The Unshakeable Myth Makes for an Uninteresting Man

J. D. Salinger spent the final 45 years of his life an elusive recluse, refusing interviews and fiercely — litigiously — guarding his own privacy. The first biography of Salinger to hit stores since his death a year ago, Kenneth Slawenski’s uneven J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House) never digs deep enough to pin down the mysterious author.

To his credit, Slawenski meticulously researches his subject, making ample use of the scant material available. Salinger’s correspondence has been largely lost, due to fiercely loyal friends and family who followed the author’s instructions to burn his letters. As a result, Slawenski was forced to color in the lines of his subject’s life through scattered — and largely unrepresentative — documentation, including Salinger’s school and military records; early exchanges with periodicals like Story and the New Yorker; and just a few hundred extant letters.

Following the young author as he bounced between private schools and colleges before joining the military, this biography eventually finds its footing when Salinger takes up writing — and Slawenski uses that literature to contextualize its author.

Interesting, if not revelatory, Slawenski is able to detail his subject’s life fairly well during the war years through 1965. Yet, the chapter detailing The Catcher in the Rye will likely prove unsatisfying to those who have read the novel deeply, especially compared to the insights yielded by Slawenski’s reading of lesser known early stories. Photographs, usually a staple of biographies, are also frustratingly sparse.

Oasis alert: The biography does unearth some genuine gems. Salinger’s mother, for example, who converts to Judaism and was often reported to be from Ireland, was actually from Iowa. Slawenski also manages to breathe life into Salinger’s first wife, Sylvia Welter, who was an elusive figure to previous biographers.

In addition, Slawenski’s rendering of Salinger’s World War II military service tends to be vibrant and haunting; read alongside Salinger’s war stories, the resulting portrait of the author scarred by combat is compelling.

The war years, however, highlight the problems reporting on this period: Since Salinger refused to talk (or write) about his time in Europe, Slawenski’s most engaging section of the book, except for a handful of personal details, is drawn largely from common soldiers and military historians. (Salinger apparently snuck through Hürtgen one night to have a drink with Ernest Hemingway, an acquaintance and war correspondent.)

Ultimately, the search for salacious details of Salinger’s post-1965 hermitage yield next to nothing. Slawenski meticulously avoids anything he considers gossip — including well-known reports from the writer Joyce Maynard or even Salinger’s daughter.

Slawenski’s deference to fact results in treating Salinger with kid gloves — and is the book’s greatest weakness. His refusal to deal with sublimated issues like Salinger’s troubling attraction to teenage women is ignored. In the end, the biographer wrote a book catering to the Salinger devotee.

As one who enjoyed Holden Caulfield’s complexity and disdain for fakes, the guarded tone of Slawenski’s biography strikes me as, well, phony.

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