JD Salinger gets the bi­og­ra­phy he didn’t want

A re­veal­ing new bi­og­ra­phy of JD Salinger raises an im­por­tant ques­tion, writes David Free. How much are we en­ti­tled to know about a man who didn’t want to be known?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Salinger By David Shields and Shane Salerno Si­mon & Schus­ter, 720pp, $32.99

‘ THERE is only one thing in the world worse than be­ing talked about,’’ said Os­car Wilde, ‘‘ and that is not be­ing talked about.’’ It would be an un­usual writer who didn’t find that para­dox amus­ingly true. JD Salinger, who was an un­usual man all round, wouldn’t have found it funny at all. For him, noth­ing was worse than be­ing talked about.

Af­ter the suc­cess of The Catcher in the Rye, his first and only novel, Salinger turned him­self into the most fa­mous recluse in the world. Holed up in his cabin in Cor­nish, New Hamp­shire, he is­sued a trickle of in­creas­ingly ster­ile short sto­ries. Fi­nally he fell silent al­to­gether. When he died in 2010, aged 91, he had not pub­lished a word in 45 years.

As long as he re­mained alive, Salinger made things no­to­ri­ously hard for would-be bi­og­ra­phers. Since his death, the flood­gates have opened. In 2010 came Ken­neth Slawen­ski’s rather am­a­teur­ish JD Salinger: A Life Raised High. Ear­lier this month there was the re­lease of the vig­or­ously hyped doc­u­men­tary film Salinger, di­rected by Shane Salerno.

And now we have the bi­og­ra­phy of the same name, co-au­thored by Salerno and David Shields, and billed as ‘‘ the of­fi­cial book of the ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary film’’. When the film failed to at­tract much de­tectable ac­claim, that tagline started to sound omi­nous. One feared the ar­rival of a 700-page tur­key.

But Salinger is far bet­ter than you might ex­pect, as long as you don’t ex­pect it to be a literary bi­og­ra­phy in the clas­sic sense. It is an oral bi­og­ra­phy, more or less, al­though it draws on writ­ten sources as well as orig­i­nal in­ter­views. Oc­ca­sion­ally the au­thors pro­vide a bit of con­text or com­men­tary.

Oth­er­wise their book is a vivid col­lage of other voices, with plenty of pic­tures sprin­kled around to com­plete the scrap­booky ef­fect.

There are mo­ments when the ab­sence of a dis­crim­i­nat­ing cen­tral voice gets you down. Also, in­fu­ri­at­ingly, there is no in­dex. But you can’t fault the au­thors’ dili­gence. If you want all the avail­able facts about Salinger, in­clud­ing the icky ones, this bi­og­ra­phy is a big and rau­cous one-stop shop.

We open on a note out of Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan. The year is 1944; Salinger, aged 25, is storm­ing Utah Beach on D-Day. Back home in New York he had ac­quired a rep­u­ta­tion for his smart short sto­ries. Now, drafted into the US Army, he is headed for some of the most hor­rific en­gage­ments of the war. Af­ter Nor­mandy he saw ac­tion in the Hurt­gen For­est and the Bat­tle of the Bulge. Fi­nally, he was present at the lib­er­a­tion of Dachau, where the sur­vivors could scarcely be told apart from the corpses.

One of the book’s main ar­gu­ments is that Salinger’s trau­matic war ex­pe­ri­ences ex­plain most of his later ec­cen­tric­i­ties. It’s hard to dis­miss this the­sis. The smell of burn­ing flesh, he once told his daugh­ter, never leaves the nos­trils. While still in Ger­many he suf­fered a ner­vous break­down. He com­mit­ted him­self to a civil­ian hos­pi­tal to avoid a psy­chi­atric dis­charge.

Back in New York, as re­stored to health as he was ever go­ing to be, Salinger com­pleted a novel whose early chap­ters he had lugged with him across Europe. The Catcher in the Rye was pub­lished in 1951. Its 16-year-old nar­ra­tor and star was Holden Caulfield, whose slangy, profane and un­for­get­table voice made young peo­ple feel Salinger could read their minds.

By 1961, the book was sell­ing a quar­ter of a mil­lion copies a year. (Its sales to date num­ber 65 mil­lion.) It turned Salinger into an icon, which was the last thing he wanted to be. He hadn’t even wanted his pho­to­graph on the back cover. Sud­denly he was pitched into Amer­ica’s tur­bu­lent and fright­en­ing main­stream — the mo­ronic in­ferno, as Saul Bel­low called it.

Two years af­ter Catcher’s pub­li­ca­tion, Salin- ger be­gan his re­treat from so­ci­ety. Ful­fill­ing a wish of Holden Caulfield’s, he bought his cabin in the woods. Then he built a large fence around it. He be­gan to shun worldly things, such as pub­li­ca­tion and medicine that worked. He em­braced Bud­dhism, mac­ro­bi­otics, Scien­tol­ogy, hom0eopa­thy, Chris­tian Sci­ence and, ul­ti­mately, Vedanta Hin­duism. He drank his own urine in a bid to pu­rify him­self.

Salinger couldn’t have been clearer about his wish to be left alone. But many a busy­body, loner and scoop-seeker con­strued his si­lence as a come-on, a tease. They fondly imag­ined he may be pleased to see them, even if he wanted to see no­body else. So they camped at the bot­tom of his drive­way. They staked out the post of­fice where he col­lected his mail. They staged car ac­ci­dents out­side his house, hav­ing smeared them­selves with fake blood.

If Salinger wasn’t para­noid to start with, such en­coun­ters must have helped him get that way. By the end of his life he could be more than a bit crabby. His for­mer nanny re­calls drop­ping by to col­lect his an­nual Red Cross dona­tion. Salinger was wait­ing on the porch with his gun. He threat­ened to shoot at the ground if she came a step closer.

Mil­lions of sane read­ers, of course, read and loved Salinger’s novel with­out in­ter­pret­ing it as an in­vi­ta­tion to has­sle him, or do some­thing even worse. But it can’t be de­nied that the book was a mag­net for rat­bags. The big­gest rat­bag of all was Mark Chap­man, mur­derer of John Len­non, who con­vinced him­self Len­non was a ‘‘ phony’’ — Holden Caulfield’s gravest term of abuse. Chap­man took a copy to the crime scene. While wait­ing to be ar­rested, he silently read it. John Hinck­ley, would-be as­sas­sin of Ron­ald Rea­gan, was another of the book’s more un­hinged devo­tees.

Shields and Salerno de­vote an un­for­giv­ably

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