I’ve just finished Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and all I can think of is the eulogy that Owl Eyes offers for Gatsby: “The poor son-of-a bitch.”
Robert Boynton: “And then there’s this crazed paparazzi, investigative-reporter approach” (qtd. in Chapter 14 of Salinger, “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”)
This “official book of the acclaimed documentary film,” presents enough contradictions to keep us busy until the publication of those new Salinger works promised in the final chapter. The title of that last chapter is “Secrets,” which sums up the tawdry tabloid-like endeavor of book and film combined. If Shields and Salerno had stopped with two-thirds of the material on World War II, they might have produced a slim book of value. Meanwhile, this quasi-oral-biography — it’s closer to a pastiche — just goes on and on; it’s a fine example of what Joyce Carol Oates, who is quoted here, along with other critics, actors, nursemaids, and lovers, would call pathography.
J. D. Salinger: “I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me . . .”
But not, apparently, Salerno, whose writing credits include "Armageddon," "Alien vs. Predator," and "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," or Shields, who is probably best-known for his 2010 book, Reality Hunger, a collage “built from scraps” about what people really want from literature.
Michael Clarkson: “I started thinking. . . . He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.”
Who, you may ask, is Michael Clarkson? The introduction promises 12 “conversations with Salinger,” — “revealing encounters” that will “place the reader on increasingly intimate terms with an author who had been adamantly inaccessible for more than half a century.” The first conversation features Michael Clarkson, who wrote a 4,000 word-essay about his hounding of Salinger and whose previous 15 minutes of fame involved a People magazine story about his “encounters with Salinger.” The second and last encounter started with the uninvited Clarkson staring in through the glass doors of Salinger’s home and inventorying the contents.
As he told Salinger, “Jerry, I wouldn’t have bothered you — I wouldn’t have barged in like this — if you’d answered my letters.” Clarkson feels perfectly justified: “He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.” Really? What about those four books?
This book is riddled by these sorts of unquestioned contradictions. First there is the form and nature of the book itself, a companion to a film that was based largely on another book (Paul Alexander’s Salinger: A Biography; Alexander’s voice is just one in the chorus here). So we have a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in scraps.
Salerno and Shields point out that Salinger would have hated this book; they assert, repeatedly, that Salinger’s absorption in Vedanta Hinduism destroyed his writing (also variously referred to as “work” or “art”) and then they — or at least Salerno — list a series of forthcoming manuscripts. (Salerno’s absurdly wordy “Acknowledgments” section ends with “I look forward with great anticipation to reading the work Salinger diligently produced from 1965 until his death in 2010"; Shields isn’t as excited — the work may be “genius” or it may be “inchoate” (Chapter 20, “A Million Miles Away in His Tower”). In this book, Salinger can’t get a break. First he’s slammed for “writing for the slicks” and for wanting to publish in The New Yorker; then he’s slammed for not publishing. (And Shields calls Salinger “completely contradictory” and “hypocritical”! See Chapter 19, “A Private Citizen.”)
Billy Collins: “He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone. . . I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.”
Wait, that’s Collins talking about Jean Shepherd on the back cover of Eugene B. Bergman’s Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. It’s Edward Norton and John Cusack who say similar praiseworthy things about Salinger and Holden Caulfield. Playwright John Guare, however, thinks that there is cause to be “very, very troubled” by the fact that “three people used [Catcher] “as the justification for killing somebody” (see his entries in the print companion and his featured scene in the sensationalistic trailer). That’s three readers of a book “that has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide,” according to Salerno in an earlier chapter. Salerno continues: “And if 65 million people have bought the book, that means that hundreds of millions are likely to have read it” (Chapter 10, “Is the Kid in this Book Crazy?”). You can, however, read all about those three people here in a lengthy chapter called “Assassins,” and in which you’ll learn that Mark David Chapman also liked "The Wizard of Oz" and the Bible.
Holden Caulfield; “I hate the movies like poison.... The movies can ruin you.”
Shields and Salerno note several times that Holden Caulfield (named for two movie stars -- just one of a number of connections they miss) says he hates the movies but is in fact drawn to them. The movies, of course, aren’t real. Have you seen the trailer for Salinger? It looks like the sequel to "Armageddon."
Shields and Salerno: “What he wanted was privacy” (Introduction, Salinger, “The Official Book, etc.)
But really, according to Shields and Salerno, echoing Paul Alexander, Salinger wasn’t a “true recluse”; it was just a ploy to get attention. And so on the book goes, rehashing not only news stories and faux news stories but the stories of Joyce Maynard, Margaret Salinger, and Ian Hamilton, along with accounts of legal proceedings, speculations about Salinger’s first wife, and detailed accounts of snacks (popcorn), meals (“Birds Eye frozen Tiny Tender Peas, not cooked, but with warm water poured over them,” for breakfast and the $12 roast beef plate at dinners at the First Congregational Church), and beverages (hot chocolate and urine). The tone of the book veers from gleefulness to somber proselytizing; it exhorts and chastises; it often seems angry.
Buddy Glass: “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet”
In contrast to Salinger’s style, the writing here is over the top: The “main impulse” of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” “is to protect [Salinger’s] death-dealing soul” (Introduction to Chapter 14: “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”). Other examples of overwriting include describing Catcher as “an assassination manual”(Introduction to Chapter 18) and Salinger’s life as “a slow-motion suicide mission” (Shields and Salerno, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion”). We’re told that “Salinger walked into a concentration camp and never walked out” (Salerno’s line: one he likes so much that he repeated it on "The Colbert Report"), and that “The cure never took, because he was the disease” (Chapter 21). And then there is Shield’s exegesis of Nine Stories, “Follow the Bullet” (Chapter 12), which is just too depressing to revisit.
Holden Caulfield: “You mean to go a psychoanalyst and all?... What would he do to me?”
Much of the limited information is repeated several times, culminating in the penultimate chapter, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion,” which offers a précis of the preceding 590 pages, a sort of guide to the guide. Taking a quote from one of Salinger’s letters, “I’m a condition, not a man,” Salerno and Shields list “10 conditions”, beginning with “Anatomy” and “Oona” and ending with “Detachment” (“War” comes in at third place, “Girls” at eighth). One condition that seems overlooked is generational: men and women of Salinger’s generation just didn’t talk about “it.”
Shane Salerno: “There is no question that the manuscripts exist. The question is, What are they?”
An informal survey of the breakfast crowd at the Seaview Restaurant in Wickford, R.I., where I finished reading Salinger: The Book, revealed some interesting alternate predictions for the contents of the vault:
Thousands of blank pages beneath a single cover sheet that reads: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Silence.”
Copies of hundreds of pulp fiction stories and crime-noir novels published between 1965 and 2008 under pseudonyms that include Elmore Leonard and Stephen King.
Thousands of pages filled with the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Thousands of pages filled with “Praises to the Buddha, or something like that.”
30 pristine typed copies of The Catcher in the Rye.
“Just [a] cigar, in a small nice box. Possibly with a blank sheet of paper enclosed, by way of explanation.”
Shane Salerno: “Finally, I want to thank Jerome David Salinger for living such an extraordinary life and one that I devoted nearly a decade to telling honestly” (“Acknowledgments”).
Holden Caulfield: “I felt like I was disappearing.”
The title alone of D. T. Max’s new book on David Foster Wallace -- a phrase that Wallace liked so much he used it several times -- seems more insightful about Salinger than do the 500-plus pages between the covers of Salinger: “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.”
I mean, Jesus H. Christ, enough already.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.