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Review: ‘J.D. Salinger: A Life’ by Kenneth Slawenski


By KennethSlawenski

Random House,464 pages, $27

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

No. No. No.

Not another one! Gone, lost, disappeared.

Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography of J.D. Salinger is full of heartbreak for the writer’s fans.

In tracing Salinger’s rise to fame, he meticulously recounts dozens of the author’s early stories that were rejected by the slick magazines ... and never resurfaced. Many of those that were accepted never saw print again.

We’re used to fretting over the frustrating, mysterious work stoppage that Salinger maintained for decades following his last publication in 1965. He died at 91 a year ago. But it’s tough to read about all the missing material that would have swelled his official four-book canon (The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Rise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour — An Introduction).

It’s also somewhat tough to read a biography of a recluse who successfully covered his tracks for close to half a century.

Slawenski, who maintains a website slavishly devoted to Salinger (, can’t be said to offer many new revelations here, but he’s greatly fleshed out and pinned down an elusive story with precision and grace. His description of Catcher’s genesis is particularly welcome.

He can be faulted for excess when he relies on pages of plot summaries. And dock him for glossing over the most interesting episode of the author’s long twilight. In 1972, Salinger invited Joyce Maynard to his home after expressing admiration for a New York Times piece she had written. They spent a good part of a year living together, though Salinger was 35 years her senior. She bitterly recounted the manipulative relationship in a 1998 memoir. Slawenski gives it two paragraphs.

The Salinger who emerges from these pages may be less weird than you thought. But he’s still extremely weird.

Jerome David Salinger’s public life began in New York City, where he grew up. Salinger showed an early interest in acting, but it was at the typewriter where his obvious talent lay.

By the early ’40s, he’d wooed and lost the beautiful Oona O’Neill (daughter of Eugene and future wife of Charlie Chaplin) and achieved some renown in the magazines everyone read in pre-TV America.

Then came World War II. In uniform in Europe, Salinger endured a “Band of Brothers”-like experience in Europe. He was there for D-Day, the push into France, the brutal winter in the Hurtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberations of both France (where he took literary sustenance from Ernest Hemingway) and the concentration camps. Scraps of Catcher were in his pockets.

The bloody, relentlessly tense experience was transforming and haunting, briefly landing the author in a hospital for treatment of depression. The writing changed, too, becoming less acerbic and more psychologically tuned. Salinger’s voice sharpened in a way that offered an unusual, direct connection to the reader.

With The Catcher in the Rye (1951), he presented an unlikely revolutionary character in a goofy hat whose scorn for phoniness struck a major chord in the conformist 1950s. The book also served as an oracle for the ’60s, when it became an urtext of the youth movement.

Catcher’s fame, coupled with Salinger’s obsessive interest in Eastern Vedantic philosophy, sent him packing in 1952 to tiny, isolated Cornish, N.H., where he spent the rest of his life in almost monk-like simplicity.

For the next dozen years, the jewels of his creativity found their way to the pages of the New Yorker and eventually between hard covers and into the familiar well-thumbed paperbacks.

And then it stopped.

Maybe it had to do with Salinger’s spirituality, which was not outward-oriented or ego-directed.

Maybe it was the result of control freak tendencies. Salinger fiercely protected his work from all middlemen, flying into rages when editors changed the title of a story or created cover art he hated. He shut down both would-be biographers and the media, which became infatuated by any glimpse, utterance or photo.

We know that he hated that he’d become a lodestar for readers infatuated (sometimes dangerously) with his work.

In the end, the great writer of stories became the story ... a story without a character, a plot or a conclusion.

John Barron is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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