A Complex Look at a Complex Man: Salinger by David Shields

SalingerSalinger by David Shields

When I think of J.D. Salinger, two things generally come to mind: a his only novel and his long seclusion from society. I always figured there was more and the best thing Davis Shield’s new oral biography of Salinger does is show how much more there was.

Largely spanning two periods of Salinger’s life, the book presents a picture of a tortured, complicated man. While Salinger was capable of producing some of the best fiction of his time, he was only able to do so after being all but destroyed spiritually. And for him to move on from his massive trauma, he closed off the part of him that produced his best fiction.

During World War II, Salinger served on the front lines of the Western Front. He was involved in the D-Day landings and fierce fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. He wasn’t only a grunt, though. As an intelligence officer, he interrogated prisoners and was one of the first Americans to walk into a concentration camp. He witnessed horror after horror and, as Shields notes, did it as he composing his masterpiece novel, often working on stories between attacks.

The biography connects the dots between this experience and Salinger’s fiction: he was Sgt. X in For Esme and felt the way Seymour felt in Bananafish. The war pushed him past a breaking point and to put his visceral experiences and emotions into stories. Without the rage and anger these experiences left him, he couldn’t have created Holden; without the mental destruction, he couldn’t have expressed the regret and pathos he did throughout Nine Stories.

But Shields also gets into the other side of the coin: the spiritual salvation Salinger spent the rest of his life searching for. It eventually led him to Vedanta, a form of Buddhism that renounced physical pleasures. between that and his strong sense of privacy, Salinger turned his back on fame. Shields frequently notes the Zen attitude Salinger held: one should write for an audience of one, the act of writing itself being the reward.

More interestingly, Shields also notes the impact this had on his fiction. Starting with Teddy and progressing with stories like Franny and Zooey, Salinger’s fiction became more and more indurated with preaching. He notes how quickly Salinger’s prose became sermons, trying to send the message through the Glass family. The book’s at it’s best when it mixes literary criticism like this with Salinger’s history, trying to explain how the same man created Holden Caulfield and the Glass family.

But the book falls flat on several other fronts. He glosses over Salinger’s early life and his later years. It shows him as man with something of a Lolita complex, constantly seeking out young women he could relive his lost youth through. There may be something to that, but it’s bracketed by so much supposition I didn’t know who to believe.

There are frequent asides, too. At one point, Shields offers a lengthy history of a Tom Wolfe essay on the New Yorker and the rise of New Journalism; at another, he goes into exacting detail of John Lennon’s assassination, going far past what a Salinger biography needs. And at times, the book read like a transcript of a documentary: for stretches, it doesn’t read like a narrative.

Rating: 5/10. All in all, it’s a good book that probably could’ve been trimmed down by a third. Salinger devotees might get a lot of this; those looking to come to understand the man probably won’t find the explanation they’re looking for.

Vaguely related: Is Thomas Pynchon the Last Private Author?




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