Review: 'J.D. Salinger: A Life' by Kenneth Slawenski solid on facts, squishy on interpretation

Was the real J.D. Salinger Holden Caulfield, the desperately wisecracking adolescent of The Catcher in the Rye, or Seymour Glass, the saintly wisecracking mystic of A Perfect Day for Bananafish and other stories?

Both. Neither. Or, as the notoriously reclusive Salinger himself might say if he hadn't died a year ago this week: It's none of your business.

Of course, Salinger's retreat from public life at the height of his fame as a writer only stoked the desire of fans and the media to know more about him. One of those fans is Kenneth Slawenski, who spent eight years researching and writing an unauthorized biography of the author, completing it just weeks before Salinger died.

J.D. Salinger: A Life will be published Tuesday, two days before the anniversary of Salinger's death at his country home in Cornish, N.H., at age 91, and 60 years after Catcher made him one of the most influential fiction writers of the 20th century.

This is not the definitive biography of Salinger — who knows how long that will take, given the legal roadblocks he threw up around his private life — nor does it contain any startling revelations. But it's an interesting, sympathetic, if somewhat skewed look at the writer's life and work.

Slawenski seems to have taken a page from Salinger's book in matters of privacy. Google him and you'll find little information beyond what's on the jacket flap: his lifelong residence in New Jersey and his proprietorship of the website deadcaulfields.com, which, despite its disconcerting name, is an engaging fan site for Salinger readers. This is apparently his first book.

It's not a scholarly biography, but it is a well-researched one that focuses on Salinger's writing career and spiritual ideas, and the eventual convergence of the two.

Slawenski spends little time on what Holden called "that David Copperfield kind of crap," Salinger's boyhood. He briskly covers the family provenance of Jerome David Salinger, whose father, Sol, ran a food import business, and whose mother, Miriam, spoiled "Sonny" from birth. Older sister Doris gets just a few mentions, which is a bit frustrating, given Salinger's fictional interest in sibling relationships. But Slawenski does describe the family's tendency toward secrecy, its upward mobility, including the Park Avenue apartment they lived in for much of Sonny's youth, and his indifferent academic career, except for a few enthusiastic years he spent in military school.

The book gets rolling with Salinger as a young man who, despite having dropped out of three universities, was determined to become a writer. He sold his first short story, The Young Folks, to Story magazine in 1940, just after he turned 21, and achieved his goal of having a story accepted by the New Yorker only about a year later.

That upward career arc was interrupted by World War II. Most Salinger fans know he saw combat in Europe, but Slawenski vividly details a chilling catalog of the horrors he survived. As an intelligence officer in the 12th Infantry Regiment, Salinger was among the first waves to land on Utah Beach on D-day, endured the bloody six-month debacle at Hurtgen Forest, was sent to Luxembourg just in time for the Battle of the Bulge and participated in the liberation of the concentration camps at Dachau.

Slawenski depends on other sources for descriptions of those events, since Salinger himself never wrote or spoke publicly of his war experiences. The biographer does quote letters that describe a few positive moments, such as Salinger's jaunt when the 12th helped liberate Paris to find Ernest Hemingway — with whom he ended up drinking at the Hotel Ritz and forging a prickly friendship.

Throughout the war, Salinger continued writing — one passage describes him crouched under a table during an artillery attack, pounding on a typewriter. He was already working on early portions of Catcher, although six days after D-day he wrote to an editor, in a massive understatement, that he was "too busy to go on with the book right now."

That devotion to his craft stood him in good stead — both as therapy and as career advancement — when he returned to New York, struggling certainly with depression and probably with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet he wrote constantly, and soon he was among the elite group of fiction writers "on retainer" at the New Yorker.

At about this time, he became intrigued by mystical Catholicism, Zen Buddhism and Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy. His spiritual studies soon infused his stories — and baffled some of his readers and editors.

Slawenski does a fine job of covering Salinger's increasingly contentious relationships with publishers and editors (and his deep friendships with some, notably William Maxwell and William Shawn of the New Yorker). He details Salinger's hatred of having his photo on book jackets; as the author became more popular and powerful, he even micromanaged details like cover colors and typefaces.

Slawenski is also good on the ironic effects of the huge success of Catcher. For Salinger, he says, writing became an act of prayer and meditation, a way of serving God and escaping from his own admittedly enormous ego and the damaging desire of materialism. Yet that very writing brought him fame and money, which fed ego and desire — a vicious cycle he tried to escape by withdrawing from public life and, eventually, by ceasing to publish (but never, apparently, ceasing to write).

Slawenski is on solid ground when describing Salinger's military and publishing careers and, as far as possible, his litigious and fiercely private last years. He sticks to facts with a minimum of gossip in covering the author's romantic life, which was marked, except for a brief postwar marriage to a German doctor, by his involvement with ever-younger women. (His first great romance was with Oona O'Neill, 16 to his 22; his third wife, Colleen, was 40 years his junior.)

But Slawenski goes astray when he summarizes and interprets most of Salinger's works. He knows them well (although, presumably, so does anyone who reads a biography of their author), but his exegeses suffer both from his assumption that all of Salinger's fiction is autobiographical — always a very slippery critical slope — and his insistence on interpreting the stories almost exclusively in terms of spiritual themes.

That leads him to a doctrinaire denial that anything else is going on in Salinger's rich and highly ambiguous fiction other than the search for religious enlightenment, and it has him putting all sorts of words in characters' mouths that Salinger never did.

It's a bit surprising, given that Slawenski describes Salinger's fierce belief that what is most important about a work of fiction is how it makes the reader feel — and that every reader is entitled to his or her own reaction.

Slawenski may draw too bluntly as a critic, but he does much better as a biographer, sketching a portrait of Salinger that is far from complete but that throws some light upon a mysterious and extraordinary life.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.

J.D. Salinger: A Life

By Kenneth Slawenski

Random House,

450 pages, $27

Review: 'J.D. Salinger: A Life' by Kenneth Slawenski solid on facts, squishy on interpretation 01/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 3:30am]

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