Kenneth Slawenski’s “J.D. Salinger” is a loving and meticulous biography of a writer who emerges from it as a loon and a crank.
Slawenski isn’t a professional biographer but a Salinger fanatic who maintains a website devoted to his hero, DeadCaulfields.com.
He spent eight years working on the book. His writing is often awkward and his criticism reductive. He has a regrettable tendency to talk about a story’s “message.”
But he understands Salinger profoundly. If the publicity-hating author of “The Catcher in the Rye” could have brought himself to countenance a biography, he might have appreciated this one.
The author recounts Salinger’s childhood on New York’s Park Avenue, his unpromising school years, his feckless post-adolescence and, most important, his army service during World War II, to which Slawenski feels too little attention has been paid.
“Even without Salinger’s firsthand account,” he argues, “it is better to draw on the testimony of those around him who may have shared his experiences than to diminish them out of convenience.”
He assembles a picture of what Salinger must have gone through on D-Day and during the hellish later battles in the Huertgen Forest, where only 563 American soldiers of the 3,080 who went in came out alive.
His diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder and a lingering depression that account for the enigmatic suicide of Seymour Glass at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” -- possibly Salinger’s most perfect story -- as well as the author’s increasing skittishness once he achieved literary celebrity.
It’s fascinating to learn that “Bananafish” went through a full year of editing at The New Yorker before it was published in January 1948, and that the magazine’s fiction editors turned down “The Catcher in the Rye.”
They probably would have done the same with many of the Glass family stories that followed, including “Franny” and “Zooey,” if the magazine’s editor in chief, William Shawn, hadn’t stepped in and edited them himself.
Religious mysticism eventually led Salinger to regard his writing as a form of meditation for which he needed all but total concentration and isolation.
“Once Salinger had embraced this method, he began to view the clamor of publicity and fame as keeping him from both his work and his prayer.”
He saw the “fan mail and flattery and the constant barrage of reviews and articles praising his work” not only as distractions but, worse, as food for his ego -- and “that Salinger’s ego was immense is indisputable.”
Hence the paradox: “the perfecting of his writing resulted in the very product that fed his ego.”
The final half-century of Salinger’s long life (he was 91 when he died last January) was a comedy of broken relationships, snooping reporters, lawsuits against publishers, deepening reclusiveness and obsessive attention to work he was no longer publishing.
All of it boomeranged: “Intentionally or not, every act he employed to remove himself from the glare of public scrutiny only served to enlarge his legend.”
It isn’t clear that the Salinger estate will ever allow his early stories to be collected or let us see what he was working on during those final decades.
His life forms one of the stranger, sadder stories in American literature. In the end, his battle with his ego became a war against his readers.
“J.D. Salinger: A Life” is from Random House in the U.S. and Pomona in the U.K. (450 pages, $27, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)