Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno
Simon and Schuster, 2013; 720 pp
Reviewed by clinton crockett peters
While David Shields and filmmaker Shane Salerno's Salinger came out last year, due to overstocking it's now possible to find a new copy (retail $38.27) for $7.98. And a steal that would be for this underrated book (whose paired documentary was largely panned).
Shields and Salerno (henceforth S²) have stitched a biography of found text akin to Shields’ Reality Hunger. Essentially, the 700-page brick is a jumble of quotes on the life, sex, war, imaginary families, and psychoanalysis of our most elusive icon. A 1976 photo of Salinger walking his dog (blurred with too many trees) for Life required the photographer to stalk from a self-made blind of twigs and leaves for three days in the rain developing a case of flu.
It has been argued that Salinger’s work, not his reclusiveness, should be the occasion of a biography. I’m not so sure. Salinger’s life is a track upon which questions of fame and authenticity can run on.
The unorthodox stenographer’s note-taking readfeel of the book has thrown a few critics. But the work is not a rush job. The voices circle and comment on Salinger’s life from a myriad angles instead of one narrator painting Salinger in omnipotent arrogance. This is “experimental biography.” There are contradictions, layers, and some never-before heard conjecture and nuance. Somehow, Salinger becomes one of the most revealing characters you will ever see in print.
What emerges is a much fuller portrait than one narrative voice could sustain. In the cobbled quotes we learn Salinger was born with an undescended testicle (and a lifetime of embarrassment). He was drafted into the European theatre and dumped by his sweetheart, Onna (Eugene’s daughter) O'Neil, for Charlie Chaplin. Salinger landed on Utah Beach, slogged through Hurgen Forest, survived the Battle of the Bulge, and helped liberate the concentration camps. Brimming with PTST, he married a German he later learned had worked for the Gestapo.
Would this not make you acerbic toward humanity?
Then Salinger moved to New Hampshire and became obsessed with Vedantic Buddhism, raw foods, and young girls. He walked his dog and only talked to his editors and teenagers. Interestingly, S² quote many sources who believe Salinger's hiding was a calculated ruse. Why, for instance would he sporadically grant interviews to no-name writers or contact a producer about filming Franny and Zooey?
Can we be sympathetic to this solder boy, the writer-veteran whose dejection was relived every time he espied a movie theater with a Chaplin film? The man who wrote about not wanting to grow up, should we be surprised that he coveted youth and innocence? He who gave us one of the most iconic novels ever (at 65 million copies sold and counting) and shunned (but also craved) the light? This biography doesn’t debunk or overhype his creepiness; S² help paint him as tragic and hurt and humiliated as any person can be imagined.