allen’s pursuit seems to have been of those who’d understand and commune with his infantilism, while Polanski’s seems to have been those he could despoil.) It is, in our era, a notably unpleasant subject igniting no small hysteria and occasioning understandable revulsion.

But what so much of this book indicates is that Salinger was so damaged a man that he found it hard not to confuse his life and his books so full of adolescents.

It is one of many things that co-author Shields sometimes can’t stop himself from being disgusted at. In one fleeting passage that gives his game away, Shields expresses his distaste for his subject openly on the fly, discussing his reaction to Salinger daughter Peggy’s family revelations in her memoir. “The king chose not to defend the realm himself, he sent out his loyal foot soldier, [son] Matthew who many years earlier had tried to fulfill his father’s acting.”

That is deeply unpleasant and unfeeling omnidirectional snark, both toward Salinger himself and a crucial biographical source (his son) who was probably not as cooperative as the authors had hoped. Matt Salinger is his father’s literary executor, true. He’s also Salinger’s son.

The reader will have to judge individually the relevance of this unprecedented accumulation of fresh photos and information – how much we needed to know that a 16-year-old Oona O’Neill (daughter of Eugene) was thought less than clean by William Saroyan before rejecting Salinger for a life with Charlie Chaplin. Or how much credence to give the authors’ contention that Salinger’s primal damage was a testicle that never descended.

As you read “Salinger” you’re grateful that so much information does indeed flesh out our knowledge of one of literature’s most complicated and compelling figures. But in its pitiless incursions into what Joyce Carol Oates called the modern style of “pathography,” it reinforces the wisdom of Salinger’s renunciation of renown as it had become in his time and would evolve in the future. It can’t help but elevate its subject accidentally way above his authors who know and understand so much but can conclusively say so little.

For that, we’re going to need Salinger’s new words starting in 2015, a half-century after his public silence began. I suspect that much, if not all, of the Salinger from the vault will be dreadful, but no less fascinating and revealing for being so.

We know now fully what constituted his war heroism. He might still be an even greater literary hero than we ever imagined.

Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books Editor.