- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2011

J.D. SALINGER: A LIFE
By Kenneth Slawenski
Random House, $27, 464 pages, illustrated

The very best thing about the immortal anti-hero of “The Catcher in the Rye” will always be that he is the champion scourge of phonies, those irritating ubiquitous poseurs who bedevil those of us who value genuineness. But the next best thing that J.D. Salinger did in creating Holden Caulfield was to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the ‘60s did not invent dropping out - or even the disaffected teenager.

Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of Salinger, published a year after his death, shows that, despite all his celebrated oddities, he was very much a man of his time who indeed was shaped by what was heaped onto the plates of those who came of age just in time to fight in World War II.

Still in his mid-20s when his three years in the military were over, Salinger was irreparably damaged by his experiences in combat and in liberating the victims of Nazi death camps, and it is clear from Mr. Slawenski’s profoundly sympathetic biography that the 6 1/2 decades of life still remaining to him were a kind of posthumous existence. Physically unscathed while so many around him were wounded or died, what he then saw in the camps was simply too much for him and he suffered a breakdown requiring hospitalization.

Although he appeared to recover quite rapidly and even continued his work in the de-Nazification of Germany for a while after being discharged from the Army, the wounds were deep and permanent. And they were the key to the oddity of his behavior - the reclusiveness, the excessive and obsessive quest for privacy - as well as to his abrupt cessation of publishing anything further nearly a half-century before his death.

Yet of course those wounds were also key to the power of what he did produce, poking up in that marvelous short story “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.” When he could bear to draw on his World War II experiences here and all too occasionally elsewhere, the result was magic. Sometimes, this effect was indirect, as his biographer understands:

“It is therefore with J.D. Salinger and the Second World War in mind that we should read Holden’s parting words in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’: ‘Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’ All the dead soldiers.”

But Mr. Slawenski is sensitive to the fragility as well as the power of this process in the writer’s consciousness and imagination:

“In Bavaria, Salinger’s fragile ties to normalcy were strained to the point of bursting, while at the same time his pockets burned with pages of ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ with their scenes of children ice skating and little girls in soft blue dresses. During that chilly April of 1945, J.D. Salinger was changed forever, a witness not only to the carnage of innocents but to the mutilation of everything he cherished and had clung to for sanity. It was a nightmare that, once entered, created an indelible pain. ‘You could live a lifetime,’ he mourned, ‘and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.’ “

So it is clear from the biography’s exhaustive excavations of the lengthy timeline of the novel’s gestation, starting well before the war, that the book, which finally emerged to be published in 1951, was “changed, changed utterly” by what Salinger had experienced in 1944 and 1945.

At times, the biographer’s prose can be superheated, but on these occasions, it generally suits the terrible events being described. Salinger’s experience in the thick of the Normandy invasion was bad enough, what followed in the carnage of the Hurtgen Forest and in the Battle of the Bulge was even worse and Mr. Slawenski does justice to all this.

Where he tends to bog down is in his extremely detailed attention to the publishing history of Salinger’s short stories: where they were submitted, when they appeared. The way he is steeped in these stories and how they came to be created is something readers will appreciate, for he is adept not only at analyzing them but also at linking them, insightfully but never reductively, to Salinger’s life. But the details of their author’s efforts to place them in magazines is bound to be of only limited interest.

As long as he was alive, Salinger was unusually successful in preventing biographers from probing his life and work, not only refusing to cooperate but also not hesitating to go to court to enforce his copyright and protect his privacy. Mostly written while he was still alive and published at a time when it is not clear that his death has altered the ability to quote extensively from his oeuvre, this biography still shows some of the chilling effects of Salinger’s efforts. Still, it succeeds in showing that he was in some ways always a lost soul and definitely one after his wartime experiences.

And, after all, in Holden Caulfield, he created one of literature’s archetypal lost souls, so, terrible as it was for Salinger to be so burdened, it was not in vain.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.


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