by Hugh Gilmore
The just-published book, “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno, seems like what you’d get if you went to a Cousins Club meeting and asked, “Gee, what was Uncle Morty really like?” The cousins would start answering all at once. That won’t do, so you tell them, “One at a time, please.” And they comply. And what you get afterwards is material for a mega-book about Uncle Mort that contains statements made by about 280 people.
Some of the speeches are short, some are long. Some persons speak but once or twice, others get the microphone much more often. When they’re all done, you’re left with a lot of information, most of it interesting, some of it conflicting. None of it satisfying. It’s like being served each molecule of a seven-course meal separately.
But, as with the age-old problem with mermaids (“Hey, is that a girl, or a fish?”), I seem to have made a mistake by going into a bookstore and buying (for $38!) a book because I thought it was a “book.” This physical thing in the shape of a book even had “pages” in it – 699 of them. I should have known better in today’s world. I should have read the small print banner across the top of the dust jacket. It reads, “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film.”
The Official Book. Official! Coupled with “of”! How we’ve all come to love that phrasing duo. As though this were a breakfast cereal or sneaker or chewing gum endorsed by an Olympian. What’s that mean? I can’t say for sure, since the movie’s producers – the Weinstein Brothers – didn’t send me the rushes.
However, I did see the trailer on the Internet, and I can say they’ve given the life of J.D. Salinger the full mystery-man-who ran-with-the-wolves treatment. Complete with an annoying, driving orchestral score. (All this for a mere author.) What’s more, in January PBS will broadcast a version of the film as the 200th installment of its American Masters series.
And the book, which I enjoyed very much, but probably would not have if I’d seen the documentary film first, seems obviously put together as a souvenir program. David Shields (who bears most of the writing responsibility) and Shane Salerno (the film’s director) did nine years of research on their elusive subject. They’ve acquired some new interviews, quotes from archived Salinger texts and letters, and found and got permissions for numerous first-appearance photographs.
They’ve obviously read all the Salinger texts, even the unpublished material. They’ve examined all previous Salinger biographies and criticisms. They’ve interviewed hundreds of people who knew Salinger. But the book disappointed me as soon as I opened it and noticed that each chapter entirely consisted of statements made by others about Salinger, or about the times he lived through (the European campaign of World War II).
While Shields and Salerno are often included as commenters, I never noticed before how much one actually yearns for an “author” (i.e., an intelligent accumulator and interpreter) when he reads a biography. Giving the audience the data and hoping it all piles up into an understanding is a cheap trick.
Or perhaps better said: is the literary equivalent of printing out the text of a documentary movie. If so, the information and the visuals were fascinating, whether you’re a J.D. fan or not. But the overall reading experience is not satisfying, not in the way that intelligent, wise biographies are.
Much is made of Salinger’s “genius” in this book, his “art.” He is touted as one of the greatest writers of his generation. Many people think so. Because his writings (excluding “Catcher,” and “Nine Stories”) are so perplexing, and his life was so famously non-public, more attention was paid to his personal life and thought than they probably deserved.
This biography devotes considerable energy to finding a relationship between Salinger’s World War II combat experiences, his subsequent “combat fatigue,” his devotion to Eastern religions, his near-obsession with very young women, his reclusive avoidance of the public eye and, ultimately, what he wrote in later life and why he wrote it the way he did.
Though the authors make a commendably exhaustive effort to tie all these features together – a real strength of this book – their arguments wobble into self-contradiction quite often. Or seem to – much of this confusion results from not paying enough attention to stating whose point-of-view we’re receiving when they discuss Salinger’s motives for some of the genuinely cruel behaviors he inflicted on others.
Did I enjoy the book? Oh indeed, yes. I’m not a Salinger fan, though I thought I was when I was young. But I am always hungry to read a great, heavy (literally) biography of someone who’s achieved fame in his field of endeavor. This book is expensive, but I bought it on vacation, as a treat to myself, and I enjoyed reading every word. Later, when the dust cleared, I knew much more about J.D. Salinger than ever before, but I also felt cheated of one of the major pleasures of reading a biography: sensing the biographer.
Hugh Gilmore’s book, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” tells stories of old-bookshop life from the days when he ran a Chestnut Hill bookstore. Touching and quirky, it’s available through bookstores and from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats.