Magazine | November 11, 2013, Issue

A Lesser God

Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno (Simon & Schuster, 698 pp., $37.50)

Despite the impressive bulk of this new book about the author of The Catcher in the Rye and several of the past century’s most enduring short stories, there is an aspect of it that calls to mind a dime-store romance novel: Intentionally or not, both tempt readers to skip to the good parts. In the case of Salinger, that means getting to the bottom of the question that has been confounding the author’s admirers, fans, and groupies since he last wrote a work for publication in 1965: What was springing forth from the typewriter of J. D. Salinger (1919–2010) during the years that followed, and how much of it is there?

One of the most endearing characteristics of Salinger is that its co-authors, David Shields and Shane Salerno, commenced their research wondering more or less the same thing as the rest of us. (The book’s “oral biography” format presents a mix of voices extracted from interviews, articles, and a wide variety of other sources.) As they put it in the introduction: “We began with three goals: We wanted to know why Salinger stopped publishing; why he disappeared; and what he had been writing the last 45 years of his life.” While it is to be expected that answers to the first two questions can only be guessed at, the authors present pleasingly concrete information in response to the third.

Unfortunately, as with most romance novels, the payoff disappoints. In a concluding chapter, cryptically titled “Secrets,” Shields and Salerno itemize five books — not all of which will be all-new — that will be published starting in 2015. It is nice to finally have some specifics, but it is likely that many readers will have a feeling of vague dissatisfaction after the excitement passes.

Salinger, it seems, was at an artistic standstill. The majority of the upcoming works concern characters already very familiar to us, including Seymour Glass and Holden Caulfield, and several are to be combined with existing works, which poses interesting challenges to prospective publishers. In the future, will The Catcher in the Rye be available, like the two halves of  Franny and Zooey, only in a volume accompanied by other stories with the same main character? So much for the tiny red paperback with spindly yellow lettering (a famous cover carefully imitated on this book).

But if Shields and Salerno are disappointed, they do a good job of concealing it. “Salinger’s chronicles of two extraordinary families, the Glasses and the Caulfields — written from 1941 to 2008, when he conveyed his body of work to the J. D. Salinger Literary Trust — will be the masterworks for which he is forever known,” they write, in the bombastic style characteristic of this biography.

Yes, this is a book that plainly thinks a lot of itself. A caption accompanying a photo of Salinger standing with his first wife reads: “One of many never-before-seen photographs of Sylvia and J. D. Salinger on their wedding day, October 18, 1945.” Later, Salerno sets up an account of an aborted film version of “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor” in grandiose terms that virtually guarantee that what follows will be disappointing (and it is): “This story has never been told.”

As it happens, much of Salinger has been told elsewhere. Those curious about Salinger’s private life (he had three marriages, two children, and more than a few affairs) could peruse a memoir by an ex-lover, Joyce Maynard, whose story is repeated here. To be sure, Shields and Salerno add much to the record by reproducing undated extracts from Salinger’s letters to Maynard. Shields and Salerno may be right when they claim that the missives constitute “the only self-portrait available of a man who had removed himself from the public eye decades before,” but the picture that emerges is far from positive.

Scattered throughout the letters are lines indicative of Salinger’s intelligence and perception — he refers to “all those afternoon souls” who populate the game show Let’s Make a Deal — but for the most part they read like the dashed-off jottings of a lovesick adolescent, except that Salinger was 53 when he was addressing the 18-year-old Maynard: “I’ve missed you all day”; “So many thoughts of you”; “I miss you pretty sorely”; “We didn’t do, so much; we were.”

We can only hope that the upcoming Salinger publications are more cogent. There is truth in Tom Wolfe’s view that a 1965 letter Salinger wrote in protest of “Tiny Mummies,” Wolfe’s famous demolition of The New Yorker, was “the most lucid and comprehensible thing he had written in a decade.” In fact, the moony ramblings Maynard inspired in Salinger tell us something about where his work — which peaked in the late Forties and early Fifties with the beautifully written tales that resulted in the collection Nine Stories — took the wrong turn.

#page#If the co-authors are positively Panglossian about the merits of the soon-to-be-unveiled Salinger works, they have their eyes wide open when it comes to the disturbing amount of attention Salinger paid to young women — long after he ceased being young himself. As a World War II veteran in his early thirties, he fraternized with a local “high-school gang,” and his habits did not change much in the decades that followed: “At age 90 he was a regular attendee of Dartmouth College women’s basketball games.”

What is most demoralizing is the realization that Salinger apparently never got around to bothering with middle age — let alone senescence — as a writer. He remained fixated on the well-trod ground of adolescence. Among the works previewed by Shields and Salerno is a “complete retooling” of a 1942 short story called “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” — it could be terrific, but the title is off-putting in light of the legion of unsettling anecdotes depicting a graying Salinger romantically pursuing young women (including starlets he spots on TV and female journalists who come calling). Enamored of youth in his life — Maynard remembers wondering to herself at one point, “What if I’m getting too old for him?” — he worships at its altar in his fiction.

Nor is his immoderate love limited to youth. As John Updike put it in his review of Franny and Zooey, “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.”

Salinger’s fiction is marred in other ways. One of his best stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” is nearly spoiled by its flippant attitude toward Muriel Glass, the wife of the story’s troubled protagonist, Seymour. Because Seymour kills himself a few pages later, we are meant to be politely appalled at the way Muriel whiles away the hours in her hotel room: “She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse.” And so on. Going for broke, when Seymour enters the room to do the deed, Salinger notes that the place reeks of “new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover.” The equation of primping with moral rot is too much. Does Salinger really think that Muriel’s grooming habits are so decadent? Has he forgotten that the woman he describes so contemptuously is about to be widowed, or does he not care? In “Franny,” a similar tone of finger-wagging is directed toward Franny Glass’s sweetheart, Lane Coutell, who is depicted as too shallow for our deep-thinking heroine because — why, exactly? Because he likes to hear himself talk and enjoys having a lunch of frogs’ legs? Readers will be forgiven if they conclude that handsome, well-adjusted Lane is the character in the story they ought to emulate.

Shields and Salerno go to some lengths to link Salinger’s hatred of “the frivolity of fashion and materialism” with his deep knowledge of Vedanta and Buddhism, but could it really be pure surliness that motivates his disgust at Muriel, Lane, and other “phonies”? The Salinger we come to know in these pages is often intensely unlikable and unaccountably mean. We can comprehend the invective he unleashes at Maynard after she goes to see him following their breakup — it is, after all, an ex-lovers’ quarrel — but other incidents are bizarre and even frightening. At one point, when the former nanny of his children ventures onto his property to solicit money for a Red Cross drive, he brandishes a gun and threatens to “shoot at the ground right in front of you” if she comes any further (though he eventually tosses her a check).

The catalogue of bad habits, odd hang-ups, and unshakeable opinions attributed to Salinger is enough to leave even the most avid devotee of his writing a little depressed. It is, as Franny Glass would say, “sad-making.” Perhaps Shields and Salerno should not have saved their best stuff for last — that way, we could have savored the announcement of the new books before we had a chance to really get to know their most uncompanionable creator.

– Mr. Tonguette’s criticism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is writing a book on Peter Bogdanovich.

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