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.