Part romance, part literary biography, part soapbox, this self-described “faction” depicts the “son of a Jewish cheese importer, besotted with the daughter of one of his country’s most famous writers”—in other words the youthful love affair between J.D. Salinger and Oona O’Neill.
“Maybe one day, someone will write a sentimental book about us!” writes Oona to Jerry in this metafiction from French writer Beigbeder (Windows on the World, 2005, etc.). And here it is, presented in modernist form complete with watercolor illustrations, appearances by the author, and claims to have invented the first YouTube novel (readers are urged to check out 17-year-old O’Neill’s 1942 screen test on that site). Opening with the assertion that the characters, places, events, and dates are all real, the book proceeds to embroider them with invented dialogue and correspondence, psychological, social, and literary speculation, and much more concerning the couple and their milieu. Their involvement begins in 1940 at the Stork Club, where shy embryonic writer Salinger sees Oona, a 15-year-old it girl hanging out with Gloria Vanderbilt. The sentimental centerpiece of their relationship is a rhapsodic summer night spent together on the Jersey shore: “They kissed, she floated, and he carried her.” But the mutuality fades. He loves her more; she is burdened by family issues and is also too young to have sex or marry. After Pearl Harbor, Salinger joins up, and O’Neill moves to California, where she will meet and marry Charlie Chaplin, age 54. Beigbeder’s romantic, analytical, sometimes excessively cute narration of events is mixed with walk-on roles for other famous figures—Capote, Hemingway, Orson Welles. The writing is cinematic and consumable but achieves power during descriptions of Salinger’s harrowing, life-changing World War II experiences.
The author is very much in the picture in this ambitious, self- and style-conscious portrait of 20th-century celebrities.