Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House, $27) is a reverent and carefully researched biography of the celebrated author of The Catcher in the Rye, but after 400 pages I’m not sure I know much more about J.D. Salinger than when I started. If there’s anyone to blame for the book’s shortcomings, it’s Salinger himself, who spent close to 60 years of his life avoiding the spotlight.
There’s no question that the author knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed on to write this comprehensive biography. Slawenski, who launched a Salinger website (DeadCaulfields.com) in 2004, spent seven years researching his notoriously publicity-shy subject, haunting the special collections of several university libraries, poring over old correspondence, and revisiting the work of previous Salinger biographers. A Life is a valiant attempt at getting all the facts between two covers, but Salinger preferred to remain unknowable.
Salinger was already an acclaimed short-story writer when he published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. Most readers encounter the book as teenagers, and Holden Caulfield is the kind of protagonist who strikes a chord: a phony-hating rebel who struggles with alienation, drinking and swearing his way home after being expelled from prep school.
As Salinger’s literary legacy grew (with the publication of Nine Stories and two novella collections, including Franny and Zooey), so too did the public’s rabid interest in Salinger’s personal life.
Slawenski has no trouble painting a vivid portrait of Salinger’s early years: as a struggling writer; his harrowing experiences as a soldier storming Utah Beach on D-Day; his failed romances; and his growing interest in Hinduism and Zen Buddhism. Slawenski also offers detailed analyses of all of Salinger’s works. Along the way, we get a real sense of Salinger as an egotistical perfectionist who, when crossed, was capable of turning his back on his mentors, his publishers and even the mother of his children.
At the height of his fame, Salinger stopped granting interview requests. Although he continued writing, he stopped publishing, which is why Slawenski is able to cover the last 45 years of Salinger’s life in a scant 40 pages: Salinger’s relationship with 18-year-old Joyce Maynard (who wrote a memoir of Salinger, At Home in the World, in 1999), Salinger’s lawsuits against Hamilton (whose 1988 biography quoted too liberally from Salinger’s letters, prompting copyright legislation in Salinger’s favor) and Swedish author Fredrik Colting ( author of 60 Years Later, an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye), and Salinger’s third marriage.
What Salinger fans really crave, I think, is a book of his letters. Since that seems unlikely (Salinger urged many of his friends to destroy their correspondence), Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life is probably the best we’re going to get.