Overstuffed, thoroughly revealing biography—from oral and written sources, and always episodic—of the legendary writer.
The big news in Shields (How Literature Saved My Life, 2013, etc.) and Salerno’s book, the companion to Salerno’s documentary, has been the promise of several new books, completed and approved by Salinger, that will be issued between 2015 and 2020. One is a World War II story, and therein hangs another tale—and a long part of the present volume. Other biographers have noted how strong a part Salinger’s wartime experience played in his subsequent thought, but Shields and Salerno chase down the story in minute detail, including Salinger’s witness to the liberation of Nazi death camps and the psychological breakdown that ensued: “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.” As he went into combat at Normandy, we learn, Salinger carried six chapters of Catcher in the Rye—“not only as an amulet to help him survive,” Shields notes, “but as a reason to survive.” Catcher, Salinger’s most famous book, was of course autobiographical, and Shields and Salerno lend specific weight to just how and how much. They also link Salinger’s famous hermitage, beginning in the 1950s, not necessarily to a desire to flee fame so much as a fulfillment of the Vedanta ideals he had adopted as another kind of sanity-preserving talisman, in which withdrawal from and eventual renunciation of the world is necessary. No question but that Salinger was troubled—and, as the testimonial of former paramour Joyce Maynard and others has it, capable of cruel and creepy behavior. About the only drawback of Shields and Salerno’s book is their overly credulous reliance on other writers and their heavy-handedness in piling on the heaps of negativity (some deserved) about Maynard and her ambitions.
Was Salinger the major artist he has been held up to be? This book helps defend the affirmative response and whets the appetite for the Salinger books to come.