By David Shields and Shane Salerno
Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 695 pages, illustrated
This odd book is the brainchild of a Salinger fanatic. Shane Salerno, the driving force behind “Salinger” is a successful movie producer, director and screenwriter. Such is his obsession with J.D. Salinger, however, that he has devoted much of the past decade to delving deep into all matters concerning him, a task that accelerated following the writer’s death three years ago. You’ve got to give Mr. Salerno credit for putting his money where his mouth is, since he has reportedly spent $8 million of his own money funding this book and the movie being released with it.
So, just what is this hefty book? Billed by its publisher as an oral biography, its nearly 700 pages consist mostly of snippets of information by sundry relatives and associates of J.D. Salinger, other writers and critics. Note the absence of the word friends — he seems to have had some when young, but as time went on, they don’t seem to have featured much in his life. Although the book — compiled with the help of writer David Shields — makes great claims for overturning misconceptions, it doesn’t provide a great deal of information not already available to anyone who cared. What news it does have regarding plans for publishing those much-awaited works Salinger was reported to be working on all those decades has leaked out ahead of simultaneous publication and screening. Is it just a massive companion volume to the film?
Well, a bit more than that. One wishes that Mr. Salerno and Mr. Shields had actually harnessed all this passion to fashion a real biography drawing on all this less than adequately filtered raw material. The actual parts written by the authors is rather well-presented and valuable. Curiously, Mr. Salerno chooses also to speak out amid all the cacophony of voices presented, just another name followed by a quote. This is consistently interesting. For all his dedication to Salinger, one wishes that Mr. Salerno had not shied at the final hurdle.
Whether or not Salinger was actually the recluse he was widely thought to be (this book sheds doubt), he was, one way or another, adept at playing that role to the hilt. He managed to equal the feat of E.M. Forster, who was always said to become more famous with each year that he did not write a book between “A Passage to India” in 1925 and his death 45 years later. But Forster did not play a Garbo-like role as Salinger did, flirting with publicity when it suited him and generally making a big deal out of his desire to be left alone.
With Salinger, you have to at least ask: If he had not managed to keep a spotlight on his inactivity and stoke rumors as to what he was or was not writing, would people have cared quite so much about him or what he was or was not doing? My old professor at Yale, Harold Bloom, once said that the dedicatedly self-promoting Sitwells — the poet Edith and her writer brothers Osbert and Sacheverell — belong more to the history of publicity than of literature. The authors quote Cynthia Ozick as hailing Salinger as a “writer of real substance and an artist.” True enough, but the paucity and, to be frank, the merit — for all his output’s engaging qualities — of his work condemns him to the status of minor writer. It is doubtful, although just possible, that any posthumously published work will change that.
That brings one yet again to the question that a book like this inevitably arouses: Does all this attention to an unpleasant author really have all that much to do with his work? In the end, that’s what counts, and much of what is in here has no real bearing on Salinger’s works themselves and is simply yet another contribution to what Joyce Carol Oates pungently termed pathography.
In the end, this book by a Salinger fanatic is most likely to be of interest to others who share its author’s preoccupation, to some extent anyway. It’s hard to imagine even the most obsessive Salinger fan equaling it. Those whose interest is such that they can endlessly pick over the bones of Salinger’s life, looking for the bits of flesh adhering there, will certainly find meat here. For others, it might just be a giant turn-off, engendering more Salinger-fatigue than winning aficionados.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.